In the foreground, Donna Switzer and Bob Daniels of the Friendly City Strummers jokingly challenge each other to a dueling dulcimers play-off. Strummers in the circle are, clockwise, David Saum, Inez Saum, Peggy Moore, Barbara Brown, Mimi Brown, Virginia Vail, Charles Brown, Billy Vail, John Hardy, Mary Lynn Hardy, Jerry Horstman, Dot Glassock, Carolyn Andrews and Frances Daniel. Photo by: Luisa Porter
April 7, 2012 4:03:35 PM
BY JAN SWOOPE
The walls are serviceable cinderblock, the carpet utilitarian blue. The room is large, brightly flushed with a fluorescent glow from panels overhead. But, when 16 dulcimer players begin strumming "Near the Cross," the setting may as well be a small, clapboard church tucked among the mountain laurels, high in the Appalachians.
Such is the subtle power of the sweet music that first emerged in the early 19th century among Scots-Irish immigrants in the southern Appalachian Mountains. The fretted mountain dulcimer is the instrument of choice for the Friendly City Strummers, a group of enthusiasts that convenes every second and fourth Tuesday at Trinity Place Retirement Community in Columbus.
"Don't come the third Tuesday; there won't be anybody here," jokes Bob Daniel, who often makes his fellow players grin. He's dapper in a bowler hat, checked shirt and suspenders. And when he and group leader Donna Switzer get to "carryin' on," they cheerfully "challenge" each other to a round of dueling dulcimers, and shake on it.
Actually, there's no dueling here, but there is gentle humor and frequent, easy laughter.
"It's the fellowship and the friends you make that make this so special," remarks Switzer, whose husband, Richard, is usually at her side. He's out of town on this particular Tuesday.
"We welcome whoever wants to come along; it's just fun for all of us," says Mississippi State University's payroll manager, in an accent best summed up as pure Southern comfort. She began playing about five years ago and very recently impressed judges at the Deep South Dulcimer Competition in Hattiesburg, placing second in mountain dulcimer with her "Rosin the Bow" and "June Apple."
The Columbus-based group was founded by Dr. David Saum about six years ago. His wife, Inez, plays, too.
"Inez had bought me a dulcimer in Branson (Mo.), for our anniversary," explains Dr. Saum. "Then she saw an advertisement on TV for a dulcimer event at Blue Bluff Campround and we thought we'd go see what it was all about."
The outing, and the company, turned out to be so enjoyable, the Saums were hooked and often traveled out of town to play with others. (Several of the Strummers frequent dulcimer festivals at sites including Tannehill State Park and Cumberland Gap, Tenn.)
Encouraged by Booneville's Forrest Smith, president of the North Mississippi Dulcimer Association, the Saums helped spread dulcimer fever to the Golden Triangle.
"He (Forrest) said, 'Why don't you start a group in Columbus?' -- which was the last thing I needed, something else to do," Saum chuckles. "But, we agreed to get it going."
One attraction of the mountain dulcimer, with its three to four strings, is how easy it can be to play.
"If you can paint by number, you can play," says member Peggy Moore of Columbus.
A system of tablature numbers assigned to frets and positioned above song lyrics in the group's laminated songbooks means, David Saum says, "We can teach anybody in five minutes to play a song."
Of course, like any instrument, the dulcimer can be taken from "basic beginner to any limit you want," he notes. "There's a young man in Jackson, a national champion, who plays a rendition of 'Dueling Banjos' by himself on the dulcimer. It's something to see, I'm telling you."
In mainstream music, Joni Mitchell and Cyndi Lauper are two of the better-known mountain dulcimer players.
For folks just starting, the Strummers recommend trying out a cardboard version of the instrument. They even have some for visitors to try. The sound is surprisingly good.
"You don't want to just go out and spend the time and money if you don't know if you're going to be interested in it," says Switzer. "See if you're going to like it first."
Cardboard dulcimers will run about $65, she says, whereas a decent mountain dulcimer will start at about $250 and go up from there.
A musical turn
With an encouraging, low-key demeanor, Switzer facilitates the bimonthly meeting as the Strummers move from song to song.
"Alright, who's turn is it?" she asks after a tune concludes. Everyone gets a turn to make a selection.
"Down in the Valley" is requested, then the tempo livens a bit with "Black Mountain Rag" and "Skip to my Lou."
"Oh, they're gettin' crazy," laughs Switzer, who is also adept on the banjo and fiddle.
Then comes Barbara Brown's favorite -- "Westphalia Waltz."
"That's what made me begin playing the dulcimer," the vivacious Starkville resident says when the song is finished. "Now, wasn't that worth waiting for?"
Playing is a great stress reliever, she contends. Inez Saum agrees, describing the group's gatherings as "twice a month I get to totally relax."
For another member, playing helped restore dexterity in her fingers and hands after a stroke. It can also help with arthritis, yet another player says.
One golden rule in the club is "we never, ever criticize anyone's playing," David Saum says. "It's just not done."
Indeed, the atmosphere is openly welcoming no matter the level of expertise, and the Friendly City Strummers actively seek new recruits.
"If we could just get to the people who have dulcimers sitting in the case," begins Inez Saum. "They've gone to Gatlinburg or Branson and thought it sounded pretty and bought one. They get it home and don't have a support system, so it goes in the closet. We're that support system."
As the evening nears its close, everyone knows which song to turn to. Each meeting ends with "Amazing Grace." The muted, familiar strains drift upward, the chords as gentle as brushstrokes. A few voices quietly sing along.
After the last notes, players turn toward their neighbors to begin their good nights, packing away their instruments.
"We're through playin' now!" someone chimes out, spoofing Minnie Pearl's famous tag line and ending the gathering as it began -- with a smile.
Editor's note: If you're interested in learning more about the Friendly City Strummers or other dulcimer groups in the area, contact Donna Switzer at 662-418-1363 or 662-615-1461.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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