"What the hell are you doing?" - "I'm singing, my dear." - "What?" - "I am singing." - "That's what I hear. It's two in the morning." - "Of course, darling. You know I'm always working around that time. That's my profession." - "Are you kidding? You were never singing before." - "Darling, this is a song book. You have to sing it to get the meaning completely." - "You're a bloody rattler." - "Just these couple of songs." - "Do it tomorrow. Shut up and turn off the light!" - "Some things are only done by night ..."
They say that in the small Northern Irish town of Rostrevor, Co. Down, there is enough sand to open a private beach. It was back in the 1960's when the five siblings Tommy, Ben, Colum, Eugene (+1975) and Anne went on the road and became known as The Sands Family (see also FW#9). Brought up in a musical home, the Sands took their native music onto the world's stages, and encountered strange customs:
"There was always music in our house. My earliest memories of home are associated with neighbours and relations dropping in to exchange the news of the day and to sing a few songs or play a tune or two. Everyone, from the youngest to the oldest in the company, was expected to do a turn, and even though most would make a ritual refusal at first asking, nearly everyone could eventually be coaxed into doing their party piece ... [On the other hand there is a] place like Germany where people are much more direct about coming to the point than we are at home. I was made aware of this on my very first trip there in 1973 when the woman of a house near Muenster asked me if I'd like a cup of tea. Needless to say I observed the Irish custom of saying `No thanks' and to my consternation, I didn't get a cup of tea ..."The Sands originally played mostly traditional songs and tunes but soon started to include a few of Tommy's and Colum's own, reporting and commenting what was happening around them. Colum observed:
"They would sing about Vietnam but not what was happening here. But I can understand that. If you play to almost any audience here in the North you have to be very careful. The words `queen' or `pope' will spark a different response according to your background. If you say something in a song that causes the listener to `switch off' then you're failing as a communicator. I try to write songs that keep people's minds open throughout the concert. I try to write songs that will cause people to think about what's going on here. There's no shortage of superficial emotional songs that will get everybody up on their feet and ready to march behind whatever cause it happens to be. But I think, especially in the time we're living in, it's really important to get people to turn their minds as well as their hearts to the situation."Between the Earth and the Sky, beautifully illustrated by Colum McEvoy, features 20 of Colum's favourites with words and music. Some of them have been remarkably popular. "Almost Any Circumstances" has been recorded by Hanly, Irvine, Prior, and Tabor. "Newry Market" has been translated into German, "Whatever you say, say nothing" into Dutch, and there is even an Austrian dialect version of "Looking' the Loan of a Spade". The other way round, Colum translated Goethe's "Nähe des Geliebten" and put some music to it. "Buskers" celebrates cellist Vedran Smailovic of Sarajevo:
"Smailovic had played cello with the orchestra in Sarajevo until a bomb devastated the concert hall in that city and left the orchestra without a home. Some time later, horror struck again when an exploding shell killed twenty two civilians as they queued for bread in the market place. In the days which followed, reporters would see a strange sight and hear a haunting sound amidst the rubble of the city as Smailovic, dressed in the black suit he had once worn in the orchestra, took his cello to that spot in the market place and played there for twenty two days, one day for each life that had been lost in the bread queue."Songs like "The Marching Season" and "Last House in the Street" reflect the special Northern Irish situation, and Colum remarks bitterly: Away back in 1690, a Dutch prince and a Scottish King battled for the Crown of England. Who could have predicted that the memories of that battle would still hold bitterness three hundred years later?
But at the end of the tunnel ...
"[A man] asked me if I'd sing the song, `The Last House in Our Street'. He told me that he was an ex-British soldier and that this song, of a situation seen through the eyes of a child, had changed him forever. Yes, songs can bring about change. And I hope that changes will always bring about songs."Fitting to the season, let us turn towards the instrument that evokes shady woods, flowry meadows, and purling steams, larks and nightingals, with all the beauties of spring, and the pleasures of a country life: The (hammer) dulcimer!
Paul Gifford's The Hammered Dulcimer from Scarecrow's "American Folk
Music and Musicians Series" traces the medieval origins of the dulcimer and
its subsequent spreading under many different names to other parts of the world.
