The Hammered Dulcimer: A History

    -- by Paul M. Gifford, Lanham & London: Scarecrow Press, 2001. 440 pages

What instrument has been variously connected with the upper class or criminals, court musicians or peasants, Christians or Muslims, scholars or beggars, minstrels or gypsies? At different times and places, these social groups have all been associated with what we call the “hammered dulcimer.”

The author has taken on the ambitious task of researching the history of the instrument around the world, and has admirably succeeded. The book has 17 chapters; ten of them plus the introduction deal with variants of the instrument in places other than the United States. These chapters are organized according to the name of the instrument in different countries. Since the American dulcimer is covered in more detail, it receives six chapters. Three chapters examine its history in the United States from about 1650 to 1900, and three more chapters focus attention on the instrument’s changing fortunes in the 20th century.

In 1940, the influential musicologist Curt Sachs claimed that the dulcimer’s origin was in the ancient Middle East. He based this dubious assertion on his interpretation of a carved relief in Assyria. This “fictional fact” is taken as “common knowledge” among dulcimer players in the US; almost everything I’ve read on the subject states that the dulcimer came to Europe from the Middle East. However, Gifford and a few earlier scholars have refuted Sach’s mis-interpretation. The dulcimer appears in textual and iconographic sources from Western Europe during the early 15th century, slightly before the earliest evidence of the instrument in the Islamic world. These scholars therefore believe it is more likely that one version of the instrument developed in Europe, while a variant developed in the Middle East from the plucked psaltery later during the same century.

The book has 60 illustrations, photos and figures, more than 20 musical transcriptions, and maps and tables. Two are especially noteworthy: The first is a chart on page 8 that shows how dulcimers of different traditions are related around the world and through time. According to the author’s research, the dulcimer as we know it today had two distinct ancestors: the plucked psaltery (which led to instruments in Egypt, Persia, and France) and the monochord (which led to instruments in Germany and Hungary). In the 15th century, the lines of the German Hackbrett (“chopping block”) and the French doulcem`er1 intersected in Europe. This century also saw the development of the santur in Persia.

The second very valuable visual resource is the map on pages 204-205. Here we see the spread of the dulcimer through Eastern Asia. A European player apparently introduced it into southern China in the 17th or 18th century. From there it spread to another 12 countries, as far away as Uzbekistan.2 The variants of dulcimers used in these countries are described in a fascinating chapter. More than 30 years ago, Japanese bluegrass fans were learning of the American instrument, which is now found in Japan along with the cimbalom (Hungary), yangqin (China), and the Hackbrett (Germany). China now has more dulcimers than any other country and the factories have difficulty keeping up with the demand. “No other Western instrument was introduced as early and has penetrated the music of different Asian cultures so thoroughly …. While the dulcimer declined and went extinct in much of Western Europe, it prospered in Asia” (p. 195).

Gifford points out that where many instruments enter new countries through connections with religion, politics, or high fashion, “the dulcimer largely entered through the back door, by means of wandering minstrels, ostracized minorities such as Jews and Gypsies, and even through association with prostitutes” (p. 3). In parts of the Middle East, it was played by harem musicians.

The dulcimer was in the American colonies before the 1776 War of Independence. Eventually, various versions were brought over by immigrants from different European countries.

Dulcimers were sold in catalogs from Sears and Montgomery Ward by the 1890s. By the middle of the 20th century, it became popular at logging camps in Michigan (since it was more portable than a piano) and was christened “the lumberjack’s piano.” In 1999, one Michigan legislator introduced a bill to make the dulcimer the “state instrument.”

By the 1960s it was nearly extinct in the US, but it has had a tremendous resurgence in the last few decades. The author points out that this phenomenon is due in part to skillful marketing: dulcimer recordings that advertise connections with Celtic culture or Christmas have sold especially well.

In the final two chapters, the author mentions some famous players and connections between them, such as John McCutcheon, Malcolm Dalglish, Bill Spence, Walt Michael, Guy Carawan, Maggie Sansone and the bands Trapezoid and Magical Strings.3

The author did research and conducted interviews over three decades, and he has been able to trace the introduction of various dulcimer traditions into parts of the U.S. to a remarkable degree. For example, as Czechs began to settle in south Texas in the 1850s, the Baca family immigrated to the town of Fayetteville and brought along the Moravian cimbal (cimbalom) tradition.

The bibliography is arranged according to the themes of the chapters, and mentions many rare source documents in various languages such as German, Italian, Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Romanian, Portuguese, Greek and Iranian, as well as unpublished materials. Gifford does a very thorough job of noting his sources; each chapter has up to 244 footnotes!4 Charts of 54 different tuning arrangements for dulcimers of various traditions are included in an appendix.

Gifford notes several key research documents by David Kettlewell in his bibliography, but oddly enough he does not refer his readers to Kettlewell’s excellent 1984 article on the hammered dulcimer in the standaard New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. This article has great information and illustrations, and a map showing the “possible routes of dissemination” of the dulcimer. Kettlewell believes the dulcimer may have originated in Byzantium (Greco-Roman empire), and spread from there to other parts of the world. This specific origin was not mentioned in Gifford’s book, though he speaks highly of Kettlewell’s research.

Despite this omission, Gifford’s book is a valuable work of scholarship, and I appreciate the way he focused on the “international dulcimer family” one member at a time. It is the most thorough and up-to-date examination of the instrument available.5 I especially appreciate that in his history of the
instrument, he includes multiple sociomusical contexts at the international level. Every dulcimer player around the world, from Mongolia to Scotland, Cambodia to Tajikistan. America to Iran, will be interested in this history of “their” instrument.

1 The etymology of the word comes from a combination of the Latin dulce, “sweet,” with Greek melos, “song”… and the word first appeared in France!
2 The author points out that “The penetration into Islamic art music traditions by a Chinese instrument of European origin
is rather astonishing” (p. 201).
I was surprised that the author didn’t mention Joemy Wilson, who has recorded 11 CDs of dulcimer music and who had a significant impact on my own playing. It is interesting to note that all of her music is connected with Christmas or the Celtic lands – except for one CD of Beatles songs!
I feel that this “feast of footnotes”—documenting where to find source material—is much better than the “famine” found in Rault’s book, reviewed on p. 20 of this issue.
(but read Kettlewell’s New Grove article as well)

    --reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.1, No.4 of

Published by
Artists in Christian Testimony