By Zach Fitzgerald | LSU Student
The mountain dulcimer is as American as a musical instrument can be.
It is slowly increasing in popularity across the southern and mid-western U. S. with scores of festivals, including the Lagniappe Dulcimer Fete in Port Allen which recently held its 11th such gathering.
"The Appalachian (mountain) dulcimer and the 5-string banjo are considered the only two truly American-developed instruments," said David Lynch of Warrensburg, Mo., owner of Sweet Woods Instruments and a luthier (cq) who builds dulcimers and other wood instruments.
"Prior to the 1850s, 1840s, there's really no example anywhere of this type of instrument where it has the central fret board and three or four strings that run the entire length of the body," notes Lynch, adding that it first found in Appalachia country.
Dulcimers come in three basic styles: The central Appalachian style, originating from the Pennsylvania mountains through Arkansas, featuring a teardrop or hourglass shape; the Gallic style, commonly found in Virginia and is boat-shaped or tapered at each end and wide in the middle; and the Tennessee Music Box style, which looks like a large rectangular box.
Lisa Oivanki of Watson, La., a member of the Lagniappe Dulcimer Society in Baton Rouge, said she began playing the mountain dulcimer when she attended LSU and was with the school's a cappella choir. "They were doing a tune, and they needed a dulcimer to be playing. A friend of mine had one so I picked it up from her."
She put it down until 2004 when she attended the Port Allen festival and "fell in love with (playing the dulcimer)."
"People came from Europe (to the U. S.), and they wanted to continue their musical tradition," Oivanki said. "But they couldn't bring their instruments with them so they developed this instrument."
Current president of the Lagniappe Dulcimer Society Jak Stallings of Prairieville, said the dulcimer is in the zither family of instruments. "That means that the strings and the fret board are completely over on the top of the instrument."
Oivanki said the dulcimer began as a drone instrument, meaning players only played on the melody string. She said earliest players did not use chords.
"The songs (they played) were all songs that they had grown up with, many of them hymns, old fiddle tunes they had learned back in the old country, they converted those (songs) to the dulcimer."
Lynch said that the way people first played dulcimers became the concept for the slide guitar.
"Originally, dulcimers were played strictly, pretty much, with a wooden stick called a noter," Lynch said. "That's kind of where that slide idea came from."
Oivanki said the noters originally were made from hardened turkey quills.
Learning to play the dulcimer does not require someone to be able to read music, said Stallings. "It is an instrument that lends itself well to playing by ear and to picking up how to play without a lot of external support if somebody's kind of showing you a few basics.
"You can make it as easy as you want to play or as hard as you want to play it. I could set you down and have you playing a tune in 5 or 10 minutes. And then you could spend a lifetime learning how to play."
Stallings said anyone who is interested in learning how to play the dulcimer or looking for a group to play within the Baton Rouge area, can join the Lagniappe Dulcimer Society, which meets every Monday from 6 p. m. to 9 p. m. at Community Bible Church on Jefferson Highway in Baton Rouge. The group also offers lessons.
Dulcimer groups also meet around the Alexandria-Pineville area and in the Covington area, he said.
Many of the people she plays with, says Oivanki, do not have any musical training and cannot read music. She said they play by what is called tag or playing the instrument using numbered frets.
Stallings started playing the mountain dulcimer around 30 years ago after having played other instruments during his school years. He he has seen the instruments grow in popularity in the last decade or so.
"The first 20 years I played, there weren't dulcimer players around. "It seems to me that there are more people playing the dulcimer today than when I started to play it."
Compared to other instruments, such as the guitar, dulcimers are inexpensive to buy, Lynch said, pointing out that a high-end dulcimer run about $600 to $700. The standard dulcimer is roughly $325, he says.
Stallings, who owns three mountain dulcimers, bought a quality dulcimer from Lynch for around $800. Lynch made it for him and it has several features not required to play the dulcimer, features he wanted.