Category: Featured

“Down by the Salley Gardens” for Hammered Dulcimer

The words to this song (in Irish ‘Gort na Saileán) are from a poem composed by Irish poet William Butler Yeats and published in 1889:

Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet;

She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.

She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;

But I, being young and foolish, with her did not agree.

In a field by the river my love and I did stand,

And on my leaning shoulder she placed her snow-white hand.

She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;

I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.

(The first verse is usually repeated at the end. First verse does use love and the second verse does use life.)

“Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” an Easy Bluegrass Melody for Mountain Dulcimer

The FIRST JAM series of Mel Bay books was created to give beginners of all ages a book of simple, common tunes to learn. Many are standard “Jam” tunes in the Bluegrass/Old Time music styles. All the books in this series are written in the same keys; they can all be played together without any problems. So get your friends or family who play guitar, mandolin, banjo, ukelele, mountain dulcimer or Dobro together, grab these books and start jamming!

Improvisation – Another idea behind writing the FIRST JAM series was to provide a number of tunes that were easy to learn, but that are also great to begin working on improvising. Each book offers the melody for that particular instrument as well as back-up chords for another instrument to accompanying you. Have fun!

This popular Bluegrass classic is set in the key of A Major. An easy way to play that is to tune to DAD tuning and put a capo at the mountain dulcimer’s 4th fret. If you do not have a mountain dulcimer capo you can fashion a temporary one by using a flat-sided chopstick or other piece of wood and fastening a strong rubber band to it, as shown in this photo:


Remember, for this piece you fasten the “capo” at the 4th fret.

Information on streamlined, manufactured capos is in the June 2005 issue.
Listen to this single-string melody of “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms”:

Listen to the back-up chords to “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms”:

Printable Version


FIRST JAMS for Mountain Dulcimer and the rest of the FIRST JAMS series for guitar, mandolin, banjo, ukelele, mountain dulcimer and Dobro can be ordered from MelbayXpress.

“Children of the Heavenly Father” – A Swedish-American Hymn

During Swedish opera star Jenny Lind’s America tour in the 1850s, the pastor of a church out on the Illinois prairie hit her up for a donation.

Known as the “Swedish nightingale,” she had a reputation for supporting good causes, and Pastor Lars Esbjorn definitely had a good one. His church had set aside enough lumber for the roof, but a cholera epidemic swept through his little prairie town of Andover, Illinois, and the lumber was sawed up for coffins instead.

Jenny Lind contributed $1,500, and the building is still known as the Jenny Lind Chapel.

About the same time, when songwriters Oskar Ahnfelt and Karolina Sandell couldn’t afford to publish a collection of their gospel songs back in Sweden, Lind fronted the money for the first edition. With that boost, they went on to publish hundreds of gospel songs that sparked a pietist revival throughout Sweden.

So out of Jenny Lind’s generosity, came a nationwide Swedish-American church organization and a beloved hymn called “Children of the Heavenly Father.”

With lyrics by Lina Sandell set to a tune by Ahnfelt, the song appeared in later editions of their songs and became a favorite American hymn, especially in the Midwest. We’ve been playing at sessions of the Prairieland Dulcimer Strings, our amateur club in Springfield, Illinois.

Music was important to the Swedish pioneers who settled in the Midwest, bringing with them an old-country heritage of congregational singing. And Pastor Esbjorn was no exception. Before he had the new roof completed on the Jenny Lind Chapel, he reported he held “a singing school once or twice a week, in order to teach our people a correct and harmonious way of singing hymns.” He brought with him from Sweden a psalmodikon (a musical instrument that looked – and sounded – a lot like a one-string bowed dulcimer), and psalmodikons are still on display today in the chapel museum and the nearby Swedish colony at Bishop Hill, Illinois.

From those beginnings, Esbjorn and other Swedes went on to found an Augustana Lutheran synod and Augustana College in nearby Rock Island. As more Swedes and Norwegians poured into the Midwest after the Civil War, they established Lutheran synods, choral societies and colleges. And at Augustana, St. Olaf and a half dozen other Scandinavian-American colleges, world-class a cappella choirs contributed greatly to the American choral repertoire.

Playing a psalmodikon at Bishop Hill, Illinois

But the immigrants also had a strong pietist movement back in Norway and Sweden, which stressed piety and personal experience in religion, along with a lively tradition of gospel singing.

