A Short History
of the
Appalachian Dulcimer

The Appalachian Dulcimer is a fretted zither originally found in Southern mountain cultures, and is thought by some to be a descendent of the European zither, via the Germans who settled Pennsylvania and brought with them their square, three-stringed Scheitholt, a European folk zither of which there are many forms (see Epinette des Voges, for instance). Others believe the Appalachian Dulcimer is a true child of the Eastern American Mountain communities.

Whatever we may make of these opinions, the first Appalachian Dulcimers we know of were built in the mid-nineteenth century by rural craftsmen, who used whatever wood was growing around them, and whatever techniques would result in a playable instrument. The results were often crude, sometimes witty (some builders formed frets by hammering nails into the fretboard and bending them over), but always these little home-made instruments have a real charm and presence. Having been discovered by folk musicians, the dulcimer has grown beyond its mountain roots, and now attracts attention from musicians playing Early Music, jazz, blues, and ensemble music. This has created a demand for a truly accomplished musical instrument that will deliver concert quality when a performer needs true intonation, acoustic power and presence, and sweet voice.

The branch of dulcimer luthiers from which Bear Meadow dulcimers come is the Central Pennsylvania Allegheny Mountains. This northern reach of Appalachia is steeped in the 18th century pioneer culture of the Middle Atlantic states of colonial America, the Pennsylvania Dutch farmers who originally brought the Scheitholt with them to the southern Appalachia region, and early Industrial Revolution culture. At Roaring Spring, deep in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, Sunhearth Folk Instruments was founded by Walter Martin, in 1971.

"A Catalogue of Pre-Revival Appalachian Dulcimers", Univ. of Missouri Press, 1983, by L. Allen Smith with an Introduction by Jean Ritchie is a wonderfully illustrated history and catalogue of Appalachian Dulcimers. Allen Smith, scholar, musician and blacksmith, presents a detailed examination of every dulcimer catalogued in the Smithsonian Institution's collection, as well as those in other private and museum collections--most importantly the collection at the Mercer Museum in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The book includes more than 150 photographs of dulcimers (dating back to the early 19th century) with a detailed background on each -- there's even an old one from Gallia County, Ohio fretted entirely with chromatic fretting, and painted with stars giving it a highly patriotic look.

Another great book is "The Story of the Dulcimer" by Ralph Lee Smith, published by Crying Creek Publishers, P.O. Box 8, Highway 32, Cosby, TN 37722. This book is a nice complement to L. Allen Smith's book and includes photographs of many instruments not recorded by L. Allen Smith. Chapter 6 has a nice history of the hourglass dulcimer including a section on instruments collected in Gallia County, Ohio (Southern Ohio, borders on the river and is across from West Virginia). The instruments that Ralph Smith describes have a handsome body shape and a distinctive soundhole pattern composed of three holes arranged in the form of an equilateral triangle.

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