Thursday, October 15, 2009
Dulcimer enthusiasts spread music, fun and fellowship
By SUE WATSON
There is music in the hills that can be said to have originated there – in Appalachia. The dulcimer – a four-stringed instrument that is picked or strummed in the lap – made its debut sometime in the late 1700s to early 1800s, according to Forrest Smith of Booneville.
He’s been spreading the dulcimer and its music for about 10 years over North Mississippi through the North Mississippi Dulcimer Association. There are about 20 chapters and 400 members. Play is casual and can take place at a festival, in a church, at a state park - really anywhere there is an invitation extended.
“People just come when available, so it’s always a new and fresh group,” Smith said during an interview recently at Wall Doxey State Park.
The association met at the park October 3 - this is the second year in a row - then spent the afternoon at Burton’s Sugar Farm where about 14 people from seven different clubs played their instruments.
The association has produced a music book and a musical arrangement which enables anyone to play.
“You have to be able to count to 10 and have two fingers,” Smith said. “It sounds the same as somebody who has a doctorate in music.”
The dulcimer is played in a key of D most of the time. The dulcimer, a diatonic instrument, plays the melody while bluegrass instruments play the harmony, he said.
The association doesn’t play the bluegrass style, but play folk music and hymns or traditional bluegrass. Contemporary bluegrass is left for folks who like to play fast. Smith said most of the association’s members are senior citizens.
It takes about three weeks to make a dulcimer. They are usually made of walnut and the second most popular wood is cherry. Each dulcimer has its own voice and can be played to almost speak the words of a song.
Smith plays a dulcimer made of magnolia.
“The darker the wood, the more base, and the lighter the wood, brighter the sound,” he said.
The clubs perform nearly 500 times a year, which makes for interesting travel for Smith and his wife Eileen. There are clubs as far south as Philadelphia.
He said half the people who show up at a dulcimer playing event and who learn to play, have a dulcimer stuck back in a closet.
Holly Springs has a club that meets the second and fourth Thursdays from 2 p.m.-4 p.m. in the Marshall County Library. New players are welcomed.
Estelle Gadd of Potts Camp is president of the local club.
“Everybody who learns about the dulcimer has discovered the clubs by accident,” said Molly Hazel of the Blue Springs club. “A lot of us had them in our closets.”
Hazel first met the dulcimer group at Tishomingo State Park.
The dulcimer historically is an instrument that is learned by ear, and some clubs won’t accept members who don’t play by ear, Smith said. People with disabilities - arthritis, missing fingers, and multiple sclerosis are able to play the dulcimer using the system of notation used by the association. No musical background or talent is required.
“We will loan them an instrument, teach them to play and give them the music, all free,” said Smith. “It’s the cheapest show in the world. Buying gas is a different thing.”
With 20 clubs, individuals interested in dulcimer playing and all the fun, food, and fellowship that goes with it can usually find a club close to home to be a part of. Other clubs in this area are found in Booneville, Corinth, New Albany, Oxford, Pontotoc, Ripley and Tupelo.
Estelle Gadd helped start the dulcimer group in Ripley and after remarrying Ganus Gadd of Potts Camp, she asked Smith to start a club in Holly Springs.
“It means a lot because we older people don’t have a lot of places to go or things to do,” Gadd said. “Nothing costs anything. We go to nursing homes, churches and weddings.”
The club in Holly Springs has about 25 members and some of the group play somewhere almost every night of the week and sometimes several times a day, she said.
Members of the North Mississippi Dulcimer Association just returned from an annual pilgrimage to Mountain View, Ark., held for dulcimer players each September.
The members play around the courthouse square in the daytime, go out to eat and usually play there, and return to the square for more music, she said.
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