“Children of the Heavenly Father” came out of that movement. The text was written in 1858 by Lina Sandell, who lost her father in an accidental drowning, and the comfort she found in her religion finds expression in the song. Later it was set to a catchy Swedish folk tune in 3/4 time by Oskar Ahnfelt, a gifted melodist who accompanied himself on the guitar and was known as Sweden’s “spiritual troubadour.”

Together, Ahnfelt and Karolina Wilhelmina Sandell-Berg (to give her full married name by which her songs are often indexed) are considered Sweden’s most influential gospel hymn writers of the 19th century.

In America, “Children of the Heavenly Father” was translated in 1925 by Ernst W. Olson for an Augustana synod hymnal. Hymnologist Gracia Grindal of Luther Seminary, who has translated hymns herself, notes that Sandell’s text is “devilishly hard to translate” and credits its popularity in America partly to his graceful text.

“Olson’s brilliant [phrase] ‘Children of the heavenly Father’ is nowhere to be found in the language of the original Swedish, though it is there in spirit,” Grindal says. “His recasting of the original into fine English poetry caused the song to become a favorite of non-Swedish singers as well.”

At any rate, the hymn now appears nationwide in a variety of Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, evangelical and other denominational hymnals. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, successor to the old Augustana synod, even has it in its latest hymnal both in English and Swedish. It’s a special favorite wherever Scandinavian immigrants settled in the upper Midwest, and the Augustana College Choir has made it a signature piece.

“I once sang the bass line of ‘Children of the Heavenly Father’ in a room with about 3,000 Lutherans in it,” says Garrison Keillor of the Prairie Home Companion radio show. “And when we finished, we all had tears in our eyes, partly from the promise that God will not forsake us, partly from the proximity of all those lovely voices. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other.”

Jenny Lind Chapel, Andover, Illinois

The hymn is usually sung softly.

“It’s almost a lullaby, and to me it just sounds like a children’s song,” choral arranger, composer and conductor Alice Parker said during a 1998 hymn sing at Gettysburg Seminary. “How childlike can you make your voice? How gently can you sing, as if you were indeed rocking a baby in your arms?”

But it isn’t a dirge, even though it’s often heard at funerals in the Midwest. The arrangement in an 1894 Swedish-American hymnal called Hemlandssånger (songs of the homeland) sets its tempo at a fast walking beat (andantino) and pays close attention to dynamics, ranging from soft (piano) to very loud (fortissimo). Swedish pop and Christian contemporary artist Carola sings it with hushed but passionate intensity, beginning softly then swelling to a crescendo backed by an organ and a gospel choir.

With its simple Swedish folk melody, it’s a perfect song for the mountain dulcimer.

Mike Thomas of the Prairieland Dulcimer Strings, our club in Springfield, has arranged it in DAD for dulcimer, and we’ve been playing it for several months now. His arrangement lends itself to several styles of chord-melody playing. And I’ve tried playing it with a fiddle bow since I’m interested in the psalmodikon, improvising a little riff when I’m tuned to DAD and can’t bow the C# in the last measure. In DAA (my preferred tuning anyway), I can play all the notes on the melody string, and my dulcimer has almost exactly the same timbre as one of those old psalmodikons.

Want to hear different interpretations? Available on YouTube are several performances, including Carola’s and a full-throated version by Swedish baritone Bertil Boo (search for both under the Swedish title, “Tryggare kan ingen vara”). The Augustana College Choir is well represented, too, singing a contemporary arrangement by choir director Jon Hurty. Be sure to watch their imprompteau sessions in Sweden’s Lund cathedral and the church in Oslättfors where Lars Paul Esbjorn served as pastor before he emigrated to Illinois. And Alice Parker’s presentation at Gettysburg, including hymns and commentary, is available on CD from the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians.

Pictures of Jenny Lind by Eduard Magnus and Jenny Lind Chapel Creative Commons.

Pete Ellertsen and Mike Thomas coordinate meetings of the Prairieland Dulcimer Strings, a beginner-friendly club for all sorts of acoustic instruments in Springfield. Photo by Mack Hucke of Jenny Lind Chapel and reproduction by user PKM of Jenny Lind portrait by Eduard Magus under Creative Commons license. Photo of psalmodikon by Debi Edmund-Ellertsen.

“Off to California” An Irish Hornpipe

The California Gold Rush (1848–1855) began when gold was found by James W. Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. It was the inspiration for many Irishmen to immigrate to seek a fortune. This tune is from that era.

