Dulcimers at Halsway, Halsway Manor, Somerset
22 May - 26 May, 2017
Many an episode of The Saint or The Avengers involved Simon Templar, Steed or Emma Peel snooping around an isolated English country house and uncovering sinister goings-on. Mad scientists would be plotting nuclear destruction or charismatically leading some strange cult. I felt a bit like one of these 1960s TV adventurers as I turned into the drive leading to Halsway Manor. Halsway – pronounced, I discovered, 'Hall-sy' with a silent 'w' – is set in the Somerset countryside and is home to the National Centre for Folk Arts. All sorts of unexpected activities happen here but nothing, I'm pleased to report, involving criminal masterminds.
At Halsway you can learn square basketry, green woodworking or 18th century style dance (taught by the choreographer of the BBC's Poldark series.) Musicians can hone their skills on banjo or ukulele and the Manor also hosts a festival for the nyckelharpa (a Swedish keyed fiddle, similar to a hurdy-gurdy.)
I was here for an event called Dulcimers At Halsway, hosted by the Nonsuch Dulcimer Club – an organisation for anyone interested in hammered or mountain dulcimers. Now, for the uninitiated, dulcimers are part of the zither family of instruments. Hammered dulcimers and mountain dulcimers might sound as if they ought to be related, but really they are as different from each other as balafons and balalaikas. The trapezoid-shaped hammered dulcimer is played by striking the strings with small, spoon-shaped, wooden 'hammers'. Even if you've never seen one, you've probably heard its haunting sound on film soundtracks – John Barry’s score for The Ipcress File, for example. A mountain dulcimer, on the other hand, is a completely different kettle of fish or, if you prefer, box of strings. Sometimes called an Appalachian dulcimer as it was developed in the Appalachian mountains in the late 18th century, it is a descendant of various fretted zithers brought to America by European settlers. The mountain dulcimer is played on the lap and strummed or plucked. If you've ever heard Joni Mitchell's classic Blue album, you will have heard her playing the dulcimer.
I bought my first mountain dulcimer in Brittany in the 1980s and have been trying to play the instrument, on and off, ever since. To begin with, I thought I'd mastered a few tunes and got on quite nicely for several years until I discovered it was strung incorrectly, so I'd been playing all my chord shapes back to front. (It turned out, unlike a guitar, the bass string of a dulcimer is a drone that should be furthest away from the player, with the melody being played on the string nearest.)
Having never had any tuition – and having never even met a fellow dulcimer player until recently – the idea of a few days in Somerset involving practical workshops for beginners to advanced players sounded ideal. I made my mind up to give it a go and so, with some trepidation, I found myself in the entrance hall of Halsway Manor. As I signed in, I was given a name badge bearing the words "Tony Gillam", followed by a question mark. I wasn't sure what was so questionable about my identity until I noticed others who had the letters 'HD' or 'MD' on their badges. For a moment the number of people with 'MD' after their name made me wonder if I'd accidentally stumbled into a convention for medical doctors until I realised it was meant to distinguish the pluckers from the hammerers.
The bedroom had no TV, reinforcing the idea that I was on a retreat. My wife had jokingly told people her husband was spending a week away in Dulcimerland and it's true that I and my fellow students were totally immersed in the instrument, with workshops throughout the day and sessions or concerts in the evenings. I was taught plenty of interesting new techniques and even finally learnt exactly what chords they were that I'd been playing all these years. I was introduced to playing in different keys using that handy gadget the capo (a device that attaches to the neck of a stringed instrument to shorten the playable length of the strings and hence raises the pitch.) To a guitar player, the capo used on dulcimers looks like a very crude-looking wooden clamp, a kind of Flintstones' version of a capo – but it opened up a whole new world, taking us away from the tyranny of D-A-D tunings and effortlessly into the key of G. Our affable and gifted tutor Dave Haas, from West Virginia, would teasingly ask us: "Now, can you play this in G?" To which we were encouraged, pantomime-style, to reply in unison: "Sure! No problem," before carefully positioning our capos on the third fret.
Dave asked us to imagine we were picking up a clementine in our left hand to get our fingers in the right position for fretting the strings. "Remember, it's a clementine, " he would say, "not a melon." Whereas beginner guitarists are taught to play down-strokes and up-strokes, dulcimer players are taught out-strokes and in-strokes – the ins and outs of dulcimer-playing.
Our other tutor was Pete Coe – multi-instrumentalist stalwart of the English folk scene since the 1970s, whose latest album features a dulcimer version of the American folk song Shenandoah called World Of Misery. Pete, with his North of England matter-of-factness and mischievous humour seems like a folk music equivalent of Jarvis Cocker. "Only put your instrument in its case if you're taking it outside," he urged. "You need to leave it lying around so you can just pick it up and play when you're watching TV and the adverts come on." He encouraged us to "muck about and make up stupid little tunes." This, he insisted, was how we would improve as players. And to those who bemoan the low profile of the instrument Pete had one simple, inspirational answer. We must get out there and let the world see and hear it. So come on, you dulcimer players! Pluck up your courage. Let's go and play.