Rocketing to Relative Obscurity by Jenny Coxon - published in Living Tradition Magazine no.80, summer 2008.
The hammered dulcimer (what’s that?), and the mountain dulcimer in the UK, and your chance to try them out!
High in the nave of Manchester Cathedral amongst a set of remarkable medieval carvings (c.1485) is one of the earliest pieces of evidence for the existence of the hammered (or plucked) dulcimer in England. A wooden dulcimer player, one of a set of fourteen angel musicians, plays an instrument immediately recognisable to contemporary players; trapezium-shaped, with twelve strings and struck with hammers which in shape and form clearly resemble those still used in East Anglia. A line drawing of this angel seemed an appropriate choice for the logo of the UK-based Nonsuch Dulcimer Club which began in 1990, initially for hammered dulcimer players, makers and enthusiasts; later (1994) it included mountain (Appalachian) dulcimerists and a lone autoharp player! There have always been more hammered dulcimer than mountain dulcimer players in the club, and this article reflects that balance. Both types of dulcimers, as the title suggests, have seldom hit the headlines!
Hammered dulcimers probably came to our islands about 600 years ago. A new fashion in the late middle ages, they would have been played by the upper classes, and largely considered women’s instruments; as their social status gradually declined, they were taken up by lower classes and itinerant minstrels. In the mid-seventeenth century Samuel Pepys enjoyed hearing a dulcimer accompanying a puppet show at Covent Garden; other sources indicate that dulcimers featured in popular entertainment at venues such as Sadler’s Wells. Interest in dulcimers rekindled a hundred years later; and eventually from the mid-eighteen to the mid-nineteen hundreds, the instrument enjoyed an upsurge of popularity which peaked in the period
between the first and second world wars. Thirty years on, David Kettlewell set out to find the remaining players and instruments from that time, which he called “the great dulcimer boom in Britain”. The result was his doctoral thesis, and a book (with accompanying audio cassette) called ‘All the tunes that ever there were - an introduction to the dulcimer in the British Isles’ (1975). Since then there have been surges of interest in the dulcimer assisted by a number of coincidental but often unrelated developments; as Birmingham plucker Fred Woodley summed it up later - “I thought I was the only one!”
During the late 70’s, some musicians described by Kettlewell had a new lease of life appearing at folk clubs and festivals. Glaswegian Jimmy Cooper in particular, undoubtedly the best player of his generation, enjoyed travelling to folk events with the late Dave Williams who had provided the dulcimer building plans for Kettlewell’s book. Billy Bennington and others continued the East Anglian traditional style; Topic Records and Forest Tracks released recordings of players such as Bob Smith (Scotland), John Rea (Northern Ireland), and Jimmy Cooper.
A major stimulus for musicians in the folk revival was the hugely influential English Country Music (1976), a re-release by Topic Records of a limited issue own label LP from 1965, featuring Billy Cooper on dulcimer with Walter and Daisy Bulwer on fiddle and piano. From the late 60s onwards, a new generation of musicians took to the dulcimer, playing in dance bands, folk clubs, festivals and sessions, increasing the instrument’s visibility on the folk circuit and beyond: David Kettlewell, Chris Coe, Sue Harris, Pete Collinson, Fi Fraser, Rosie Cross, Jack Bethel, Barry Carol, Matt Fox, Mandy Lowe, Alastair Gillies, Jenny Coxon and many others. Farnham Folk Day's Ultimate Hammered Dulcimer Workshop (1983) with Billy Bennington, Reg Reeder, Sue Harris, Chris Coe and Jim Couza, an American player who had recently arrived in the UK; George Monger’s East Anglian Dulcimer Day (1987) launched the audio and video recordings of Billy Bennington who had died in 1986. The dulcimer collection at the Museum of East Anglian Life was on display, and there were performances by Reg Reeder and Ted Carr; Molly Whittaker also attended but was too overcome by the size of the audience to perform. George's second Dulcimer Day at the museum in 1994 included a performance by eminent Chinese yangqin player, Xu Ping Xin. The UK dulcimer scene was widening its horizons
A growing demand for dulcimers was met by two professional dulcimer building businesses, Dove Dulcimers (Glastonbury) and Oakwood Instruments (Leeds). Several smaller workshops also made dulcimers for sale: those of Alec Anness, Tim Manning, Ian Clabburn, Jon Letcher, John Crocker and Mattwood (Fred Woodley and Dave Clifford). Numerous individuals made dulcimers for themselves, or for someone in their family - often a wife or partner, or for the pleasure and technical challenge of building an instrument. Meetings of dulcimer players took place at Glebe House in Cornwall; and at the Glasgow People's Palace where Colin McAlister and Jack Bethel held the Glasgow Hammered Dulcimer Study Group.