“Off to California” is arranged here in mountain dulcimer tablature from Lois Hornbostel’s Mel Bay book Dulcimer Fiddle Tunes. A recording of the arrangement follows. Learning the melody first by listening can help you play the tablature. This is a play-along recording. After practicing the tablature to build speed (metronome recommended for smooth results), you can play along with the recording. The second time through the tune you’ll hear a chord back-up.

Listen to Lois Hornbostel play “Off to California.”

This piece is played by most musicians in the Key of G Major. The DGd “reverse Ionian” tuning puts you in that key and the tune “situates” well on the dulcimer’s fretboard with it. To tune to DGd, tune your dulcimer’s bass string to D below middle C. Then tune your middle string to G a fourth above that D, and your first (treble) string to d an octave above that D on the bass string.

Suggested back-up chords are listed below. They are “reversible” in DGd tuning; i.e., the same notes (fret numbers) can be played on either “outside” string (bass or first string).

Chord Name A Few Suggested Back-up Chords in DGd Tuning
G 3 5 (bass string)
2 4 (middle string)
0 3 (first string)
C 3 3 (bass string)
3 3 (middle string)
1 3 (first string)
Em 1 5 (bass string)
2 5 (middle string)
1 5 (first string)
Am 4 (bass string)
4 (middle string)
4 (first string)
D 2 4 (bass string)
1 4 (middle string)
0 2 (first string)

“Flop Eared Mule”

“Flop Eared Mule” is a popular old-time and bluegrass acoustic jam session tune. Some fiddlers call it the “Blue Bell Polka.” The form of this tune is called a “cotillion,” which means you always end the tune with the “A” part. There is an interesting key change in this tune, from the key of D Major to the Key of A Major in the “B” part.


Jeanne Page offers below two arrangements of “Flop Eared Mule” from her Mel Bay book Bluegrass on Hammered Dulcimer. The first is basic version, and the second is more like a fiddle would play.

“Joy to the World”

The composer of “Joy to the World” was Isaac Watts (1674-1748). He was one of the great hymn writers, and the first to produce a modern-style hymnbook. A prolific and popular hymn writer, he was recognized as the “Father of English Hymnody,” credited with some 750 hymns. Many of his hymns remain in use today and have been translated into many languages. Not only did he write hymns, he wrote many books in the science and theology field. He spoke five languages fluently, and was a bit of a nonconformist against the Church of England.


Watts’ Psalms of David (1719) was first printed in America in 1729 by Ben Franklin. In Isaac’s opinion church music was boring, dreary and basically brought down the joy of the whole service. When he complained to his father, he challenged his son to write something better. The result was a revolution in church music. Isaac subsequently wrote a new song every week for 222 weeks. In 1719 Isaac published Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. “Joy to the World” is Watts’ paraphrasing of the second half of Psalm 98. This was not popular at the time, as hymns were not used in the church; rather the Psalms were sung from the bible. The new hymn style introduced by Watts caused a very big controversy that day, and it even split some churches.

“Joy To The World” is still cherished today, almost three centuries later. Set to a score adapted from George Frederick Handel’s “The Messiah,” “Joy to the World” has taken its place permanently in the hearts of both Christian and secular society. While many of Watts’ compositions have been forgotten, this Christmas hymn remains a favorite.

 Listen to Linda Brockinton play “Joy to the World.”


Playing Tips from Linda Brockinton:

This is a good tune for flatpickers and fingerpickers. The flows along the melody string. There will be picks on single strings any time the tune has a pause. This differs from strumming only in the way we fill up the spaces where the melody is not moving. A strummer just strums 3 beats on a dotted half note, while if you are picking you just pick 3 individual strings. We are then hearing the same chord but one note at a time. So basically your left hand does the same thing for either strumming or picking while the right had fills in the pauses in the tune by strumming or by picking individual strings. Either method (fingerpicking or flatpicking) you choose, just remember to always hold your chords down as long as you can. When you release them you loose your sound and that makes for choppy playing. So if you have a chord at the first of the measure try to figure out how to play the other notes following without lifting until you are given another chord to go to. This does two things. It makes for smoother playing and it helps you to keep your place on the dulcimer and you don’t have to reposition.

Scottish Christmas Tunes for Hammered Dulcimer

This tune book/CD combination published by Mel Bay has many lovely tunes. The CD presents the hammered dulcimer in an ensemble setting with fiddle, pipes and guitar. Mel Bay author Maggie Sansone plays hammered dulcimer the “A Scottish Christmas” recording. The CBS “Sunday Morning” show said of the CD, “One of the best selling CDs of the season, the music is ancient and infectious.”

