Due in large part to its popularity during the folk music revival of the 1950s – 1970s, the mountain dulcimer, also called lap dulcimer, is one of the instruments most readily associated with Southern Appalachia. Millions were introduced to the instrument’s gentle sound by Kentuckian Jean Ritchie and by Frank Proffitt (1913 – 1965) of Watauga County, North Carolina.
The mountain dulcimer is usually played across one’s lap, noting or chording with the left hand and strumming the three or four strings with the right. (It’s a different instrument from the hammered dulcimer, a many-stringed instrument played with delicate wooden mallets.) Compared to an instrument like the fiddle, for example, which takes a long time to learn, the most basic techniques of the mountain dulcimer are picked up quickly. As with any instrument, an advanced mastery requires time and dedication; but even a beginner can play a simple melody or accompany singing with the dulcimer.
The dulcimer revival that took place within the folk revival had the effect of reinvigorating a longstanding tradition of dulcimer-building in the North Carolina mountains. Members of the Glenn, Presnell, Sturgill, and Hicks families, among others, built instruments for eager customers around the world. The tradition is carried on nowadays by craftsmen who include Clifford Glenn, Rick Ward, members of the Trantham Family, and Ben Seymour.
Several of today’s leading dulcimer players live in the North Carolina mountains.
- Multi-instrumentalist and ballad singer Betty Smith of Hot Springs in Madison County has been playing the dulcimer since the early days of the folk revival.
- Also making his home in Madison County, Don Pedi of Marshall has won many awards and titles for his innovative playing.
- Lois Hornbostel of Bryson City is a widely recognized dulcimer scholar who has performed and taught throughout the country.
Many music events in the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains feature dulcimer concerts or instruction in building and playing the instrument.
- Western Carolina University in Cullowhee offers a week-long gathering known as Dulcimer U., as well as a Dulcimer U. weekend in the winter, at Lake Junaluska.
- Old-Time Week at the Swannanoa Gathering also includes classes in beginning and intermediate dulcimer playing.