Special attention is paid to the American tradition. Thanks to a 1970's revival,
thousands of people again play what was an almost extinct instrument. Its origins
are rather obscure (abrigded text):
"By 1600, writers in English had begun to identify the dulcimer as a classical or biblical instrument [and] used the word `dulcimer' in the third chapter of the Book of Daniel for the original Aramaic word sumponyah [Daniel 3:4-6]. The instrument was a form of bellows-blown organ, the word sumponyah perhaps deriving from the Greek siphon, meaning `reed.' The translators probably used the word `dulcimer' as a learned word for the `symphony' or common fipple flute [earlier called doucet or dulceuse]. The common understanding of the word `dulcimer' reverted by the 1580s to what it had been earlier in the century, as a stringed instrument. Ironically the translators of the King James Bible, in retaining what was a reasonably accurate word in the 1560s for the instrument in the original text, influenced English speakers to regard the dulcimer as having an ancient origin. In fact, it was a relatively new instrument."
From the "string drum" (tambourin a cordes) developed the German "hackbrett" (chopping block),
a trapezoidal-shaped instrument, strung with metallic strings and struck with two hammers. The earliest source, a carpet fragment dated about 1420, depicts an aristocrat playing. At about the same time the term "doulcemèr" (combining Latin dulce, sweet, with Greek melos, song) appeared in the Duchy of Burgundy. The French instrument resembles those of contemporary
psalteries, a shallow, squarebox with two incurved, convex upper corners.
Both instruments became popular with wandering minstrels for village dancing. Fiddles usually played the melody, while the dulcimer mostly provided
accompaniment and chording.
I would like to pick out just one story line (I'll tell you why soon). The earliest reference to the dulcimer in Ireland dates from 1738, when one Archibald Williamson advertised playing at Dublin taverns. In 1782/83 harper Arthur O'Neill (his autobiography is included in O'Sullivan's "Carolan") visited Parson Phibbs of Arlaharty, Co. Sligo, who loved music: he encouraged it and he himself played well on that wired instrument called the dulcimer. Charles J. Lever's novel "Jack Hinton, the Guardsman" (1843) includes a description of a gentleman's ball in Dublin where fiddles, French-horns, and dulcimers, scraped and blew their worst. James Stephens in 1916 mentioned that a friend had promised to present me with a musical instrument called a dulcimer, and when he left the country, with this dulcimer I shall be able to tap out our Irish melodies when I am abroad, and transport myself to Ireland for a few minutes, or a few bars. James Joyce includes a character who carries a silverstringed inlaid dulcimer and a longstemmed bamboo jacob's pipe as well as a girl playing one of these instruments what do you call them: dulcimers in his "Ulysses" (1922).
The dulcimer followed Irish emigration to become the "lumberjack's piano". William McNally (1870-1954) of Glasgow claimed the instrument being played for several generations in his family from Co. Wexford. McNally made a command performance for King Edward VII in 1907, advertising himself as "Royal Scottish Dulcimer King" and "Paderewski of the Dulcimer". Henry Ford (1863-1947), who is most famous for the production of the Model T and the first moving assembly line and most infamous for violently opposing labor organizations and attacks on the Jewish community, determined himself in 1924 to recreate the music, dances, and atmosphere of his youth. "Henry Ford's Old-Fashioned Dance Orchestra" included William Hallup playing the "cimbalom" (the Hungarian version for the dulcimer; from Greek "kynbalon", which was a brass percussion instrument; in the 15th century the term was conjoined with the Latin clavis (key) to form "clavicymbalum", an early harpsichord) and Edwin F. Baxter the hammered dulcimer. Baxter doubled the melody while Hallup played accompaniment. In 1925 a dance manual was published to replace the jazz dances popular in the cities with the more graceful steps of the 19th century ballroom dances. Ford never permitted the orchestra to appear in commercial situations and even refused to allow Baxter to appear in a Hollywood Western. In 1926, the Philadelphia "Four Provinces Orchestra" recorded four selections featuring a dulcimer (see www.newrenaissance.ibs.ee/dulcimer/, I guess "Four Seasons" is a misnomer).
Concerning recent years, we should mention John Rea (1922-83) of Carnalbanagh in the Glens of Antrim. Rea's father taught all his six sons the fiddle, but in absence of an instrument for the youngest, he made him a dulcimer. John recorded with uilleann piper Sean McAloon in the 1970's. The Boys of the Lough's 1977 album "Good Friends, Good Music" featured Scottish dulcimer player Jimmy Cooper. Derek Bell introduced a small cimbalom which he christened "tiompán" (after the medieval Irish instrument), and fellow Chieftain's piper Paddy Moloney owns a Chinese "yangqin" (yang: foreign, qin: the name of an ancient board-shaped instrument whose seven strings are plucked; brought in by Europeans the instrument spread over China as far as Xinjiang province, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, where it was introduced into Islamic art music).
