Paul M. Gifford, The Hammered Dulcimer: A History (Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2001)

Everyone has seen and heard a dulcimer. A favorite of folk musicians, this simple four stringed instrument has a distinctive sound, and a unique look. But the hammered dulcimer! Now that's another creature. It is big, and complicated, intimidating even. It has courses of string, and looks almost like an exploded piano, or an autoharp on steroids, played with little drumsticks! Scarecrow Press continues their American Folk Music and Musicians Series (this is #6) with this indepth and educational history of The Hammered Dulcimer.

Notice I said, "in depth and educational," and not fascinating, or scintillating. This is a fairly dry, academic read, with all the information you could ever hope for, but not much wit or style. It is a book filled with pictures, drawings and photographs, copies of old paintings, each of which are discussed in the text, providing evidence for the development of the hammered dulcimer. Gifford traces the birth and growth of this unique instrument from early Renaissance to the Modern Era. The pictures themselves are delightful. A group of women gather 'round a stringed table, one woman holding two sticks, in a 16th Century Flemish tapestry; an angel plays a psaltery in a stained glass from 1420. Angels were often portrayed holding this musical box, and many of these portrayals are illustrated here.

Gifford discusses several different instruments, which all appear to be related and had an impact on the design of the dulcimer we know today. A neighbor man, an older gentleman from Eastern Europe, invited me into his house one afternoon when I was a teenager. He had seen us playing guitars on the porch. He showed me his stringed instrument, and played it for me. He called it a cimbalom. It had a strange and beautiful timbre and lifted my spirits. Perhaps this is why the citizens of heaven were shown playing them so regularly. Gifford draws parallels from the cimbalom to the dulcimer; he offers a lineage from the monochord through the Hackbrett; the psaltery to the yangquin and chang, and the santur. Many cultures have instruments of a similar style. Gifford links them together.

He finds dulcimeresque instruments in Europe, Asia, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Israel and China, and attempts to make sense of this development. Each individual instrument is given a chapter, and a chronological history, and each country is dealt with in turn. Maps are provided to show the areas of use and familiarity for each style of instrument. This is an incredible work of scholarship. Gifford then traces immigration patterns into the USA, and deals with the use of the hammered dulcimer as a folk instrument in America. The depth of study into the usage of the dulcimer in America is incredible.

Gifford includes a map of 1910 Michigan with dots representing each place where a hammered dulcimer player resided! And in an appendix he lists each of them by name, with their occupation, and age! Another appendix contains selected tuning arrangements for dulcimers of different traditions. Several samples of sheet music are included as well. The book concludes with a chapter on recent trends in dulcimer design and usage.

The Hammered Dulcimer: a History is a solid text book, crammed full of information about its topic. If it doesn't appear within these 440 pages, it probably isn't known! Gifford's stolid narrative makes one yearn for the sound of the instrument. To be lifted up as I was that summer afternoon when my neighbor played his cimbalom for me! Aah, what a sound. But if you care about the folk music process, if the development of an instrument (that combination of physics, art and magic) intrigues you, you just might be swept up in Gifford's obsession and find this book un-put-downable!

[David Kidney]