The Mountain Dulcimer

by Miss Shirley Johnson

The mountain dulcimer is just a delightful instrument. It is set up to be a solitary instrument. Consequently, it was acceptable to the societies which said fiddles were tools of Satan (and guitars were right behind fiddles in people’s minds).

But dulcimers were solitary, soft — and you had to be seated when you played it — so it did not threaten anybody. The guys didn’t think it was a tool of Satan. And the preachers didn’t preach against it.

There are people who will go to the wire on the origin of the dulcimer.

But just geologically and historically speaking, it's more than likely the dulcimer was originated by our Scots-Irish ancestors. They were homesick for the drone of the bagpipe, which the dulcimer can replicate if you play it right.

But there’s no wrong way to play a dulcimer.

It can have the drone. It has nothing of the volume or the squall of the bagpipes, but it elicits some of the reminiscence and is very simple.

Unless you treat a dulcimer right, it has no personality at all. But if you treat it right — just right — it will sing and cry and laugh and ride down the mountain.

But mostly, you just pull it up into your lap in the shade of a good oak tree, stroke it and learn to love music by learning to love the dulcimer.

That's the best I can tell you about it.

Love of dulcimer and love of music just go hand in hand.

October 3, 2008

plate 1. Dulcimers, Cedar Creek Dulcimer Shop, Silver Dollar City. Photo credit, J. Heston. October 3, 2008.

Shirley Johnson

plate 2. Miss Shirley Johnson, Silver Dollar City. Photo credit, J. Heston. October 3, 2008.

About Miss Shirley Johnson

by Joshua Heston

Miss Shirley Johnson knows a thing or two about dulcimers. A true Kentuckian (since relocated to the Ozarks), Johnson is proud of her heritage — a gentle mixture of genteel sensibilties and strong-as-hickory hillbilly ancestry.

Johnson has played her dulcimer around the world. She also teaches, having earned fine art and music degrees from Georgetown and Vanderbilt (and done graduate work at Baylor).

‘My mama went to three schools and didn’t get thrown out of any of them!’ said my son when he was young,” relates Johnson.

She is the owner of the group Shirley, Goodness & Mercy.

Today, Johnson continues to play the dulcimer and sing the old songs of faith, always ready to share an old story, a bit of history, or some sound advice — all with a twinkle in her eye.

— December 20, 2009

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