HARLINGEN — It is the sound of the Dulcimer that draws one in closer and closer. The sound of the strings vibrating conjures up visions of the past - a beautiful entertainer in a long dress with colored ribbon braided through her hair, playing the hand-made instrument, the hammers delicately enticing notes to sound out.
Or, as more likely here in the Valley, it’s a group of Winter Texans strumming their hammered and Mountain dulcimers, reveling in the glorious music — so haunting, yet still so familiar.
“It’s the sound of the instrument that attracts people,” said Cora Schloetzer, one of the founding members of the Valley’s Dulcimer Club. “If you talk to dulcimer players I would say, 75 percent of them will tell you that they wanted to learn to play the dulcimer because they heard it somewhere. They heard the sound and the sound was so unique they fell in love with it and said, ‘I want to learn to play that.’”
Cora was no different. Hearing the music at festivals she decided she was going to learn to play. First, however, she had to retire from her career as an administrator with the State of Kansas for the Department of Labor.
“About a year after I retired, I found someone to give me lessons and help me buy an instrument,” she said.
With her musical background, taking piano lessons when she was five years old, eventually learning to play the piano, organ and flute, she had a head start in learning to play the dulcimer. The dulcimer’s history goes back a lot further than Cora.
“It is pretty much agreed the dulcimer originated in the Middle East and then was carried out, maybe through the crusades,” said Cora. “The original one was likely just a box with animal skins over it, using gut for strings. They plucked the strings. They do have evidence there was a bas relief in England about the 7th century with what looks like a dulcimer, so it is believed dulcimers existed at that time.
“It’s an early form of piano because you have the sound board and the strings. Today, the most preferred way to play a hammered dulcimer are with hammers — small tools made of wood or other materials to hit the strings with, made into different shapes and sizes. The dulcimers themselves have been made of various woods and other materials,” said Cora.
“I was in New York City and went down into the subway. I heard a sound and knew immediately it was a dulcimer. I walked toward where it was and there was an Asian gentleman with a dulcimer made completely out of mother-of-pearl,” she said. “ It was the most beautiful dulcimer instrument I’ve ever seen and it had an even different sound than what we’re accustomed to out of wood.”
The dulcimer was often seen with the traveling minstrels overseas.
“There was a strap around their neck as they wore the instruments and played it like a snare drum,” said Cora. “Much of the traditional music handed down over the years, before the beginning of musical notation, was handed down by ear. The folk tunes have a lot of variations because people would learn them by ear and travel from town to town, getting the news and playing songs with balladeers — and the songs would change as each person took them and played them again.”
Listed on a log of a ship landing in Jamestown, Va., in 1609 was a dulcimer — the first such record in the United States. Part of dance bands in the 1800s, it was more portable than pianos. By 1895, dulcimers were being sold in the Montgomery Ward Catalog for $16.
Today, dulcimers are found around the world, thanks to the revival of folk music in the 1960s. In England, it’s called a dulcimer, Germany has the hackbrett, France the tympanon, Hungary the cymbalon and Persia the santar.
Once the dulcimer found it’s way to America, a hybrid was born in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, origins unknown. The Mountain Dulcimer, of the zither family, is an hour glass or teardrop shaped instrument, with about four strings and played across laps.
As Cora shares her information, the passion she has for the instrument and its music lights up her face. Eagerly she conveys her love of the folk instrument, hoping others will want to join the local club. Julie Thompson and Chery and Lowell Jones, the other three founding members of the club, stay active in the club.
“There are no dues, no cost. It’s just show up and participate,” Cora said. “We’ve had some autoharps, guitars and both style of dulcimers. All acoustic instruments are welcome. The group stays between 20 and 25, with people coming and going, the way Winter Texans will do.”
The music, however, has gone far beyond the folk music of earlier days.
“We have musicians that play all styles of music — ragtime, classical, pop, any kind of music you can play. It’s becoming broader and broader and broader — the spectrum of the types of music people are willing to try,” said Cora. “They have a big festival in Winfield, Kansas - a national flat picking contest every year. It starts out with banjo, mandolin, guitar, autoharp, dulcimer - both mountain and hammered - and they pick a national champion. It’s in the third week of September every year and has been going on for 45 years.”
Cora long ago stopped taking lessons, opting instead to participate in workshops which can be found all over. There group lessons are available as well as plenty of quality jam time.
Married, Cora’s husband, Dan, has his role with dulcimers.
“He’s my Roadie when I go places. My dulcimer weighs 20 pounds, so he carries my instrument for me, helps me get set up,” said Cora, smiling. “He goes and does something else until I’m done and then comes help me load again.”
When we return to Topeka, Kans., Cora will dress in costume and play at Olde Prairie Town at the Ward-Meade Historic site for various festivals. Here in the Valley, the club has played for the Music Festival and other venues.
Now, Dan and Cora have their lives — playing golf, duplicate bridge, finding tours to go on across the Valley with their park group. Life is more than dulcimers, but there is one thing about this dulcimer aficionado.
Laughing happily, Cora states quite firmly, “I don’t go anywhere my dulcimer doesn’t go!”