Walking under the trees at a Southwest Virginia fiddle convention, through a maze of musicians and humming banjos, fiddles and guitars, I heard a bell-ringing drone sound from one of the old-time bands. Stopping to listen and determine the source of this sound, I saw a different sort of dulcimer - oblong, almost football shaped, loud enough to be heard above two guitars, a fiddle, and a clawhammer banjo! It was played by a man leaning back in his chair, smiling at the audience as he slickly noted on two strings with a wooden stick and strummed with a turkey quill. I was "love-struck" by that dulcimer music and have been ever since that day. That was 1976! I learned to play fiddle tunes by watching, recording and trying to keep up with the lightning-fast noter playing of Raymond Melton as he played the dulcimer style handed down to him by his family.
It wasn't until 1980 that I finally convinced Raymond that I "needed" one of his dulcimers and he agreed to build me one. Somehow I managed to find my way to his house to pick up the four-string dulcimer made by his hands, MY DULCIMER! I was also honored to see and hear other dulcimers made years before by previous generations of his family. All these dulcimers were played in a mono-tone tuning, which uses four light-gauge unwound strings all tuned to the same high d above Middle C. This creates a delightful drone sound, especially when played with other instruments. The Melton family and other local Galax players had used this tuning for many years to play the old mountain melodies in string bands. (No heart wrenching ballad singing here, just happy fiddle tunes for dancers!) My dulcimer was constructed with a double or "false bottom" to increase the volume and resonance as the dulcimer lay on one's lap. Another interesting part of the design was a one-piece head/fretboard/tailpiece all cut from a "2x4-like" piece of wood, very different from all the dulcimers I had ever seen before and unlike any I have seen since! Over the years Raymond stopped using the false-bottom construction because, with amplification, it was no longer needed.
For me, the two most wonderful things about playing in this style were the quick, clear, note-for-note playing of fiddle tunes I could play with my noter stick on the first two strings and the mind set of playing in a "key" rather than a mode. This was something I could understand! The Galax tuning made it possible for me to play a "D" tune and a "G" tune in the same session without retuning my dulcimer. Nice! My only problem was those "A-modal" tunes requiring me to have a second dulcimer tuned to all E's. I didn't have a second dulcimer. It had been hard enough to get the first one! So I had to retune. Hmmm… I broke so many strings in those days! Then one day I realized that I didn't need to retune; all I needed to do was raise the two drone strings up to an "E" and that's what I did! I put a "false nut," a kind of reverse capo, under the drone strings at the first fret, and presto: A-modal tuning! This also allowed me to play in E minor as well. My next realization was that the turkey quill traditionally used for strumming in Galax playing broke a lot of strings. A flexible pick would not, so I switched to using a pick, and away I strummed into the night and early morning!
In 1982 all that late-night strumming paid off when I placed first at the Galax Fiddlers' Convention and Raymond placed second. Amazing! That meant I could go to the World's Fair and play on stage there! (But that's another story for the telling!). You see I never had a goal of "beating" Raymond; I just wanted to be as good as he was. It was a tradition. In all the years of the Galax Fiddlers' Convention, members of Raymond's family had always won that competition. In the late 1970s and early '80s other dulcimer styles came into the old-time music scene at Galax. It was this "Melton family" and other local players, however, who played their dulcimers in this regional style that always won the dulcimer competition. That is why the style came to be known as the "Galax style." It was born and bred in the Southwest Virginia Mountains and is a true Virginia style of playing old fiddle tunes.
My music today uses this style of playing for Appalachian, Irish, and Scottish fiddle tunes. I learned the tunes with Jim, my fiddler husband, from the older fiddlers and banjo players whom we were privileged to visit in their homes: great players and friends such as Albert Hash, Tommy Jarrell, Abe Horton, Giles Lephew, and Luther Davis, to mention but a few. Today we continue to seek out and learn from the traditional "older-than-us" generation of fiddlers in other Celtic traditions. Unfortunately, their numbers are diminishing as the years go by!
My current projects, besides being a full time second grade teacher, include revising a book on Galax style dulcimer playing that I wrote back in 2002. Hopefully I will have available for my summer workshops in 2005, along with a new CD. I'll be teaching Galax-style dulcimer playing in a course at the Western Carolina University Mountain Dulcimer Week http://edoutreach.wcu.edu/dulcimer June 19-24, 2005. Hope to see you and share a tune or two somewhere along life's byways. Happy noting!
Editor's Note: For more information on Galax dulcimers and other dulcimer history see Ralph Lee Smith's article in the July 2003 Back Issue of DulcimerSessions.com.
Here is one of Phyllis's favorite tunes. It can be played in traditional Galax tuning, dddd, or the more common DAD tuning.
Listen to "Old-Time Sally Ann"
About the Author
|To purchase Mel Bay products::
* Check your local music store
* Call 1-800-8-MEL-BAY (800-863-5229) or
* Online retailers
For a catalog: call 1-800-8-MEL-BAY (800-863-5229)
or e-mail email@example.com
Copyright © 2002 Mel Bay Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.