Listen to Maggie Sansone play from the CD “Yoeman’s Carol” and “Sound of the Sleat.”

Here are the written arrangements to these two pieces from the Mel Bay book/CD, arranged by Bonnie Rideout and played by Maggie Sansone:

Yeoman’s Carol

Arranged by Bonnie Rideout and played on hammered dulcimer

by Maggie Sansone

From A Scottish Christmas for Fiddle, MB 96784BCD

A popular carol around the world. A yeoman was a person who owned and worked his own small parcel of land and was considered in a social class below the gentry. The word carol originally meant a circling dance, perhaps to symbolize the circular movements around the nativity crib that this dance emulated.

Sound of the Sleat

Arranged by Bonnie Rideout and played on hammered dulcimer

by Maggie Sansone

From A Scottish Christmas for Fiddle, MB 96784BCD


A popular pipe tune usually played as a quick march and often played as a reel by fiddlers. Bonnie prefers a slower “swingy” tempo that Maggie plays on her small pipes. (Maggie also plays it on hammered dulcimer in the cut.) Maggie picked it up from Christopher Layer during a week stint at Hamish Moore’s School for Cauld Wind Pipes. It was Maggie’s favorite tune at the time of the Christmas recording, so it was decided to medley it with the “Yeoman’s Carol” (above) because of the march-like feel they had together. The “Sound of the Sleat” (pronounced ‘Slate’) is a body of water off the Southern tip of the Isle of Skye. Near to where Bonnie lived during her residency at Armadale Castle, the Sound of the Sleat is one of the most beautiful spots in Scotland. Bonnie used to go down to the water’s edge at sunset and observe seals, otters, eagles, and all sorts of curious sea birds.

God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen Arranged for Mountain Dulcimer

The lyrics of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” author unknown, are reputed to date back to the 15thCentury, making it one of the oldest carols. It was first published in 1833, when it appeared in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, a collection of seasonal carols gathered by William B. Sandys. It is believed that this carol was sung to the gentry by town watchmen, who earned additional money this way during the Christmas season.
God rest ye, merry gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ, our Saviour,
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

In Bethlehem, in Israel,
This blessed babe was born
And laid within a manger
Upon this blessed morn
The which his mother Mary
Did nothing take in scorn
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

From God our Heavenly Father
A blessed angel came;
And unto certain shepherds
Brought tidings of the same:
How that in Bethlehem was born
The Son of God by name.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

“Fear not then,” said the Angel,
“Let nothing you affright,
This day is born a Saviour
Of a pure virgin bright,
To free all those who trust in Him
From Satan’s power and might.”
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

The shepherds at those tidings
Rejoiced much in mind,
And left their flocks a-feeding
In tempest, storm and wind:
And went to Bethlehem straightway
The Son of God to find.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

And when they came to Bethlehem
Where our dear Saviour lay,
They found him in a manger,
Where oxen feed on hay;
His mother Mary kneeling down,
Unto the Lord did pray.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas
All other doth deface.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy


Listen to Ehukai Teves play “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.”


Playing Tips from Ehukai Teves:

One of the things I like about “God Rest Ye” is that it allowed me to arrange it with economy of motion for your left hand.

It is in the key of Bm, the relative minor to key of D, and easily played in DAd dulcimer tuning. No capo needed.

1. Using middle and ring fingers for the first 1 chord in measure one will give you economical finger movement in the music to follow.


2. This tune may be “fleshed out” with trills, chord substitutions or arpeggios during the held notes.


3. First ending leaves time for singers to breathe.

“Pipe on the Hob” an Irish Jig in A minor for Mountain Dulcimer

I “cut my dulcimer-playing teeth” playing in traditional Irish music sessiúns in New York City. The jigs were some of my favorite tunes, and the sound of the strummed mountain dulcimer reminded me of the ever-more-popular bouzoukis being played in well-known traditional Irish bands. There are a couple of other Irish tunes with this name, but this is the one I heard most. A “hob” is sometimes short for hobgoblin, but a “hob” is also a shelf at the back of a fireplace.


It’s in A Dorian and the way I approach it on our diatonic fretboard is to tune to DGd tuning and put a capo at the 1st fret. All of the frets are the same numbers as you would play them “open,” but “0” is now the capo’d fret. In this arrangement, “do” of the scale is the A at the 4th fret on the dulcimer’s bass string.


The recording of this arrangement is from my 1984 Kicking Mule label recording, “Vive le Dulcimer.” Seth Austen plays guitar and Jesse Winch plays bodhrán. This arrangement is from my 1981 Mel Bay book Anthology for the Fretted Dulcimer, possibly available from for download.


