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Review: A Catalogue of Pre-Revival Appalachian Dulcimers

Review: A Catalogue of Pre-Revival Appalachian Dulcimers

L. Allen Smith

University of Missouri Press

P.O. Box 7088, Columbia, MO 65205

Columbia & London, 1983

Originally published in American Lutherie #7, 1986 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume One, 2000



L. Allen Smith worked long and hard over his doctoral dissertation from whence this book was derived. It is handsome, containing descriptions of 193 instruments in the zither and dulcimer family, most accompanied by photographs. In the foreword, Jean Ritchie sets forth her very authoritative views on the origin of the dulcimer and offers her judgements as to why early study teams were not able to uncover many dulcimers in Appalachia.

The book falls far short of resolving, on a scientific basis, the birth place(s) of the dulcimer. The pre-revival instruments Smith describes were made prior to 1940, and his field work, searching for these early dulcimers, was done in the early 1970s. As most of us who have travelled these eastern mountains know, old dulcimers have been swept up long ago and it is anyone’s guess as to where they are now hanging. Nevertheless, Smith found 193 instruments and classified them into five categories as follows:

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Review: A Catalogue of Pre-Revival Appalachian Dulcimers

L. Allen Smith

University of Missouri Press

P.O. Box 7088, Columbia, MO 65205

Columbia & London, 1983

Originally published in American Lutherie #7, 1986 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume One, 2000



L. Allen Smith worked long and hard over his doctoral dissertation from whence this book was derived. It is handsome, containing descriptions of 193 instruments in the zither and dulcimer family, most accompanied by photographs. In the foreword, Jean Ritchie sets forth her very authoritative views on the origin of the dulcimer and offers her judgements as to why early study teams were not able to uncover many dulcimers in Appalachia.

The book falls far short of resolving, on a scientific basis, the birth place(s) of the dulcimer. The pre-revival instruments Smith describes were made prior to 1940, and his field work, searching for these early dulcimers, was done in the early 1970s. As most of us who have travelled these eastern mountains know, old dulcimers have been swept up long ago and it is anyone’s guess as to where they are now hanging. Nevertheless, Smith found 193 instruments and classified them into five categories as follows:

Type A: Pennsylvania German zithers with straight sides, 37
Type B: Pennsylvania German zithers with a half-bout, 3
Type C: Dulcimers with straight sides, 11
Type D: Dulcimers with a single bout, 71 (2 # 34s)
Type E: Dulcimers with double bouts, 71 (2 # 17s)

Smith’s conclusion that specific styles of instruments were organic to certain geographic locations is hard to justify when only 73 of the 193 instruments have been positively verified as to birthplace. These data become further weakened when 25 of the 73 are attributed to three makers (Thomas, Amburgey, and Hicks). While Smith did rely heavily on Allen H. Eaton’s classic Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands (Dover, 1937/1973) he failed to point out that the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild and its forerunners were organized to give recognition to mountain craftsmen and to market their products. Where did the estimated 1500 dulcimers go that were produced by Kentuckian James Edward Thomas? Were they marketed by the Guild and did they influence the design of other makers? Although Smith states that the book’s primary purpose is to catalogue early instruments, he opens the door to these unanswered questions by addressing the subject.

For the serious luthier, there is little of value here. However, it is an interesting compilation of some early instruments and is worthwhile if only to provoke more research and study of this wonderful but neglected true American folk instrument.

— Jim Flynn (1986)