People who took up the dulcimer came to it via different routes: the Kettlewell book, the English Country Music album, the playing of Sue Harris and Chris Coe during the late 70s and early 80s, the playing of Jim Couza during the 80s and 90s - which inspired so many of the current generation of players, and the purchasing of instruments on trips abroad, mostly to the US. The current most outstanding younger player is laid-back Maclaine Coulston, taught by Jim Couza. Maclaine played in the sadly short-lived but brilliant duo Cythara with harpist Jenny Crook, and then in Liza Carthy’s Kings of Calicutt; he also has an occasional duo with accomplished melodeon player Saul Rose.
It was at Glebe House that the idea of a dulcimer club was first mooted, and the setting up of the Nonsuch Dulcimer Club was completed by October 1992; establishing a support network, information base, regular newsletter and annual residential weekends which have been attended not only by people in this country, but increasingly by overseas members and friends.
With the new potential of the Internet, the expansion of the club was furthered by a web site, set up by Peter Collinson, undoubtedly putting the English dulcimer scene on the world map. In the 90s, people were becoming aware of the hammered dulcimer in the context of world music, and UK musicians from varied cultural backgrounds played instruments from the world dulcimer family, such as tsimbaly players in Ukrainian dance bands. Successful cross-cultural partnerships developed: Roger Watson and Kiran Pal Singh in the One World Band; Matt Fox and the London-based Balkan Gypsy Orchestra. Major world players from different cultures such as Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma (India) and Kálmán Balogh (Hungary) performed in the UK. The Nonsuch club created opportunities for members to hear and experience the music of other cultures via the common ground of the instrument itself - annual weekend workshops included Klezmer, Chinese, Greek, Balkan, Dutch, Australian and American music. In 1991, Hungarian concert cimbalom player Viktoria Herencsar founded the Cimbalom World Association (CWA), holding the first of a series of biennial congresses to share information and expertise relating to the dulcimer world-wide. Nonsuch committee member Sally Whytehead, a previous club chairman, is also on the CWA committee, and initially hosted its email and internet facilities.
Since 2000, there have been further new initiatives: in 2005 and 2006, Antrim-based Scotsman Dick Glasgow ran the Causeway Dulcimer Festival assisted by Jenny Coxon and Rick Davis (US). The English Country Music Weekend held a Dulcimer Special in 2006, which was reminiscent of the ’83 Farnham Folk Day. In 2007 Dick Glasgow launched the European Dulcimer Players Forum at, and an associated myspace with youtube clips of dulcimers from many different cultures at. In March 2008 Jenny Coxon (Nonsuch Club’s chairman for the first twelve years) taught English music for dulcimer in the US.
Coming full circle, David Kettlewell is updating and making his dulcimer research available on the web at www.NewRenaissance.ibs.ee/dulcimer
Additional study has been done by professional makers Roger Frood and Martyn Banks in order to further their knowledge and inform their instrument building. Roger has been teaching dulcimer construction in Belgium for several years as part of a growing interest in the instrument there; a Frood instrument was played by Karen Ashbrook (US) on a dulcimer instructional DVD produced in Belgium. Currently, Geoff Smith is conducting further research into dulcimer design linked to performance technique from the standpoint of the highly trained percussionist. Geoff's rationale and general introduction are on his web site - www.dulcimer.co.uk . Geoff has composed highly acclaimed scores for dulcimer and has performed some of these as accompaniment to early silent movies. George Monger's work whilst at the Museum of East Anglian Life was important in showcasing the development of the dulcimer in that part of England; John Howson’s current dulcimer research project with the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust continues to uncover evidence about the significance of the instrument in the region’s culture. More recently Chris Coe has been responsible for adding a hammered dulcimer to the instrument bank for the Newcastle University Folk Music degree course.
