A cheerful strumming sound fills the air of a coffeehouse outside Knoxville, Tennessee. The dulcimer player, a man with a bushy white beard, plies the strings stretched tautly across the hourglass-shaped box on his lap, smiling as his foot keeps time with the beat. From his graceful instrument wafts a sweet twang that sounds both melodious and distinctly southern.
The mountain dulcimer, also known as the Appalachian dulcimer, is the product of a rich craft tradition. Although there are mass-produced versions of this unique folk instrument, most dulcimers are handcrafted one at a time by individual luthiers. These instruments help preserve the distinctive musical heritage of the central and southern Appalachian Mountains, covering West Virginia and parts of Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
Music historians have attempted to find the roots of the mountain dulcimer among European stringed zithers, especially the German scheitholt. However, it seems that for the most part, mountain pioneers developed the instrument on their own in the early 1800s. The settlers of the Appalachian Mountains—a self-sufficient bunch hailing from Scotland, Wales, Germany, and England—remained isolated from the rest of the country, and preserved the ways of their pioneer ancestors for generations. Their music traced its roots to English and Scottish ballads, both haunting and happy, and their lyrics chronicled stories of survival, love, and hardship in the wilderness. Over time, folk music evolved into one of Appalachia's most enduring and distinctive cultural traditions, and the mountain dulcimer became its voice.
The mountain dulcimer consists of a wooden box, usually in an hourglass or teardrop shape, though it may be made to resemble a lozenge, trapezoid, or other form. Traditionally the instrument is strung with three or four strings, but occasionally has more. Sometimes accompanied by banjos, mandolins, or singing, at its best the mountain dulcimer is a solo instrument, and may be played in a variety of ways, depending on the sound the player wants to achieve. Some players use a pick, a bow, or even a turkey or chicken quill to pluck or strum the strings. The dulcimer is usually laid flat across the lap, although some play it like a guitar, hanging from a strap around the neck. It can also rest on a piece of furniture as it's played.