Regarding the death of Andy Dowling of Clonmeen, Co. Laois, in 1991, Gifford comes to the conclusion: Today, however, the dulcimer is a forgotten instrument in Ireland, with little evidence of a revival. I guess, Christie Burns of University College Cork is inclined to dissent:
"Since October, I've been meeting and interviewing Ireland's few hammered dulcimer players, as I myself am a dulcimer player and I am writing my senior thesis on the hammered dulcimer in Ireland. In my travels and research so far, I've located at least half a dozen living, breathing, passionate players, each of whom think they are the only dulcimer player in Ireland. They have never had an opportunity to meet each other or play together, since Ireland has no dulcimer clubs or organizations promoting the instrument."Thus, Cork City will host the First Annual Cork Dulcimer Festival in July 2002, featuring most prominently American dulcimer player David James, All-Ireland champion in 1989 and 1995, and Barry Carroll of Lisburn, Co Antrim, who recorded "The Long Finger" (1992) with Derry uilleann piper Joe McHugh and also guested on Sharon Shannon's "Each Little Thing".
The folk revival of the 1950's had to recognize that there are two different instruments with the same name. The other "dulcimer", popularised by singer/broadcaster Jean Ritchie is variously known as the mountain dulcimer, the Appalachian dulcimer, or simply called "hog fiddle". Such dulcimers, particularly found at the early Appalachian frontier, consist of a fingerboard attached to a soundboard. A melody string, possibly paired, and two drone strings are picked with a limber splint. The instrument rests on the player's knees. Ralph L. Smith's Appalachian Dulcimer Traditions focuses not on the instrument's history - in fact, Smith did that before -, he rather describes three major design traditions, each centered in its own geographical area, and the important makers in each of it.
Early scholars believed its mist-enshrouded origins, which they assumed traced back to Elizabethan England. In fact, the mountain dulcimer is the American development of Northern European folk zithers. In Germany it was the "scheitholz", which followed German migration. Smith came about one scheitholt from Pennsylvania made in 1788, which can be regarded as forerunner of the dulcimer. The German inscription reads (in English): This heart of mine shall be given to you alone, amen and it will come true, we will sing and play an entire ..., the last word is wood abraded. Smith suggests "lifetime", but from the photograph it is clearly "Jahr" (year) which also rhymes with "wahr" (true).
"The scheitholt that was disseminated by the early German migration was a straight-sided instrument, usually with vertical iron tuning pins, and with its set of frets applied directly to the edge of the body that faces the player. Some two hundred years ago, or perhaps more, this instrument passed across cultures on the early Appalachian frontier and was modified by early Scotch-Irish and English settlers. It emerged as an instrument with angular or curved sides, with horizontal tuning pins made of wood, and with frets placed on a raised and centered fret board. That is, it emerged as a dulcimer."The oldest dulcimer found so far dates to 1832. The mountain people lived in relative isolation throughout the 19th century and thus preserved an immense treasure of folklore and music. Seemingly, it was Josiah H. Combs (1886-1960), folklorist, song collector, and professor of French and German, who was the first to carry the dulcimer to audiences beyond Appalachia. Combs was one of the early graduates of that remote area. Schools provided basic school education only, but did encourage local skills and arts, including manufacturing dulcimers. For better or worse?
"Scholars such as David Wisnant offer the view that the administrators and teachers imposed prevailing upper-class cultural values on the mountain children and/or kept the mountaineers tranquilized with quaint things like dulcimers while the coal barons robbed them. The administrators of the school chose the dulcimer over the banjo for a priority place, because they preferred its gentility to the rowdy songs and social settings with which the banjo was associated. First, romantic attitudes toward the Appalachian mountain people were widely prevalent among the nation's more literate and educated classes, and the dulcimer became associated with these romantic ideas. Second, these notions were often related to a belief in the racial superiority of native Anglo-Saxon stock over that of people from other nations and cultures. Mountaineers were seen as sharing in that intrinsic superiority. All they needed to take their rightful place among America's Mayflower families and power elite was a decent education and a bit of opportunity. Whisnant's model tends to portray Appalachian culture as adulterated by outside intervention. The interactions between outsiders and mountain natives, however, have always been a two-way dialogue. The making of dulcimers fit well with a vocationally oriented manual arts program in carpentry and woodworking."
