The Virginia Dulcimer

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, July/August 2013.

For generations of Virginia musicians, dulcimer (or dulcimore) has described a family of instruments with three characteristics: a long, hollow neckless wooden soundbox (with curved or straight sides); multiple wire strings (usually just three or four today) about the same length as the soundbox; and wire frets (usually fifteen) laid out to play the diatonic musical scale. In its early boxy, straight-sided, un-fretboarded form (today referred to as the "scheitholt" form by collectors and academics), the dulcimer-or at least experience with the instrument-came to North America with eighteenth-century German immigrants, primarily through the ports of Baltimore and Philadelphia. Historically a commoner's instrument, the dulcimer (or variants) was also played in Norway, Sweden, Holland, France, Denmark, and Iceland. In the early 1600s the German composer and musicologist Michael Praetorius published an image of a straight-sided dulcimer-family instrument that he labeled a Scheidtholtt, which translates as "firewood," and noted that it had been a part of folk culture for centuries (Fig. 2). Perhaps his choice of names was intended as a comment on the instrument's simple construction and place in German "peasant" life. Judging from wills and inventories, however, "dulcimer" was the only common-speech name Virginians historically used for the instrument.1

A member of the zither family (stringed instruments without necks), the dulcimer was carried along major migration routes in this country, making its way not only into Pennsylvania and Virginia but also into New Jersey, Maryland, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana, then further south and west to Alabama, Missouri, and Texas.

Virginia's chapter in the saga began in the first quarter of the eighteenth century as German immigrants and their American-born offspring funneled through southeastern Pennsylvania into the Valley of Virginia, the Virginia Blue Ridge, and southwestern portions of the state. Dozens of largely German communities sprang up along the Great Wagon Road, the Carolina Road, and the Wilderness Road. Not surprisingly, early evidence of dulcimer-making and ownership in the Virginia Commonwealth centers around those counties where Germans settled.

The first known written reference to a dulcimer in Virginia appears in the Shenandoah County will book for 1812. There, documents related to the estate of Godfrey Wilkins, a gunsmith, list one dulcimer, which was purchased by a Conrad Garrett at Wilkins's estate sale in 1813.2 The next two Virginia references to dulcimers appear in wills and inventories of 1818, this time further south on the east side of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Bedford County and Franklin County.3 Both areas attracted a substantial number of German settlers. Curiously, however, while dulcimer-family instruments were not part of the folk tradition of the British Isles, the two 1818 instruments were owned by families with English surnames; how they acquired the dulcimers and what types of music were being played on them has yet to be determined. After 1818, at least one listing of a dulcimer appears in western Virginia court documents every year through 1850.

The earliest documented dulcimer maker in Virginia was gunsmith Jacob Hanshew of Wythe (now Bland) County. His 1834 estate included "1 set of dulcimore tools" (the only historical reference to such items discovered so far), along with blacksmithing and coopering tools.4 Not surprisingly, his surname is German, as were those of other Wythe County dulcimer owners between 1827 and the 1850s: local potters Felix and Abraham Buck owned dulcimers; cabinet- and dower chest makers Jacob Spangler, John Huddle, Peter Huddle, and Gideon Huddle did too; and so did a number of families with ties to "Wild Turkey" fraktur and relief-carved headstones in German-affiliated burying yards.5

The old-world dulcimer was destined to change in the vibrant English-Scots-Irish-German mix of western Virginia. Though dates and names are difficult to determine, two sparks gave the instrument an American identity. The first was the addition of American and British songs and tunes to the types of music played on dulcimers, and the second was the addition of a raised fingerboard and curved sides-forming either a teardrop or an hourglass shape-to the earlier straight-sided design.


Fed by local customs, family traditions, or sometimes just the influence of one or two makers, a multigenerational dulcimer-making tradition flourished in pockets of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, and North Carolina. Of those areas, the western Virginia Blue Ridge can make some claim to being the birthplace of the "American" dulcimer with curved sides and a raised fretboard.

Estate records from 1780 to 1860 in Virginia's Roanoke and New River valleys list more dulcimers (39) than any other instrument except the fiddle (103). Equally significant, the records point to the rapid adaptation of the instrument by non-Germans in the region.6 Nearly two-thirds of the dulcimers identified were owned by families whose surnames reflect British ancestry. It is reasonable to assume that these non-German owners were playing some, if not mostly, English-language songs and tunes with American and British origins.

