Girls Pick Native Tune

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

Dip into America’s musical heritage this weekend with a concert featuring four exponents of one of our homegrown instruments, the Appalachian mountain dulcimer.  The United Methodist Church in Boulder Creek this Saturday plays host to The Dulcimer Girls, a.k.a. Jayme Kelly Curtis and Laura Devine, Peter Tommerup and Janet Herman, all players of “America’s Oldest Folk Instrument.”

Just as American culture represents a melting pot of the immigrant cultures of the first settlers, so the Appalachian dulcimer’s history shows influences from a number of countries.  A member of the zither family, the dulcimer (its name is thought to come from the Latin word dulce, meaning sweet, and the Greek melos, meaning song) traces its history back to the turn of the 19th century and America’s German immigrant population.

When the Germans came to America, they brought with them one of their traditional instruments, the scheitholt.  As the German people mixed with the Scots and Irish in the area, so they began to learn to play each other’s music.  The scheitholt was ill-suited to playing fiddle tunes, and so modifications were made to the tuning and the spacing of its frets, and eventually the settlers began to build new instruments.  This was the beginning of the evolution of the scheitholt into the Appalachian dulcimer that we know today.  The original dulcimers were fairly crude instruments, often using simple wooden tuning pegs and bent nails for frets.  Today’s dulcimers, however, are as well-made as any fine acoustic guitar, with manufacturers like Blue Lion Instruments in Santa Margarita, CA, building beautiful instruments featuring fine woods and abalone fretboard inlays.

Blue Lion built the ducimers played by both of the Dulcimer Girls, one of Saturday’s acts.  Jayme Kelly Curtis, one half of the Dulcimer Girls, is perhaps better known for her work as a singer-songwriter.  She performs regularly around the Bay Area, both solo and with her band.  Her debut CD “In A Rushing Stream” gained enthusiastic reviews from the music press and is to be followed by “Sugar and Sand” later this year.  The other Dulcimer Girl is Laura Devine, who has acted as Music Director for Boulder Creek’s United Methodist Church for the past three years.  She was taught to play dulcimer by Joellen Lapidus, who built one of Joni Mitchell’s first dulcimers.  The Dulcimer Girls lend their playing and vocal harmonies to traditional, contemporary and original songs.

Also appearing on Saturday are Peter Tommerup and Janet Herman, co-founders of Redwood Dulcimer Day. Tommerup is considered to be a master of the instrument and teaches Appalachian dulcimer and Hammered dulcimer to individuals and groups around the Bay Area.  Herman is a multi-instrumentalist who is best known for her work with Celtic band Dance Around Molly.

If you are interested in learning to play the dulcimer or already play and would like to brush up your technique, there will be a dulcimer jam and informal workshop before the show on Saturday.  Beginning at noon, the workshop will run until 5:00pm, when it will be followed by a potluck dinner and the concert.

First published in “411”, The Salinas Californian, January 8, 2004

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