DANCING IN THE CABBAGE PATCH Dulcimers at Pine Mountain

Pine Mountain Settlement School
Series 30: Music
Series 32: Object Collections

DANCING IN THE CABBAGE PATCH Dulcimers at Pine Mountain 

TAGS: dulcimers; mountain dulcimer; musical instruments; Ethel de Long Zande; music; ballads; songs; Appalachian musical instruments; Appalachian music; Evelyn K. Wells; plucked dulcimer; bowed dulcimer ;

Ethel de Long with mountain dulcimer, c. 1915

Ethel de Long with mountain dulcimer, c. 1915


The mountain “dulcimer” is an oblong, box-like instrument, with in-curving sides, about two and a half feet long and eight inches at its greatest width. It has three strings of either gut or wire. One string is fretted, the other two are drone strings. The fretted string and the one next to it are tuned a fifth above the third string.

Angela Melville Album II - Part III. "E.K.W." [with dulcimer]. [melv_II_album_313.jpg]

Angela Melville Album II – Part III. “E.K.W.” [Evelyn K. Wells with dulcimer]. [melv_II_album_313.jpg]

The dulcimer is either picked or bowed. When it is picked, it is held on the knees, and the left hand plays the melody by passing a little stick up and down the keyboard over the fretted string, while the right hand plucks the strings. When it is bowed, the player holds one end in his lap and rest the other against a table, holding the bow in the right hand and passing the fingers or a stick up and down the keyboard with the left.

There are very few dulcimers left in the mountains now, but in the old days they were often found beside the fiddle and the homemade banjo. Now the fiddle, the banjo and the organ are taking the place of the old-fashioned instrument.

The theory of most scholars of the subject is that this instrument was brought into the mountains by some settler from the continent of Europe, because it is a well-known fact that the German zither of the 18th century is identical in shape, tuning and general appearance with the the mountain dulcimer. One of these zithers is displayed in the Crosby-Brown collection of musical instruments in the Metropolitan Museum in New York along with other 18th century instruments. This is supposed to be a descendant of the monochord of the middle ages.

There are two types of stringed instruments. the plucked instruments and the struck instruments. The former are psalteries, the latter dulcimers. Since the mountain dulcimer is plucked, it should belong in the class with psalteries, but the mountaineer, with his love of sweet-sounding names, has preferred to call it a “dulcimer,” and perhaps by this time he has acquired the right of possession.

[Source unknown. Pine Mountain Settlement School archive.]

As recorded in her letters, Ethel de Long Zande had her portrait made in New York City with a dulcimer in her lap. It is possible that the photographer was Doris Ulmann, who knew Ethel and photographed widely in the Pine Mountain region during the beginning years of the School.

In the following photograph by an unknown photographer, “Aunt Leah” sits and plays the dulcimer using a bow. As described by the anonymous author, above, this was a more uncommon form for playing the instrument, but it was nevertheless known by some community members in the early years of the School.


“Aunt Leah” using a bow to play a hand-made mountain dulcimer at Pine Mountain Settlement School. [pmss00024.jpg]


Dulcimer used by PMSS Girl’s Octet



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About pmss_editor

The editor, Helen Wykle, was born at Pine Mountain Settlement School in Southeastern Kentucky. She graduated from Berea College in 1964 with a B.A. in Art. She studied painting at Ohio University and art history at Tulane University. Both experiences led to the completion of an M.A. in Art History at San Jose State University in 1987. She taught Art and Art History for the University of KY at Maysville, KY, Gavilan College, and San Diego City College in California. Her five-year employment at UC San Diego in the Library Visual Resources and Main Reference Services departments led to a Master's Degree in Library and Information Science from Berkeley in 1987 and a left turn as a Sr. Museum Scientist for the UC Irvine School of the Arts (1987-1992). In 1992 she returned with her family to Appalachia and began a second career first as faculty at Warren Wilson College Pew Library and the Art department and later in 1995 as faculty at UNC Asheville for another full career in bibliographic instruction and as Director of Special Collections and University Archives. Retirement in 2013 brought her back to Pine Mountain Settlement School as a member of the Board of Trustees where she and her cousin, Ann Angel Eberhard, initiated the development and digitization of the Archive of the Pine Mountain Settlement School Collections.