Let's go back to the hammer dulcimer, and back to Ireland. That Archibald Williamson mentioned above was known as "The Irish Jew", suggesting that the dulcimer was regarded as a typically Jewish instrument. In 17th century Prague Jews developed a certain type of ensemble with two violins, bass and dulcimer. The earliest record of a player is one Chajim Zimbalista (+1637), a convert who served in Wallenstein's army. Common Ashkenazic family names of Zimbler, Cymbler, Zimbalist indicate the wide use, and the range of the instrument follows closely the Tsarist-era "Pale of Settlement", in which Jews were allowed to live. Naftule Brandwein's younger brother Hersch was still playing a tsimbl in his native Poland.
So let us change the subject and please allow me to tell you some klezmer curiosities (for some basics see
taken from Mark Slobin's Fiddler on the Move, published in the "American Musicspheres series".
Marlow Bork of Montreal-based klezmer band "Mazik"
wonders: "Curiously, I am the only member of the band who is Jewish, although
one of the clarinet players is the chef d'orchestre of the leading Jewish wedding
band in town.
His knowledge of the functional as well as artistic aspects of the role of music
in Jewish tradition has been invaluable. The rest of the members are well versed
in myriad styles and forms. Our violinist. is one of the leading fiddlers in
Montreal's Irish community. Our guitarist is active in the Montreal Latin and
jazz scene. Our bassist is also an accomplished jazz player, and our other clarinetist
comes from a family of musicians and is also an orchestral musician. I studied
orchestral trumpet literature and performance."
"A film crew captured Itzhak Perlman and his all-star klezmer backup bands as
they travelled to Kazimierz. Perlman had only recently entered the klezmer
scene from his permanent perch atop the classical virtuoso world. The first
narrative scene of the film shows Perlman looking in from outside the gates of
a Renaissance Jewish synagogue. He tells us that Poland is where the music
started. Inside, representing the dead Yiddish culture of the city, the
American klezmer band Brave Old World is playing a very non-Polish-origin
style of Jewish music, the Rumanian `doina', the signature piece of the modern
klezmer movement's quest for authenticity."
"Moni Ovadia tells his rapt, overflow audiences that he, a Sephardic Jew from
Bulgaria, came to East European tradition by chance, in a Hasidic `shtibl'
(study group) in Milan. It was at a 1997 Ovadia concert in Bologna that I
had a moment of epiphany about klezmer's voyage into uncharted cultural waters.
As the Russian baianist [button accordion] played a Soviet mock-folk theme
and variations, a cloud of Stalinism descended on the stage. As Ovadia went
into his recitation of the Hebrew prayer for the dead, `El mole rakhamim,' my
vision turned into anger. The last time I had heard this prayer was three months
back at my father's funeral. Now Ovadia was chanting it on stage and, in the
middle, realizing he had forgotten something, was fumbling into his pocket to
find the `yarmulke', the required hat for prayers, and to slap in onto his head. The arbitrariness of Ovadia's work spills over to his audience, who note
down the bits of information and misinformation he scatters through the evening,
a tourist excursion to a vanished culture."
For ethnomusicologist Slobin klezmer is the American invention of the past. Slobin gives us no history, but he is rather exploring klezmer from several approaches, such as "heritage music":
"Instead of a homeland as the anchor, some
reference to `Jewishness' pervades the production and reception of this music.
Looking for klezmer albums in record stores can be time-consuming.
If there is not a catch-all Jewish bin, often the music appears in a Middle
Eastern section, [or] a spot between folk and country, an
intriguing slot that suggests deep Americanness rather than a `national'
As an "urge":
"The music has a certain desperation, sadness, loss.
even in the happiest of it there's a twinkling in the recognition of
suffering; we can enjoy this for now, but we have to keep an eye on the door. There's a certain vulnerability about this music. Women will certainly show
their vulnerability to their friends more than men will. This is not really
athletic music; it's more of an exploration of the female side of everybody." (M. Segelstein)
Slobin undertakes some intriguing case studies
("Dem trisker rebns khosid," the "court song" of the Ukrainian rebbe of Trisk;
"Gas-nign," which klezmorim played when the wedding party moved from one house to another;
"Araber-tants," which made its way to Jewish circles from Greece and Turkey).
