Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Crazed On The Dulcimer

The first time I heard the word "dulcimer" must have been when Brian Jones played one, with a feather quill, on the Rolling Stones track "Lady Jane". Very hip, very cool. It was an Appalachian Dulcimer but I didn't know that. 

A little later I was talking to a neighbour, Geoff, a pipe-smoking builder - very un-hip, very un-cool - who told me that his father, Will Lawrence, used to play the dulcimer and travelled around to village feasts and fairs with his cousin, playing tunes and dancing. Geoff described the instrument to me and it was clearly a different beast, a heavyweight  made from an old door or unwanted pieces of furniture - "you need seasoned timber, see, else it'd bend and warp under the tension of the strings". It was a Hammered Dulcimer, but I didn't know that either.

Then I was visiting a musician friend, very hip and cool too, and there hanging on the wall was an Appalachian Dulcimer. You used to see them often enough hanging on walls in those hippy-trippy days but this guy could play it too. I mean really play it. And he put me straight on the rest of the family of instruments - zither, psaltery,  cymbalon, hackbrett, santoor and probably others too. All of them basically strings stretched across a wooden box and either plucked or hit with hammers. 

He also put me on to an LP of English dance music played by village musicians. It included players of the squeezebox and mouth-organ as well as the Hammered Dulcimer player, Billy Bennington.

Billy Bennington learned to play from Billy Cooper and says that as a young man he was "crazed on the dulcimer". And for a while it seemed that the whole folk music scene became crazed on the dulcimer too and there were lots of players around in the folk clubs. Some of them even made LP records.

I hadn't heard one or seen one for quite a while. Then, in the Cambridge Folk Museum the other day, I came face to face with the rather dusty instrument in the second photo on this page. You'll notice there's a little card on it...

This musical instrument was made by George Willmott
Lawrence of Haslingfield, and later Thriplow Heath, in
about 1866. His son Herbert who died in 1947 was the
last of the family to play the dulcimer. In his youth he
toured the village feasts during the summer, playing in
 the dancing booths and public houses with his cousin
Will, who also played and made dulcimers.               

So this dulcimer was made by my former neighbour's great uncle nearly 150 years ago. But even though the dulcimer-playing died out in the Lawrence family the role of providing music for people to dance to lingered on a little longer: Geoff's son Dave had a mobile disco for a few years in the 1970s!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONhyQelMA94 to hear John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris playing on the album pictured above.

Take care.


  1. Thriplow Heath. Now there is a name. I bet he was very hip and very cool for his time.

  2. I have two mountain dulcimers, one of which I bought from the late Homer Ledford. Homer produced at least 5,776 mountain dulcimers during his career. Mine is number 2,358 and is American Walnut with a Yellow Poplar (Liriodendron) top. I keep it in a quilted cloth case made by Homer's wife. I played it frequently until work and travel demands pushed it aside. I haven't tried to play it in years.

  3. In the folk music frenzy of the 60's, my husband bought a dulcimer kit and put it together. Since neither of us is musically gifted, it gathered dust on the shelf for years. It was made of an inexpensive wood and not very crafty.
    Now that you have brought it to mind, I must try to find where I've stored it.

  4. This was worth reading (with the bonus of the young, gorgeous Brian Jones!) So sorry I had not picked up you were back blogging - blame it on my hols! I will catch up.

  5. John, you have the most fascinating posts. I remember the folk period of the pre-Beatles era and the prevalence of hammered dulcimers. Isn't it remarkable that you wandered into this museum and found the instrument of your friend's father?

  6. What I want to know is whether it was Billy Bennington who was 'hammered' or the dulcimer - or perhaps the word 'hammered' doesn't have the same local meaning in the UK as it does in Canada???
    I am off to hear John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris playing the dulcimer on Youtube.

  7. I'm certain there've been a few "hammered" dulcimer players over the years, Hildred! Amazing how many people have memories of the dulcimer - or Brian Jones at least!

  8. Wonderful woodland photos and I enjoyed the hammered dulcimer post. Strong East Anglian tradition and arguably the only truly traditional musical instrument in England (leaving aside classical instruments like violin/fiddle, and internationally manufactured stuff like the squeeze box family.)
    Of course the English concertina is the only instrument actually invented in England - good old Sir Charles Wheatstone - a Gloucestershire man, I'm pleased to say.


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