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young Jean Ritchie playing the lap dulcimer program logo

Music in Appalachia

While Jean Ritchie was growing up in Appalachia, music was used for a variety of different things: It was often functional in that it accompanied work, it was a form of entertainment, and it was an integral part of religious practices. Singing was commonly accompanied by traditional instruments like the dulcimer, the banjo, and the fiddle.

The Dulcimer

Ritchie plays the Appalachian lap dulcimer, an instrument that is probably a descendant of the German Scheitholt, the Scandinavian langliek, and the French epinette de Vosges, brought to America by immigrants sometime in the 18th century. The lap dulcimer has three or four strings and a fretted fingerboard and is played with a plectrum of some sort. In the past this was often a feather, but nowadays it is most often a plastic pick.

In America, builders have made dulcimers in several different shapes, the most common being rectangular, teardrop, and hourglass. The hourglass-shaped instruments, like the one Ritchie typically plays in performance, have been created by makers in Kentucky as well as parts of Ohio and West Virginia.

The popularity of the dulcimer in the mountains has long been open to debate. While some folk song collectors have claimed that the instrument has always been rare in the mountains, even in the 20th century, Ritchie has a different view. Based on her own research, she has speculated that the dulcimer was the only instrument found in the region until the 1880s, and that these collectors did not see or hear them because they were looking for songs, not inquiring specifically about instrumental music.

Certain cultural factors may also have had something to do with the “elusiveness” of the instrument. People living in the mountains were typically shy with regard to accomplishments. This “shyness and modesty” of instrument players was influenced by their religious beliefs. For Old Regular Baptists, lined-out hymn singing was the only music considered acceptable. Harmony was considered “frivolous” and instruments “sinful.” For example, the fiddle was long considered by many to be “the devil’s instrument,” and the banjo lost popularity with some people because it was associated most often with dance music.

Ritchie learned to play the dulcimer from her father when she was about 5 or 6 years old. She had covertly played around with the instrument earlier, so when her father actually “taught” her, he thought she was a “natural born musician.”

When you watch Ritchie play, you will notice two things in particular that distinguish her style from others’. The first is the fact that when she strums the most important beats of the tune, she strums toward herself, not away like most other players. The second point has to do with her singing style. Listen carefully, and you will notice that while she sings the melody of a song, she usually plays a different melody, a “countermelody,” on the dulcimer to accompany it.


Text by Karen L. Carter-Schwendler. Photo by George Pickow.

Web resources:

  • Kendra Ward and Bob Bence post tour schedules, roundups of recordings, and other dulcimer-related news at the Dulcimer Times.

Introduction * Jean Ritchie * Timeline * Discography * Activities * Program Song List * Bibliography

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