My Mountain Dulcimer Week in Cullowhee, NC
The beautiful woman in the pictures is Betty Smith. She was my instructor for the week that I spent at the Western Carolina University trying to learn the basics of playing the Mountain Dulcimer. It was a great privilege to be so close to Betty. She is the recipient of many honors and is widely known in the musical arena as one of the country’s best known ballad singers. She plays the dulcimer, guitar, autoharp and psaltery.
We arrived in Cullowhee on Sunday afternoon and were pleased to find that the registration was a breeze and our dormitory “digs” were very clean and adequate. The real test came the next morning when 20 of us, all beginners with varying degrees of musical knowledge, attended our first class. Betty introduced herself and then asked that we each do the same. We found that our class members were from all over the United States, so you can imagine my surprise when a ten year old boy gave his address. He came from my own small town (with less than 700 residents) and actually lives next door to a good friend of mine!
The fretted dulcimer is an unusual instrument. It has been handed down to us by the people of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and does not exist, as we know it, in any other folk culture in the world. It was widely used by ballad singers but nearly faded out of existence in the early 20th century. A woman named Jean Ritchie has been credited with renewing interest in the dulcimer in the 1950’s and it has caught on since then. The dulcimer has great appeal to people, like me, who have never played a musical instrument.
I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at “dulcimer camp” but I found that 20 people all plucking away at the same time made it difficult to learn. I would think to myself “Hey, I sound pretty good” and then I’d try it on my own... talk about “ego deflation” ! It helped a lot when the assistant instructor, Sarah, took me aside for some one-on-one; but, to be truthful, I have a very long way to go. I know it is practice, practice, practice and I will try to keep it up now that I am at home.
The high-lights of the week were the concerts that were held each night. It was amazing to watch our instructors perform for us. What a varied group of people. I had always assumed that the dulcimer was strictly for old-time mountain music but how wrong I was. I heard wonderful renditions of jazz, show tunes, blues and even one classical tune. It was wonderful.
Jam sessions were held every evening in our dorm and I would often drift off to sleep with the strains of “Red River Valley” resonating in the background. All in all it was a wonderful week and an experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.