Interview with Jerry Rockwell, Mountain Dulcimer Player & Builder

I admire Jerry Rockwell’s mountain dulcimer playing. He’s got a generosity of spirit that manifests itself both in his music, and in the playing of other players he has taught and influenced. I’m one of them, and some others who have benefited this way from knowing Jerry are Steven K. Smith, Andy Beyer, Stephen Seifert, Bing Futch, and Molly McCormack.

Jerry’s true to the music, and that was demonstrated when he played in an ’09 concert I produced. The show was a tour de force of powerhouse players, but Jerry’s performance was the memory-maker of the evening. The audience felt it. Without words, Jerry conveyed what it means to be centered in the love of the music. The resonant comment about his performance was, “He brought us all back to the music.”

This could not have been done without mastery of the instrument. Jerry was one of the first to thoroughly explore chord theory and improvisation on the mountain dulcimer’s diatonic fretboard. He was one of the first to perform and explain “two-handed tapping.”

Jerry Rockwell’s talents as both musician and luthier have been important to the development of the mountain dulcimer. We’ll start with the music.

This video of Jerry playing the Irish air “The Fair and Charming Eileen O’Carroll” demonstrates the heartfelt way he can interpret traditional folk music:

Jerry’s written arrangement of the piece follows at the end of this article.

Now that you’ve heard his touch on traditional music, here’s Jerry performing some equally beautiful improvisation on his original composition, “Light into Darkness”:

DS: Jerry, can you explain your overall advice to people learning to play the mountain dulcimer?

Jerry: Simple playing can show you the path. Educate your ear…practice…be in love with the music and get inspired by people who play it the way you like. To me, the dulcimer’s magic has to do integrally with the drone. When you are starting out, try to use at least some of the open string drone sound when you can, and you’ll find that the dulcimer will cooperate with you to make some pleasing sounds – sounds that you and others listening will enjoy.

I think it’s a good idea to put simple folk songs you already know on the dulcimer (even starting with one string):  children’s songs, campfire songs, or whatever you grew up with. This doesn’t require any written music. With a little trial-and-error, you’ll find your way. Well-known folk tunes fit on the dulcimer extremely well in most cases. Once you have a little familiarity with picking out tunes on the instrument, there are many fine instruction materials and dulcimer-teaching events to help you at the beginning level and higher.

DS: Jerry, your own musical roots were in rock & roll guitar, weren’t they?

Jerry: Yes, like many guys my age growing up in the 60s, I took up the guitar about the time the Beatles arrived. I loved all sorts of rock guitar styles, from Chicago blues, to surf guitar, to the jingle-jangle of folk-rock. I also listened a lot to jazz guitarists: Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Barney Kessell, Johnny Smith, and others. Jazz was pretty far out of my range, though, and I had nobody to mentor me at that time.

 

DS: How did you start playing traditional folk music?

Jerry: I became interested in traditional folk music right around the time I was leaving my first undergraduate stint (at Plattsburgh State in northern New York) around 1970. I heard the recordings of Mimi and Richard Farina about a year earlier, and the sound of Richard’s dulcimer just flipped me out! I just HAD to get my hands on one, so I took a trip down to the Norfolk and Virginia Beach area, where I found a nice all-cherry traditional dulcimer (probably made by Frank Proffitt, Sr. or Leonard Glenn) in a pawn shop for $75!

At that time I had no idea how the dulcimer worked, and I didn’t really have a book to learn from back then either, though I later got my hands on Jean Ritchie’s classic The Dulcimer Book. So I just sort of went crazy with Farina-like, freewheeling jams and improvisations. After some months, I started thinking it might be better to learn some real folk tunes, and see what some other dulcimer players were doing. It was very difficult to find recordings that featured the dulcimer. I special-ordered a few here and there, and found Paul Clayton’s “Dulcimer Songs and Solos” and maybe a few others. But it was a lonely world back then, and there weren’t any dulcimer festivals. There were some great folk festivals, though, and I did get to a few of them, like the National Folk Festival in DC, and a few others.