Traditional players are still with us. East Anglian Reg Reeder represents the older generation - he’s passing on his skills to his grandson Tom Knights. West Midlander Fred Woodley, who continues building and playing dulcimers as part of a family tradition, teaches his grand-daughter Laura Sorrill the Birmingham plucked style. As a maker, Fred is constantly developing his understanding, refining his techniques and experimenting with new construction methods. Fred and Reg continue to add to their repertoires, learning tunes they like as they come across them. Glasgow’s John Crichton, one of the original members of the Glasgow Dulcimer Study group, and Antrim’s William Rea, who learned from the great John Rea, are both still playing. William’s cousin Nat Magee, who did much to bring the Antrim dulcimer to public attention again, sadly died last year.
Jimmy Cooper, Billy Bennington, Reg, Fred, John, Nat and William have all been rejuvenated by their contact with new audiences, new enthusiasts, and in Fred's case, a new role as a trainer and adviser for inexperienced would-be makers. The Make and Play Project in Redditch would have been impossible without Fred.
Hammered dulcimer activity is thriving at many different levels.
The mountain (Appalachian) dulcimer was a much more recent arrival to the UK. It was probably Jean Ritchie, the American player, who introduced English audiences to it in the 1950s when she came over to collect folksongs in England and Ireland as part of her research into the origins of songs sung in the Appalachian Mountains. Jean started playing in New York in the 1940s, and surmised that mountain dulcimers were created by European settlers who probably used diatonic fretted instruments such as the scheitholt and the hommel as inspiration. A southern Appalachian instrument from 1832 is the earliest recognisable one that can be dated with certainty. The dulcimer’s modest volume made it ideal for small gatherings in people’s homes and it gradually became popular and was widely used in old-time music. A maker called J. Edward Thomas (1870 - 1934) who made instruments for the Ritchie family told scholars that he’d made a dulcimer for the king of England; this was probably for the Prince of Wales who toured the US, and who later became Edward VIII.
English players who explored the possibilities of the instrument in the early years include Shirley Collins who was a friend of Jean Ritchie’s, and who was given a dulcimer by Alan Lomax. Guitarist John Pearse, one of the first people to introduce the dulcimer to English folk clubs in the 1960s, demonstrated how to make and play the instrument on television. The outstanding and influential virtuoso Roger Nicholson, who utilised guitar techniques to create a quintessentially English style of playing, making the dulcimer sound as if it had been played here for centuries, recorded the seminal Nonsuch for Dulcimer and several other albums. Roger has been a longstanding member of the Nonsuch Dulcimer Club, and an inspirational teacher at Nonsuch events until a heart attack in 2005 severely curtailed his activities, although he still plays his dulcimer at home and continues to teach the instrument. An appraisal of Roger’s contribution appears in the spring 2008 issue of Dulcimer Players News (US) written by Nonsuch member Grahame Hood with John Shaw.The mountain dulcimer in England hasn’t solely been used for folk music; it also appeared in the hands of multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones in the Rolling Stones song My Sweet Lady Jane!
Dan Evans is probably now the busiest English mountain dulcimer player and teacher, performing what he describes as “folk with a sense of the medieval and a hint of jazz”, and teaching both in the UK and the US. Nonsuch member (and recent chairman of the club) John Shaw, continues to be a tireless promoter of the instrument, as a player and singer, as a storehouse of dulcimer information, and as an organiser of events, including a memorable afternoon at Dursley near Gloucester with the great Jean Ritchie and Peter Kennedy in 1999. Dan, John, Grahame Hood and Roger have published dulcimer tablature for numerous tunes in the Nonsuch Club magazine. Liz Law, a deft, fluid player from northeast England, was mountain dulcimer tutor for Folkworks prior to recent funding cuts; hearing her version of Random, inspired by the playing of the late Phil Ranson, is an unforgettable experience!
