Dulcimer Gathering at Cumberland Gap

The Dulcimer Gathering at Cumberland Gap was held the first week that Tom and I were working at the park.  It was a delightful introduction to the park programs and gave us another way to meet and interact with folks.  Volunteer Julie, of course, was the one who told us about the Dulcimer Gathering and invited us to attend.  She had attended the gathering her first year working at Cumberland Gap and decided to start playing the dulcimer because of it.

The Dulcimer Gathering is just what it sounds:  a gathering of dulcimer players.  The dulcimer players we met were from Missouri, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Michigan, Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky.  They come every year to stay in the campground and play together.  About half of the rangers that work here also play dulcimer.  Ranger Olivia said they teach it in the schools in the area.  The official gathering runs from Thursday through Saturday, but the players start arriving the Sunday before and many of them stay for the week.

There are workshops in the morning for people who want to learn to play or improve their skills.  In the afternoon there is a jam session, and then a “concert” in the evenings from 6:30 until 9.  All of the dulcimer, ukulele, mandolin, and string bass players gather under a big tent in a loose, many-layered circle.  The leader calls out a piece and begins it with everyone joining in as they are able.  Much of the dulcimer music is repetitive and fits a particular pattern.

Volunteer Julie smiling for me

Most of the people at the gathering played the Appalachian dulcimer, which has three or four strings and is plucked as it rests on your lap.  The Appalachian dulcimer developed with the Scotch-Irish pioneers who moved into the mountains in the late 1700’s.  Although the origins are hazy, historians speculate that the dulcimer was easier to  build than a violin and more adapted to life on the frontier.

Before attending the dulcimer gathering, I was only familiar with a hammered dulcimer, which is more like an open piano.  The two dulcimers have different origins and are unrelated to each other, although they have similar sounds.  Many of the players at the gathering play both kinds of dulcimer.

Intern Joanna, in the middle, playing along

At Julie’s invitation, Tom and I attended the Dulcimer Gathering “concerts” on Wednesday and Thursday evenings.  Saturday, the official last day of the gathering, it rained all day.  The dulcimer players asked if they could use my textile room at the Visitors Center for their gathering.  Of course I agreed.  The visitors were delighted to find 30 dulcimer players giving a concert upstairs. It was a special taste of Appalachian culture for the visitors and gave them something to enjoy with their hikes rained out.  I pulled out my spinning wheel and spun while I listened.  Dulcimer music is a great accompaniment to spinning.  During a break in the afternoon, the players answered questions from the visitors.

Playing in the textile room

I really enjoyed learning more about the Appalachian dulcimer and listening to all the musicians play together.  The music was fun, lively, and toe-tapping.  Everyone invited us to come back next year and join in.  The Dulcimer Gathering at Cumberland Gap will be held the third weekend in May in 2024.