Have fun playing it. I do!

Composing on the Hammered Dulcimer

So, you have been playing your instrument for a while now and you feel the urge to compose something original. But where do you start, and how do you finish? Truthfully, all you really need is your instrument and the desire to make music. But here is a list of hints to get started for the first time:

1) Choose a general starting place – 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, fast, slow, major, minor – in any combination. It could, and probably will, turn into something else once you get started; this is just a place to begin.

2) Noodle with a few notes until you find a short pattern or idea that interests you. It could be a series of notes, a chord or chord pattern. Can’t come up with anything? Try playing the notes that correspond to a phone number, a birth date, address or zip code! This pattern of notes should be short – one to four measures. Play it backwards, forwards, move it around the instrument and see how the sound changes. This could take some time, so relax and have fun with it.

3) Now that you have the first phrase of the tune, you need another phrase, same length (typically four measures, but it can vary), to “answer” the first. “Question and Answer” phrasing, and is a very common musical structure used in many styles of music.

4) After the first “question and answer”, play your opening “question” phrase again. Now you are looking for a second “answer” that makes you feel that the conversation is finished. The easiest way to do this is to end on the note (and chord) that names the key. If you are playing in D, then end on a D. It’s called “resolve” because, well, it settles the “discussion”!

5) Repeat this process to form a B part for your tune. Try playing the A part phrases in reverse, higher, lower, faster, and slower.

6) There is no one “right” format for your music. However, tunes are commonly divided up as 8 measures in the A part, repeated, and 8 measures in the B part, repeated. You can also have each section be 16 measures with no repeats. But this is not mandatory! You can have any number of measures that sound right to you – hey, you can even have different time signatures, key signatures in the same tune. Experiment!

So, now you have the necessary pieces, they sound okay, but something is still missing. You need more… flavor. This is where it gets interesting – and fun!

7) Don’t be afraid to explore your instrument. Try different chord substitutions, harmonies – and dissonances. Try those strings you have rarely, if ever, used – you know the ones I mean! Give yourself permission to make wonderful and hideous sounds. Use bare wood hammers, leather or felt covered hammers. Does your instrument have dampers? If not, try placing painters’ tape down the bridge to create a harp like sound.

Try playing a different instrument – maybe a recorder, pennywhistle, harmonica, guitar, piano, or just sing – and listen to (or record) the various sounds. How might they fit into your new tune?

9) Still stuck? Put your instrument down and do something completely different for a while — The Monty Python solution: “And now, for something completely different!”

  • Go for a walk or do jumping jacks! Physical activity seems to stimulate the creative centers in the brain.
  • Listen to new kinds of music.
  • Open the window. Listen to the birds, the traffic, and the wind.
  • Eating or fasting: tastes, textures, stomach rumblings!
  • Go to a museum, the beach, go dancing!
  • Take a hot bath or have a cup of tea. Do whatever helps you feel centered and able to listen to yourself again.

10) Now that you have something you can work with, tweak the results, keeping the following in mind:

  • Length vs. Material: Is the length appropriate for the material?
  • Satisfaction: Is the musical material you are presenting developed at some point? Or is it introduced only to be dropped – a practice that is very unsatisfying to the listener!
  • Save it: If you withhold an element (it could be a pitch, rhythm, that great chord substitution, etc.), it will sound fresh when presented.
  • Contrasts: Think pitch, volume, texture, complexity and the variety of each.
  • Unity vs. Variety: Is there too much repetition causing predictability? Or is there too much variety, also causing it to be confusing? The trick is to write something that sounds inevitable but not predictable.
  • Simplicity: Direct, simple ideas often communicate better than complex structures.


Last but not least, how to find a title for your piece?

Normally, your title should reflect the basic idea of the composition. But it doesn’t have to! In some ways, a title serves as a kind of packaging. It should be interesting enough that listeners will want to find out what is “inside.”

  • Consult a thesaurus or dictionary (Just open it anywhere and start looking).
  • Look through literature or poetry.
  • Try a word association game.
  • Ask someone else. (Ask your mom!)

But, what about copyright?

Unless you’re a big name rock star, there isn’t much reason to apply to the Library of Congress for copyright. The small circle-c (©), date and your name on the first page are sufficient.

“After the Rain”

composed by Susan Vinson Sherlock

Listen to Susan Vinson Sherlock play her beautiful ¾ air, “After the Rain.”