Hammered and mountain dulcimers have seldom been a highly visible part of the contemporary music scene, but early in 2008 a young player exploded into prime-time television and a web-based talent contest - bbc3 Upstaged. Rebecca Edwards, professionally known as Dizzi Drummer or Dizzi Dulcimer, discovered the hammered dulcimer in 2001 and was so smitten with it that she decided to promote it in a BIG way. Here is her mission statement - “my goal is to re-introduce the hammered dulcimer into the 21st Century by releasing a dulcimer single that is modern, current and popular, by doing workshops, talks and live performances all over the UK until everyone knows and loves the hammered dulcimer and as many people want to learn to play it as do guitar or piano, and then I would like to set up a Dulcimer Culture Center to educate people about this ancient and almost forgotten instrument”! Dizzi holds workshops at festivals, notably Glastonbury, runs the Somerset Dulcimer Orchestra, and imports good quality but very moderately priced dulcimers for beginners made in the US by Tim O’Brien; these 12/11 instruments come complete with instructional book, case, single-leg stand, tuning wrench and three year guarantee. Dizzi’s talented performances, dynamic approach and savvy use of the internet enabled her to reach the quarter finals of the contest - a great achievement and fantastic publicity for the instrument. Dizzi holds workshops at festivals, notably Glastonbury, runs the Somerset Dulcimer Orchestra, and imports good quality but very moderately priced dulcimers for beginners made in the US by Tim O’Brien; these 12/11 instruments come complete with instructional book, case, single-leg stand, tuning wrench and three year guarantee. Dizzi’s talented performances, dynamic approach and savvy use of the internet enabled her to reach the quarter finals of the contest - a great achievement and fantastic publicity for the instrument. Her My Space site has photos of the Upstaged show at Millennium Square Bristol on 25th Feb 2008.
The good news is that later this year at the Nonsuch weekend at Launde in Leicestershire (31st Oct - 2nd Nov) Dizzi will be teaching hammered dulcimer, and she will bring instruments for people to use if they don’t own one. Mat Fox will be the other well-known hammered dulcimer teacher at the event; there is an interesting link between Mat and Dizzi - both have worked as percussionists at the Globe theatre. Mat’s name will be known to many as the creative energy behind The Happy End and the charismatic front man of The Barely Works. The core of his musical career has always been teaching and directing many types of ensembles. He does play and teach hammered dulcimer, but also plays and teaches composition, piano, saxophone, steel pan and African and Brazilian drumming. He is the Musical Director of Kinetika, a carnival arts group that puts on spectacular performances, and which has appeared at major world events including Atlanta Olympics, Kolkata Carnival, London Olympic Torch Relay and Nelson Mandela's statue unveiling at Parliament Square. Mat also runs Kinetika Bloco, a group of 140 Lambeth and Southwark teenagers playing brass and woodwind with drumming and dancers; the group was chosen to represent London as part of the 'Beijing 2008' Olympic Cultural Festival. In a recent composition written to commemorate the abolition of slavery, Mat used dulcimer and psaltery to create the most haunting part of the entire piece. Mat will be teaching large group arrangements of old recordings of music from the Caribbean, a lot of which is probably at least partly English in origin, plus a couple of his original pieces and as Mat puts it “hopefully some weird stuff”! The main mountain dulcimer teacher at the weekend will be Dan Evans, who uses traditional British folk songs, his own instrumental compositions and the odd pop classic. His inspirational workshops will include finger-style dulcimer, voice and performance skills. John Shaw will also teach mountain dulcimer and he will have a number of instruments available for people who don’t have one of their own.
It’s a great opportunity to learn about either type of dulcimer, and have a wonderful weekend in the beautiful setting of Launde Abbey. There will be workshops, tune and song sessions, and the amazing Saturday night concert. Browse our website, click on events and download a booking form. Some assisted places for young musicians are available; anyone wishing to know more about these should enquire via the website.
As David Kettlewell suggested in his book when he quoted Irish player Andy Dowling - “you can play all the tunes that ever there were on a dulcimer”.
(Thanks to Nick Blanton for the title!)
© Jenny Coxon 3 June 2008