Sliding her fingers along the three strings on the instrument’s neck, Wanda Duncan peered through her glasses to play the recognizable bum bum buuum bum bum ba bum bum bum buuum bum bum opening to “Smoke on the Water.”
“See, you can have fun and rock out while playing the dulcimer too," Janet Henderson said. "We love our old church songs and folk tunes, but we do love to jam, too."
Amateur musicians, some wheeling laundry baskets carrying instruments and amps, others carrying fiddle and ukulele cases, gather every Wednesday at the Decatur-Morgan Senior Center to jam.
Yes, they come for the music, but, more importantly, the dulcimer players, many in their 60s, 70s and 80s, come for the camaraderie.
“This is some of the most fun I have all week. I’m a little surprised they haven’t run me off yet. I’m what you would call music crazy, but tone deaf,” Carolyn Hayes said. “Truly, when you live alone, having something like this to be part of means a lot. I love it.”
The Morgan County Dulcimer Association is one of 60 programs housed at the Decatur–Morgan Senior Center, an activities site for people 50 and older. More than 700 seniors, including a dozen or so dulcimer players, participated in the programs in 2018, center director Amy Rakestraw said.
“I always thought of the dulcimer as being a very serious instrument. That’s not so when they’re playing the New Orleans second line or when ‘The Saints Go Marching In’ during Mardi Gras season. It was like having our own Mardi Gras concert every week. It’s so much fun when they are here,” Rakestraw said.
Most of the musicians play the mountain dulcimer, a sleek, lap instrument routinely featured in folk music. To play the instrument with roots in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, musicians strum or pluck the dulcimer’s three or four strings with one hand and, with the other hand, presses down on the fret board to control pitch.
“I’m originally from West Virginia and grew up listening to dulcimers, but played in a country style,” Polly Mazzella said. “I started coming to the senior center with my mother in 2010 and for the first time I heard this dulcimer group. The sound was more sophisticated than I was used to. I listened for a month before I decided to play. One of my favorite songs is ‘Edelweiss.’ Hearing that convinced me that I wanted to learn.”
Along with the mountain dulcimer, Henderson, president of the Morgan County Dulcimer Association, also plays the hammered dulcimer, which makes sounds when small hammers strike the strings. Think of a xylophone combined with a harp.
“Everybody has a different story of how they came to the dulcimer and a different reason that led them to play. For me, I took dulcimer classes as grief therapy the year my mother died. I loved it so much, I kept on,” said Henderson, who learned from Jon and Clara Harris, former instructors of Decatur’s continuing education dulcimer classes.
Like Henderson, the husband and wife team of Dave and Betsy Anthony learned the dulcimer from Jon Harris.
“My wife called me from work and said, ‘Would you like to take dulcimer lessons?’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ Then, being the dutiful husband I am, I said, ‘Sure.’ It was pretty easy to learn, which is great for me, because I’m kind of a simple guy,” Dave Anthony said.
For Pat Scroggins, who travels from Huntsville twice a week to play with the Morgan County Dulcimer Association, a desire to play the gospel songs of her youth and learn an instrument she could carry led her to the dulcimer.
“The guitar was too heavy, so a co-worker suggested the dulcimer. Here I am, 15 years later,” Scroggins said. “It has such a sweet, sweet sound.”
No two dulcimers, not even instruments made from the same plank of wood, sound alike, Henderson said.
“We call it the ‘spirit of the wood,’ ” she said. “Different woods will create different sounds. Walnut is a very mellow wood, poplar is deeper and spruce is kind of bright. And the more you play them the better they sound.”
To introduce others to the instrument, the association carries loaner and cardboard dulcimers.
“If you can count to 10, you can play a dulcimer," Duncan said. "We play by number. If it’s a 1 on the sheet of music, you press the first fret. Even if you’ve never played any instrument before, we can have you playing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ in 10 minutes."
Last year, members of the group worked with Priceville Elementary School music and art teacher Susie Burgess, who secured a grant for dulcimers, to teach students the instrument.
“One of the students actually played at her granddaddy’s church. Isn’t that the sweetest,” Duncan said.
Association members also perform at churches, schools and nursing homes and Dave Anthony offers beginning lessons for newcomers to the dulcimer on Wednesday morning.
“I learned the dulcimer in 2000 and I guess I plateaued in 2002,” Anthony said with a laugh. “It really doesn’t matter how long you’ve played, what matters is how much you enjoy doing it and how much fun you are having.”
Along with the weekly meetings at the senior center on Memorial Drive Southwest, the dulcimer group jams the first Saturday of the month at The Church at Stone River and the second Monday of the month at Libby’s Catfish.