Making Music Memories: Amateur dulcimer players jam weekly at senior center

By Catherine Godbey | Living 50 Plus

Sliding her fingers along the strings of the dulcimer’s neck, Lori Matthews picked out the recognizable tune of “Oh, Susannah.”

“The dulcimer is very easy to learn but takes a lifetime to master,” the 64-year-old Matthews said.

Every Wednesday morning, amateur musicians, some wheeling laundry baskets carrying dulcimer cases, gather at the Decatur-Morgan Senior Center to jam with the Morgan County Dulcimer Association.

“I love the type of music that is played on the dulcimer. It is old-timey mountain music and spirituals. Really, though, you can play anything on a dulcimer — country, hillbilly and rock ‘n’ roll,” said Janet Henderson.

As the dulcimer player with the most experience, the 74-year-old Henderson is described by the association’s members as the “mama” of the group.

“She pretty much taught all of us how to play,” Nancy McCarthy, 78, said.

In 2000, Henderson started learning the dulcimer through Decatur City Schools’ continuing education program under instructors Jon and Clara Harris.

“I always really wanted to learn to play music. When my mother passed away, I began going to classes. I looked at it as grief therapy. I have loved the instrument ever since,” Henderson said

While the music originally brought the dulcimer players, who range in age from 58 to 83, together, a spirit of camaraderie keeps them returning.

“My husband and I bought dulcimers in 2009 in Tennessee, but we didn’t know how to play. I didn’t learn until I happened upon a group playing dulcimers at the Battle of Decatur (Civil War reenactment),” Matthews said. “That was 12 years ago when I stumbled across the people that became my best friends. I have found the dulcimer community to be very open and welcoming with traditional values.”

“This is a form of therapy for all of us,” 76-year-old Alece Alexander said.

During the height of the pandemic, when the senior center was closed to gatherings, Henderson and Matthews met for jam sessions.

“We would get together, socially distanced of course, and play our dulcimers. I believe that was the therapy we needed to get us through that hard time,” Matthews said.

Dulcimer technique

Most of the musicians play the mountain dulcimer, a sleek, lap instrument routinely featured in folk music, but also showcased in other genres.

“You’d be surprised by who plays the dulcimer. Cyndi Lauper plays it and Dolly Parton plays it. You have to listen very closely to hear the dulcimer because it is designed to blend in with the other instruments,” said Russell Johnson.

To play the instrument with roots in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, musicians strum or pluck the dulcimer’s three or four strings with one hand and, with the other hand, press down on the fret board to control pitch.

Nancy Fortune’s first encounter with the instrument occurred in 1977, 25 years before she started playing the instrument.

“I got a dulcimer when we were living in Kentucky and hung it on the wall. It wasn’t until I met Janet in 2002 that I took it off of the wall and started to play,” said the 83-year-old Fortune, who wore a necklace with a dulcimer pendant and covered her music stand with a small quilt featuring the design of a dulcimer.

Along with the longtime players — Henderson with 22 years, Fortune with 20 years, Alexander with 15 years and Matthews with 12 years — the association includes new members, husband and wife Russell and Janis Johnson, and Mona Allen.

“Janis started coming here and playing first. She seemed to be having fun with it, so I thought I’d give it a try, too. I’m working on learning the dulcimer. Right now, I’m playing guitar. I got my first guitar in 1969, played it through the 1980s, but then put it down. Now I’m playing again and enjoying it,” Russell Johnson, 63, said.

“We’re really glad to have Russell. We’ve been needing a guitar picker for a while,” Henderson said. “We’re also really happy to have Janis and Mona join us. We are always looking for new people.”

Along with the mountain dulcimer, Henderson, president of the Morgan County Dulcimer Association, owns a hammered dulcimer, which makes sounds when small hammers strike the strings. Think of a xylophone combined with a harp.

How to get involved

The Morgan County Dulcimer Association meets every Wednesday from 9:30 to 11:15 a.m. If you come, expect to hear the popular tunes of “Old Joe Clark,” “Carolina Waltz,” “Nearer the Cross” and “Amazing Grace.”

The musicians also have started to learn the ukuleles after lunch on Wednesdays.

“We can already make three or four chords,” McCarthy said with a chuckle.

The Morgan County Dulcimer Association is one of 40 programs housed at the Decatur–Morgan Senior Center, an activities site for people 50 and older on Memorial Drive Southwest. More than 620 seniors participate in the programs, center director Amy Rakestraw said. Other participants at the nonprofit center participate in the card games canasta, Rook, bridge and hand and foot. The center also holds line dancing every Friday at 10 a.m.

“People can just show up and we will show them around and tell them which groups are open to new members and when those groups meet,” Rakestraw said.