In 1832 in Floyd County, Virginia-amid farmers of German, English, and Scots-Irish descent- John Scales, a cabinetmaker of British ancestry, built a curve-sided dulcimer with a raised fretboard (Fig. 10). The Scales instrument is the oldest signed-and-dated "American" style dulcimer currently known, and thus, also the earliest in the teardrop shape that came to be identified as the Virginia dulcimer. It is possible that Scales was the first to make such a dulcimer, but it is also possible that he copied one or more instruments he had seen and that an Americanized dulcimer form had developed earlier than 1832. Unlike the straight sides of the scheitholt, each side of the Virginia dulcimer follows a long curve from head to tailpiece. The Virginia form eventually carried over into Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, and perhaps further west, but it is found more often in Virginia than in any other state. A few old but undated hybrid instruments have also been found in Virginia with features somewhere between the scheitholt and the Virginia dulcimer. Regardless, in multiple designs the dulcimer was definitely spicing up the nation's growing musical melting pot in Virginia by the 1830s.

The steady production of Virginia dulcimers centered around a few families. Four generations of the Melton family of Carroll County, for example, built larger teardrop-shape dulcimers capable of competing in volume with fiddles and banjos in string band settings (see Fig. 4). When Stephen B. Melton moved to Lee County in the 1930s, he expanded the tradition to his new home. In Marion (Smyth County), Virginia, cabinetmaker Samuel F. Russell (Figs. 3, 12) and his employees made hundreds of dulcimers in the late 1920s and into the 1930s, most of which went to New York and Florida, according to family history.7 Even the vintage scheitholt design held its place among a handful of Virginia makers; the Radford, Bowman, and Light families of Patrick and Carroll Counties used it into the 1950s (see Fig. 20).

Though the Virginia dulcimer was for many decades the favorite of makers in the Common¬wealth-and several traditional Southwest Virginia makers still build instruments with the teardrop design-the hourglass shape is the dulcimer form commonly made in Virginia and America today. In the late nineteenth century social and religious activists looked to the craft traditions in the mountains-especially needlework and wood-work-as a means for Appalachian people to generate income. As a result, an Appalachian crafts revival began in the early 1900s and ran until World War II. Dulcimer making-using the hourglass form-was taught in a few Kentucky mission schools and North Carolina arts and crafts centers (though not at similar institutions in Virginia). A handful of Virginia makers sold dulcimers through the crafts revival network, but extensive marketing by the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild and other agencies turned the hourglass design into the most recognized form of the instrument nationwide.8 Called the "Kentucky dulcimer" in print as early as 1917,9 the same year Vogue magazine published a photograph of musician and song collector Loraine Wyman holding one (Fig. 15), "Appalachian dulcimer" and "mountain dulcimer" became the popular names for the instrument regardless of form.

The marketing of Appalachian crafts in the name of social activism sent dulcimers across the country. Along with the Virginia makers, craftsmen such as West Virginia's Charles N. Prichard and Kentucky's J. Edward Thomas and Jethro Amburgey produced hundreds of instruments for a nationwide market.

Not surprisingly, Virginia dulcimer players and their instruments took part in the national folk music revival of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Commercial records, radio, movies, and electric instruments dramatically expanded American tastes between the two World Wars, and older forms of rural music suddenly found new fans. By 1928 the dulcimer popularly symbolized Appalachian music and served as a prop in promotional graphics for Appalachian festivals (see Fig. 12). At Grayson County's White Top Folk Festival in 1933, Sam Russell performed with one of his instruments for Eleanor Roosevelt. White Top ran through most of the 1930s, and Russell was part of a lineup of musicians playing what the event's founders felt was untainted Anglo-Saxon music. Abingdon, Virginia, lawyer Andrew Rowan Summers reportedly first heard a dulcimer at White Top. Like Jean Ritchie from Kentucky, he became one of the first to play the instrument on the urban folk revival circuit nationally, and he performed at the American Folk Music Concert at the 1940 World's Fair in New York.

In 1935, just down the mountain from the White Top Folk Festival, the Old Fiddlers' Convention in Galax added dulcimer playing to its slate of contest categories. For years a member of the famed dulcimer playing/making Melton family took first place in that category. The Old Fiddlers' Convention, described as the world's oldest fiddlers' convention, continues to attract thirty to forty dulcimer entrants each year.

In a second folk music revival, dozens of young people journeyed to western Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s, where old-time fiddlers and banjo players were the main attraction, but the dulcimer drew followers as well. Massachusetts-born folk singer Paul Clayton Worthington collected and learned Virginia material while a student at the University of Virginia and played the dulcimer on some of his albums.

