THE HIGHLAND SCOTS AND THE MOUNTAIN DULCIMER

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      Thanksgiving Dulcimer

Why do you sigh on this day meant for singing,
the time for a feast of the heart and the soul?
Remember the songs we should all be a-humming,
the songs for all Pilgrims, not weary, still bold?

Why is your body so trembling in sorrow,
your echoing strings sending chills to the spine.
And how did the vision of log cabin morrows
transcend all the days of golden sunshine?

For just this one moment, in this simple setting,
forgetting all sadness, loss and despair,
allow us the music of young maidens dancing
and pauses for laughter, silence for prayer.

                  – Charles Brady

Like a lot of retired couples of a certain age and background, Lee and I had remained active workers long after we were expected to curl up before a comfortable fire in our robes and mufflers.  I continued to teach part time for many years after I had “retired” and was drawing retirement pay (and I had retired from a military career way back in 1974).  Lee continued teaching English and Playwriting (commuting to Monterey Peninsula College to do so), and even today, she remains busy as a Playwright and Critic.

However, the time came when we paused and concluded that we should and would take advantage of some special and interesting opportunities for us, ones offered by the “Road Scholar” folk.

We planned our road trip and completed it back in late October and early November, driving east and returning home with several stops to visit family and friends in Santa Fe, Tulsa, Hickory, N.C. and Tyler, Texas.  We enjoyed the $1.82- $1.99 gasoline prices, the perfect weather and the new sights from Bakersfield to Hickory.  And,  there was  a bonus; we were able to ignore the campaigning for a while and just enjoy new information, great food and a few bonuses not planned for.

Back in May, when Lee and I were planning our week of Road Scholar study of the “Scots Irish Cultural Migration to the western mountains of North Carolina”, we were mostly focused on the larger promises of the “Roads Scholar” course offered at the “Road Scholar” courses conducted at the Montreat area, adjacent to Black Mountain, North Carolina, and not far from the historic location of Black Mountain College.  Montreat (pronounced “Mon Treet”, short for Mountain Retreat) provided us with wonderful rooms, three exciting meals a day and endless entertainment for the week we were there.

This was to be a driving trip, with stops to visit friends in Santa Fe, Burnett relatives in Tulsa and out daughter Kate and her family in Eastern Texas on our return.  We would stay but six days in the Western North Carolina mountains, but we expected to enjoy them.

Lee was interested in getting a better understanding of her Scottish ancestors, since her knowledge of the family was handed down and incomplete.  There were rumors of a castle in the Burnett family lore, for example.

I thought I could learn a little more about Northern Ireland, and I have always wanted to explore the Great Smoky Mountains and the Appalachians, especially those in North Carolina. One of the three grand regional characters, who were to be our instructors and guides, was a master story-teller story who was also a historian. She informed us on the first day that the area’s mountains were to be called the “Apple ATCHANZ and absolutely NOT the “Apple A Shunz!”  And she gave us a way to remember the correct pronunciation.

She told us that, when Eve was leaving the Garden of Eden, she warned the serpent, “Don’t try to follow me or I’ll throw this “APPLE  AT CHA!”

However, after we arrived and settled into this beautiful old stone facility, we noted that the course offered a few tidbits about one of our favorite folk instruments – the Mountain Dulcimer. Sprinkled into the description were promises to “learn how to tune the Mountain Dulcimer” and suggestions that we would learn a little bit more about the Dulcimer.

And, sure enough, the three professional (and VERY Scottish-American) women who were our leaders could all play the Mountain Dulcimer.  Despite that knowledge, none of them actually played the instrument for us. One broke a string while tuning and another used a beautiful Dulcimer as a prop.  

The third lady, however, actually brought in three-string dulcimers for the entire class and brought in an electronic tuner.  The class dulcimers were inexpensive ones made of special cardboard, but they created a surprisingly pleasing sound.

No matter!  This lady was a recognized state-wide and regional Story Teller who could hold us spellbound for hours while she told one “old timey” story after another, often with herself as the subject and often unable to hold back her own laughter and tears.  She was so busy telling her stories that we barely had time to examine our instruments, much less tune and play them.  And, although the one tuner started out and was to be handled and used by all of us, it halted long before it reached me.  

However, from a little past study, I knew that these three-string Dulcimers would be tuned DAA, and I managed to tune Lee’s by ear – a big mistake, as it turned out, because somewhere in all that playing around and laughing…and perhaps influenced by the beautiful sounds coming later from the Hammered Dulcimer  (see below)… she decided that she wanted a Mountain Dulcimer and wanted to learn to play it – right away!

I told her that I had one at home that had been in the back of a closet for years.  It had defeated me, but I promised she could have it if she really wanted to try it. I guess I’m stuck with that promise. After we got home I bought new strings, tuned it  and presented it (with due formality) to Lee. Yesterday, when our little band had come down from the Sonoma area for our usual get-together, Anita Harmon took a few minutes during our breaks to introduce Lee to the Dulcimer (I KNEW she would do that, and I was counting on it- She TEACHES music and I am not good enough or patient enough to be a music teacher!) Before we broke up, Anita had labeled a few frets and made me promise to get to the Haight Street Music Store to get everything else Lee needed to begin.}

Back at Montreat, A few of our group slowly finger-picked  “Bile That Cabbage Down,” and one lady even squeezed out a recognizable “Amazing Grace,” but most seemed content to just look and listen to the stories.

On our second night, however, we met and were enthralled by a true master of the Hammered Dulcimer!  That evening alone made the long journey and the three-week odyssey worthwhile.

The young man who introduced himself related how he had arrived in Black Mountain, North Carolina, with “sixty dollars and a dream.”  He told how he had decided to devote his life to the Hammered Dulcimer, and in the telling and performing he proved to us that his efforts had succeeded.

Joshua Messick, literally embraces his instrument, and that became so evident that he immediately won over a lot of people who had known nothing about the instrument he commanded. He had me long before he finished his first tune, one of his many compositions.  I know the term is overused, but he is a true master and his music is angelic! After talking with him, I came to realize that the Hammered Dulcimer is his life.  He recently married Erin Rogers, who plays the Mountain Dulcimer and often performs and records with him.

So, Lee and I made a good decision to go for the road trip and the information and (as it always happens), we came home with so much more. Now, however, I have that lady in the house who is going to have to have a lot of patience to get to where she would like to be with the Dulcimer, and I am going to have to be helpful when I’d rather sit and doze.

However, I will be rewarded by this vision: (Described by Lee, who plays down her musical ability. She says that she can “At least sit there majestically, with the Dulcimer on her lap and look “just like Mother Maybelle!”)  I agree.

You may check out Joshua Messick and his music by Googling him and his Youtube offerings.  Right now, I am enjoying his interpretations of many of the old spirituals brought over by our early settlers (in his CD, “HONEST, Songs of Hope.”)

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