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Why is the Mountain Dulcimer the official instrument of Kentucky?

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

The Appalachian dulcimer, commonly referred to as the 'mountain dulcimer' was officially named the state instrument of Kentucky in 2001. The official law can be found in the Kentucky Revised Statutes, Title 1, Chapter 2, Section 2.103:

TITLE I - SOVEREIGNTY AND JURISDICTION OF THE COMMONWEALTH. CHAPTER 2 - CITIZENSHIP, EMBLEMS, HOLIDAYS, AND TIME 2.103 State musical instrument. The Appalachian dulcimer is named and designated as the official musical instrument of Kentucky. Effective: June 21, 2001 History: Created 2001 Ky. Acts ch. 160, sec. 1, effective June 21, 2001.

The mountain dulcimer is a three-or-four-stringed wooden string instrument played flat on your lap. The hollow body runs the length of the fretboard with tuning pegs along the scroll at the top. It can be strummed with a flatpick or fingered, while some musicians have been known to use a glass slide to accentuate melodic accompaniment. Unlike the guitar or banjo, the dulcimer is fretted diatonically rather than chromatically. Traditionally tuned to D-A-D, this means the dulcimer has a rich and bright droning sound, always in key with itself due to the diatonic fretting. Because of this, the dulcimer makes for a great educational instrument, often credited as being one of the easiest string instruments to learn. The soft and etherical sound of the dulcimer is often compared to Asian or Middle Eastern instruments.

The instrument first appeared in the early 17th century, popular among Scotch-Irish immigrants residing among the Appalachian Mountains. It's speculated that early settlers lacked the time, tools, and resources to build violin instruments with the fairly complex wooden curves and bows, instead creating the more easily-constructed dulcimer.

The dulcimer can be considered a blend of many European folk instruments such as the German scheitholt, Swedish hummel, Norwegian langeleik, and French epinettes des vosges. It was during a period between 1700 to mid 1800's that the dulcimer was being developed within the Shenandoah River Valley region.

Dulcimers were usually handcrafted locally from whichever kind of wood was easily available in the region. Dulcimers were constructed in a wide variety of ways resulting in many unique instruments. Some differences include different styles of fretting, number of strings, shape and size of the instrument body, as well as types of wood to improve project acoustics.

In the late 1800s, the mountain dulcimer was starting to become more popularized outside of the Appalachian region and became known as something of a cultural icon engrained in many musical and folk traditions. This encouraged the preservation of the instrument as it was, and discouraged further development or innovation.

In modern times, many popular musicians have incorporated the mountain dulcimer into their music. Jean Ritchie (1922-2015), a popular folk singer and musician in the 1940's and 1950's had a huge impact on the instrument's popularization. She even went so far as to record an album titled 'The Most Dulcimer' in 1992 after fans continually asked her the question "Which album has the most dulcimer?!"

Richard Fariña (1937-1966) was another popular folksinger who had a notable impact on the mountain dulcimer's popularization. His album, Celebrations for a Grey Day, released in 1965, featured folk tunes played on guitar and dulcimer with Richard and his wife's vocal harmonies. Fariña's life came to a tragic end in 1966 due to a motorcycle crash.

"If Richard had survived that motorcycle accident, he would have easily given [Bob] Dylan a run for his money." – Ed Ward

Other contemporary artists such as Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones as well as Cyndi Lauper have incorporated the mountain dulcimer into their music and songwriting process in more recent times.

Needless to say, the mountain dulcimer is an extremely versatile instrument with many variations of traditions and performance. It's rich cultural history and influence on music as a whole makes it the perfect instrument to be named the official instrument of Kentucky.


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