Soothing listeners’ spirits with dulcimer songs

By Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal

RIPLEY – On any second or fourth Tuesday at 6 p.m. members of the Tippah Dulcimer Guild can be heard enjoying their musical fellowship at the Ripley Library.
The combination of members may change from session to session, as various other matters may cause someone to miss a meeting, but learning new songs and playing old favorites on the traditional stringed instrument have kept members returning for the musical camaraderie for many years.
A recent session included mother and daughter Eula Mae Jordan of Ripley and Connie Alberson of Falkner, Martha Lee Wilson of Walnut, Bea Taylor of Iuka and Ann Carothers of Brownfield.
As they arrived for the gathering, each placed a food offering for the meal to follow on a table, then set about tuning their instruments.
All of them were playing the Appalachian or mountain dulcimer, a lap instrument with a wooden case and four strings, though some of these instruments may have three strings, according to the Smithsonian encyclopedia.
One member of the group who was not at this recent session plays a second type of dulcimer, a hammered dulcimer, that is much broader in shape, with more strings, and is played with a mallet – think of a wooden instrument something like a xylophone.
“Every dulcimer has its own voice,” Taylor said. “Lighter wood gives a higher pitch and darker wood a more mellow pitch.”
The type of pick being used also makes the sounds different, Alberson said, depending on the firmness and weight of the pick.
“It was the soothing sound that first appealed to me,” Alberson said.
Members at the session all played dulcimers that have an hourglass shape, though some people use lap dulcimers that have a teardrop shape, Wilson said.
The group finds enjoyment in learning and playing with each other, and they make many opportunities to share their gift of music with the public.
They are part of the North Mississippi Dulcimer Association, an organization of many groups like theirs that was founded in 2001 by Forrest Smith, then a resident of Booneville who has relocated with his wife Eileen to his native home of Beatrice, Neb.
Merle Norton, a dedicated member of the group who was unable to attend the recent meeting, credits Forrest Smith with introducing the simple-to-learn music reading structure that allows a beginner to create music very quickly.
“Anyone who comes to a meeting can be playing within 15 minutes,” Norton said.
Though the Smiths are miles away, they maintain a close relationship with members of the local guilds and association.
“The ‘Ripley Bunch’ learned early on that the dulcimer was the carrot that led them toward fellowship, fun, food, and then music. Music, of course, is the reason for their being – but after playing hard for an hour or so, it is sometimes necessary to take a short snack break,” Smith said from his home in Nebraska. “The fellowship and fun will often stretch through most of the second hour, forcing members to hurry up and play “Amazing Grace” before the library closes.”
When Smith formed the group in September 2001, Jordan was one of its first members.
“I heard it and wanted one for a long time before I got it,” she said. “I thought even if I never learned to play it, it would be beautiful hanging on the wall. But when I came to the first meeting he said I’d be playing that night, and I did.”
Wilson was at the second meeting in October 2001, then Alderson came along in November 2001, shortly before Carothers joined the group.
Taylor is newest to the Tippah County Guild, though she was a member of the Booneville group before Smith relocated to Nebraska.
“I was in the mountains and saw someone playing,” Taylor said. “I bought one and put it in a closet, then took it out and began playing in 2009 or 2010.”
Everyone said the ease of learning to play the instrument is one of its greatest appeals, and they invite anyone to join them and learn to play.
“People change and times change, but the soft, sweet sounds of the Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer can be heard coming from the Library on the second and fourth Tuesday evenings of each month,” Smith said. “Anyone interested in sharing the dulcimer experience is encouraged to stop by the library on dulcimer meeting nights. It will definitely be worth your time.”
Members of the group frequently share their music around North Mississippi throughout the year with:
• Fifth Tuesday evenings at Shirley’s Restaurant in Ripley.
• Once a month at nursing homes in Booneville, Iuka, Ripley, Ashland and Tupelo.
• The first Saturday of each month 10 a.m.-1 p.m. at the Natchez Trace Visitor Center in Tupelo.
• The second Saturday of the second month of each quarter, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. at the Tremont Welcome Center on U.S. Highway 78 at the Mississippi-Alabama state line.
• The third Friday evening and Saturday in the third month of each quarter, at nursing homes in Waynesboro, Tenn. and the welcome center at Collinwood, Tenn.
• Tishomingo County Dulcimer Festival and many other festivals.
• By request at church services, senior citizen centers, senior citizen groups.
“We love doing this and don’t charge anything,” Wilson said. “Any donations we receive we give to the Sanctuary Hospice House in Tupelo.”

lena.mitchell@journalinc.com