He investigates the "krekhts" (yidd. moan, sigh),
a technical hurdle and an aesthetic requirement for klezmer competence,
using sonograms sampled from Abe Schwartz and Max Leibowitz (1920s) and Alicia Svigals and Deborah Strauss (1990s):
"A tenative reading does suggest that the two younger violinists,
Svigals and Strauss, are not producing the same pitch
profile as the old masters, Schwartz and Leibowitz. The former are
producing a sonic sigh that comes from quickly putting down a finger
somewhere above the note just played, just after the bow is suddenly stopped.
The upper finger is not pressed down so hard that a `clean' sound it produces,
and it is not lifted off the string so far as to make that ghostly violinism,
the `harmonic,' but the finger lies somewhere in between, mid-pressured. The old-timers seem to offer distances from the fundamental pitch that look more
in line with regularly occuring overtones. It looks like they produce them
as fingered grace notes, not the `semi-harmonics' favored by the younger
players. Schwartz shows no sign of stopping the bow before playing the krekhts. These preliminary findings do suggest that the modern krekhts is a cousin
to, not a twin of, the older sigh. Training one's fingers to shape sounds one
has never actually seen produced involves a particular type of imaginative leap
that the contemporary klezmer world constantly makes. The krekhts as perfected
by modern masters like Strauss and Svigals is a bridge across an abyss of
memory, spanning the Holocaust and Americanization with the smallest, most
delicate stopping of the string and flicking of the finger."
The book is accompanied by a CD with archival and contemporary recordings of the tunes discussed, featuring
David Tarras, Naftule Brandwein, Abe Schwarz,
Harry Kandel's Orchestra, Max Weissman, Leon Pollak (Ensemble Klesmer), Max Epstein,
David Krakauer, Ran Blake, La'om, Hoo-Tza-Tza,
Alicia Svigals (Klezmatics),
Deborah Strauss (Klezmer Conservatory Band), and
The Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band.
According to Slobin:
Instead, I will sing you a song. See you again soon, T:-)M.
Sands, Colum, Between the Earth and the Sky.
Cottage Publications, Donaghadee, 2000, ISBN 1-900935-19-8, Hardcover, 96 pp, GB£14.95.
All material published in FolkWorld is © The
Author via FolkWorld. Storage for private use is allowed and welcome. Reviews
and extracts of up to 200 words may be freely quoted and reproduced, if source
and author are acknowledged. For any other reproduction please ask the Editors
for permission. Although any external links from FolkWorld are chosen with greatest
care, FolkWorld and its editors do not take any responsibility for the content
of the linked external websites.
"At the end of the old-time Jewish wedding, the klezmorim
would strike up a good-night piece. Beregovski tells us that in Eastern
Europe they often played `Zayt Gezunderheyt, Mayne Libe Eltern' (Farewell, My
Dear Parents). The musicians might also strike up `Es Togt Shoyn' (Day Is
I'd better end my song now, I've already said too much." (C. Sands)
Gifford, Paul M., The Hammered Dulcimer - A History. Scarecrow, Lanham, Maryland, 2001, ISBN 0-8108-3943-1, Hardcover, 440 pp, US$59.95.
Slobin, Mark, Fiddler on the Move - Exploring the Klezmer World. Oxford University Press, New York, 2000, ISBN 0-19-513124-X, Hardcover, 154 pp, US$35.00 (CD included).
Smith, Ralph L., Appalachian Dulcimer Traditions. Scarecrow, Lanham, Maryland, 2002, ISBN 0-8108-4135-5, Paperback, 167 pp, US$24.95.
Smith, Ralph L., The Story of the Dulcimer. Crying Creek Publ., Cosby, Tennessee, 1986.
To the content of FolkWorld No. 22
© The Mollis - Editors of FolkWorld; Published 6/2002
Layout & Idea of FolkWorld © The Mollis - Editors of FolkWorld
Instead, I will sing you a song. See you again soon, T:-)M.
Sands, Colum, Between the Earth and the Sky.
Cottage Publications, Donaghadee, 2000, ISBN 1-900935-19-8, Hardcover, 96 pp, GB£14.95.
All material published in FolkWorld is © The Author via FolkWorld. Storage for private use is allowed and welcome. Reviews and extracts of up to 200 words may be freely quoted and reproduced, if source and author are acknowledged. For any other reproduction please ask the Editors for permission. Although any external links from FolkWorld are chosen with greatest care, FolkWorld and its editors do not take any responsibility for the content of the linked external websites.