Chalk one up for perseverance

Alan Elliott
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Checking out my favourite floor at the lamentably defunct Sam the Record Man years ago, I overheard a request. A woman, who sounded European, asked the clerk whether they had any CDs of dulcimer music. My ears perked up, and when the clerk seemed stumped I joined the conversation -- not entirely inappropriate, since that folk-blues-jazz section was often quite lonely.
I mentioned that I had a dulcimer. I was surprised they didn't think I was BS-ing them -- I mean, what are the chances? But they seemed genuinely amazed and eager to hear my advice.
I'd never seen any recordings specifically of dulcimer music, but suggested looking through the American folk selections, in particular originating from the Appalachians, and there might be something that included the instrument.
The woman didn't have time: she was on a brief stop in Halifax. She had just discovered the dulcimer, it seemed, and was hoping to find a sample of the music.
They say it's an easy instrument to play. I should be a pro by now at that rate, having had this dulcimer kicking around for years. The problem was I couldn't keep it in tune long enough to get all the way through a song.
Appalachian dulcimer -- described in the Oxford dictionary as a zither-like folk instrument with three or four strings, played by strumming or plucking; from old French doulcemer, said to represent Latin dulce, or sweet, and melos, song.
Mine has a bit of a story behind it. Long fascinated by the exotic sound of this instrument -- occasionally used on some early recordings by people like Bruce Cockburn and Joni Mitchell -- I managed to locate an assemble-it-yourself kit through a friend who knew the maker. I ordered one -- this was back in the mid-'70s -- for a mere $75.
It was a fair bit of work, fitting, cutting pieces and gluing it all together. When I was finished I had a nice-looking oddity on which I could eke out snatches of song. But the tuning pegs tended to slip, especially one which seemed a bit small for the hole.
Thus my dulcimer became more of a wall ornament over the years -- until recently, when I decided I must get my act together.
A friend suggested not long ago to apply some epoxy to the pegs to get the thickness I needed. I tried that, sanded them to make them rough, but to no avail, they slipped even worse.
Then I went to the source that's never stumped and googled "tuning pegs slip." Sure enough, solutions mentioned some sort of resin or "peg dope," often used by fiddlers. I was off then to the local music store, where they told me that, actually, what musicians often use for that common problem is chalk. We gave it a try, and the peg held well.
So no more excuses. I found a book I've had for years and dusted it off, looked up one of the many tunings used and just picked the first one I saw. Ionian, sounds great. Still a bit of a struggle with the pegs, I got it close, then fine-tuned it with some beads I'd added later on the tailpiece.
Then I slid a finger along the frets to sound out a few notes. That suggested a tune in the back of my head and I searched for the rest of it: Hard Times Come Again No More, by Stephen Foster. Well, you know, even if you could plug it in you're not exactly going to be launching into Led Zeppelin.
It worked out reasonably well. I checked the book again and saw there were a half-dozen folk tunes tabbed out that I knew and could work on. Some added an extra dimension, showing chords instead of the single-string melodies accompanied by drone that a lot of traditional players used.
So I'll have to improvise on some Mr. Dressup wisdom and keep my chalk sharp. I've got a feeling, though, with all the other projects and pipe dreams, this will still largely be a wall adornment. I'll not likely be taking the music halls by storm. But at least next time someone is curious about it I can take it down and give a rough demonstration.

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