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.