If we call a spade a spade, shouldn’t we know what a spade is?

HPIM1442-800 I’ve only been at this “Traditional Appalachian Dulcimore” for a few years. I’m going to guess my insights are different as the result of my being a dulcimore maker. In my first recollection of early pieces there were references to the “play-ability” of many pieces. Some referred to the unplayable pieces as “wall hangers” and the makers were subject to unfavorable review.  What I find problematic with the review is; was the piece original, or had it in fact been “repaired”? Early on I found pieces that the intonation was set a particular way. The early pieces were generally Ionian, tuned a full note lower and played with a noter. The contemporary players tuned them Mixolydian a full note higher and lowered the action, then complained it “wasn’t right”. If you don’t know how a particular maker set his intonation, you can’t fully appreciate the piece.

Now for the next issue… Is it original? Jean Ritchie had two Thomas’ when she passed. They both reside at the University of Kentucky John Jacob Niles Center in Lexington, Kentucky. The problem child was shared at the second Hindman Dulcimer Homecoming. She had stated in an interview (I don’t recall where) that it “didn’t play right”. I played that piece, and the first thing I noticed was the nut and bridge had been reworked. They were bone and the string edge was broke off the center of the nut and bridge, not the inside edge as the originals were. This offset the VSL by as much as 300 thousands! Yes, the intonation was wrong, but not by Thomas’ hand.

Now for the thousand dollar question; should I alter the piece so I can play it? Do you want to play it, or are you saving the piece to sell for a profit later? Very often the concern of “devaluing” the piece is brought up. I don’t know of any individuals who would pay less for a Thomas because the strings had been replaced. Most hundred year old pieces have had the nut and bridge replaced as well, maybe more than once. These pieces were made to be played, and I would say probably in a way they were set up to be played…


“a thing of the past”

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Josiah H. Combs wrote that “the dulcimore is rapidly becoming a thing of the past” in his 1913 magazine article The Kentucky Highlanders.  In the book Folk-Songs of the Southern United States written in 1925, he says “The ‘dulcimore’ (dulcimer) is an instrument formerly much used, but now rapidly falling into decay.” How right he was! If we compare how many traditional dulcimore there were in 1913 to how many there are today, his observation was spot on! In 1925 “all” dulcimore were traditional. Today, possibly less than there were in 1925?