A number of dulcimer makers are active in Virginia today. Few, however, are part of a longstanding, multigenerational family or community tradition, and nearly all are dedicated to the hourglass form of the instrument. On the antique side many vintage Virginia dulcimers have gravitated, not surprisingly, toward a handful of institutional and private collectors. Still, now and then someone brings an exceptional older dulcimer, usually by an unknown hand, into our museum. Each sheds a bit more light on the dulcimer's remarkable legacy in Virginia history.

Special thanks to researchers and collectors L. Allen Smith, Ralph Lee Smith, John Rice Irwin, Marc King, Tom Queen, and Ed Bordett.

The Virginia Dulcimer: 200 Years of Bowing, Strumming and Picking
, organized by the authors, is on view at the William King Museum in Abingdon, Virginia, until August 11.

1 Alissa Ann Teresa Pesavento, "Concert Zither in America: Its History, Performance, Practice, and Repertory" (M.A. thesis, Kent State University, 1994). 2 Estate and sale of Godfrey Wilkins, Shenandoah County will books,1812 and 1813, Clerk's Office, Shenandoah County Circuit Court Building, Woodstock, Virginia. 3 See, respectively, estate of Obediah Hogan, Bedford County will book, 1818, Clerk's Office, Bedford County Courthouse, Bedford, Virginia; and estate of Josiah Harrison, Franklin County will book, 1818, Clerk's Office, Franklin County Courthouse, Rocky Mount, Virginia. 4 Estate of Jacob Hanshew, Wythe County will book, 1834, Clerk's Office, Wythe County Courthouse, Wytheville, Virginia. 5 Estate sale of Jonas Blessing, Wythe County will book, 1827; estate of Peter Huddle, ibid., 1828; estate sale of Elinor Pool (purchased by Abraham Buck), ibid., 1836; estate of John Huddle, ibid., 1839; estate sale of Christian Phillippi (purchased by Felix Buck), ibid., 1843; estate of Peter Spangler, ibid., 1848. 6 Kimberly Burnette-Dean, "The Dulcimer in Southwestern Virginia," monograph, 2005, Explore Park, Roanoke, Virginia. 7 Woodrow Russell, interview by L. Allen Smith, Marion, Virginia, February 11, 1975, transcript, Blue Ridge Heritage Archives, Ferrum College, Ferrum, Virginia. 8 Allen H. Eaton, Handicrafts of the Southern Highland (1937; reprint Dover Publications, New York, 1973). 9 Josephine McGill, "The Kentucky Mountain Dulcimer," The Musician, vol. 22 (January 1917).

RODDY MOORE is the director of the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum of Ferrum College in Ferrum, Virginia. VAUGHAN WEBB is the assistant director. They have worked together for thirty-two years exploring the folk culture of southwestern Virginia, including organizing The Virginia Dulcimer: 200 Years of Bowing, Strumming and Picking.

Playing techniques

Just as the dulcimer has changed physically, so have the techniques musicians use to play it. Typically, today's basic three-string instrument is played resting across the player's lap or on a table. The open (unfretted) second and third strings add a rich drone behind the melody created by pressing the first string onto the frets with the fingers of the left hand or a wooden rod (called a noter). Using the right-hand fingers, a quill, or some other pick, the musician usually strums across all the strings at once. Skilled players may choose to fingerpick rather than strum the strings and/or to create chords by fretting more than just the first string. Nineteenth-century straight-sided dulcimer-family instruments have been found with as many as ten strings in Virginia.

Historically, Virginia (and surrounding states) had an active tradition of bowing the dulcimer like a fiddle. J. Winton Testerman (see Fig. 19), a Grayson County, Virginia, musician, reportedly played hymns with a bow but used a quill for faster numbers. Vintage Virginia photographs show musicians bowing dulcimers in their laps, but old-timers in other states also recall the instrument being held upright from lap to shoulder for bowing. Bowing seems to have faded out of Virginia's dulcimer tradition by the middle of the twentieth century for reasons still unknown.

Tuned in various ways, the dulcimer adds its sound to several styles of Virginia folk music. Its gentle tone has long made it a favorite of vocalists singing ballads, hymns, and sentimental songs. Fast-paced fiddle-and-banjo dance tunes are also popular among dulcimer players, but the instrument has had less of a place in old-time string bands. Today's innovative musicians are taking the dulcimer well beyond traditional tunes and songs. Many examples of dulcimer music are available online. Search youtube.com for videos of Jean Ritchie or Ralph Lee Smith.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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