In 1972 an LP from the English band Steeleye Span was recommended to me. This was my first real “musical epiphany,” and I have not recovered from whatever fever I caught that day! I went on from that point to get totally immersed in the English Folk and folk-rock revival, getting all the Steeleye recordings, as well as those by Fairport Convention, Richard & Linda Thompson, Pentangle, and many others. I still got goosebumps from English folk to this day. The music is a beautiful, unbroken thread that goes WAY back in history, and tells the stories of the common folk.

Irish folk music also had a strong pull for me. I can remember getting an LP by the great Irish uillean piper Seamus Ennis, probably around 1970. Planxty, the wonderful Irish folk group, had several albums out in the early 1970s. I was totally enchanted by their album, ”The Well Below the Valley.” By the mid-to-late 70s I was living in Vermont and playing all manner of traditional fiddle tunes with the lively community of folk musicians in Burlington. I always felt more connected to the jigs and hornpipes than any of the other Irish tunes.

Besides Richard Farina, the other dulcimer player who had the greatest impact on me was Roger Nicholson, the great English musician who passed away several years ago. Roger’s playing was very delicate and subtle, and that always appealed to me. Roger used the dynamic range of the dulcimer to the max. His left-hand fingering had so much precision and clarity, and he was able to execute ornaments with such grace.

As for ornamentation, I tend to use quite a bit of it in the slow airs I play. To me, they are built right into the landscape of the melody: they draw attention to certain notes, and give some extra drama when you need it. My approach is completely intuitive on the slides, trills, turns, or whatever type of ornament I’m using. I never studied any particular style, or got anything from a book. When you work hard to get maximum expression from your playing, the ornaments should come very naturally.

DS: Do you find that there are pieces of music that “want” to be played on the mountain dulcimer?

Jerry:  As a guitar player, I’m always asking myself the same question: “Why am I playing this on the mountain dulcimer and not on the guitar or uke or mandolin?”  I think I probably bring PLENTY of “guitar-style thinking” to the dulcimer, but I hope that listeners can hear something unique in my dulcimer playing – something that would NOT happen on the guitar. It is often impossible to articulate these subtleties, but the dulcimer has a delicate, very plaintive tone, and lends itself very well to the haunting, magical sound of the drones. I look for purely diatonic MODAL music when I’m looking for melodies that will work on the dulcimer. Celtic music fits this perfectly, and when I’m writing my own stuff, the Celtic influence is often very strong. If there is a hypnotic, mesmerizing dronal quality to the piece, then so much the better!

 

DS: Jerry, you have written several instructional and repertoire books for the mountain dulcimer, and I call the reader’s attention to the list of them at the end of this interview.

 

You have also taught a lot of people about dulcimer playing, both as private students and at dulcimer events. What are your feelings about the art of teaching and where you see them headed?

Jerry: Today my teaching consists of playing sparse and simple arrangements – often arranged in two parts – along with my student(s). I try hard to keep the talk and explanations to an absolute minimum. This helps keep the focus on the enjoyment of the actual process of playing music, and my students love this approach.

 

DS: Jerry, your methods of “two-handed tapping,” on the mountain dulcimer present a very attractive musical option for those of us who play the instrument!  With your permission I am placing here your video on tapping for our readers:

DS: Jerry, in 2007 you made a trip to Iceland with your mountain dulcimer. Please tell us about that!

Jerry: I performed in concert and taught a class on the Mountain Dulcimer-Langspil Connection at the Folk Festival in Siglufjord, Iceland. The langspil is the diatonically-fretted zither that is the Icelandic “cousin” of the mountain dulcimer. Here’s a photo of one, and of the class I taught:

Langspil built by musician/luthier Örn Magnússon.

http://www.grapevine.is/Home/ReadArticle/Langspil

Jerry’s workshop in Iceland.

 DS: Jerry, you’ve been loving, exploring and sharing your knowledge of mountain dulcimer playing for almost 40 years now! You saw a lot of its evolution. How do you feel about current dulcimer playing and teaching, and the instrument’s path in years to come?

Jerry: Steve Seifert’s playing and teaching have always been inspirational to me: he’s really stretching the limits of what’s possible on the mountain dulcimer. I especially like his videos and DVDs. There are some fantastic younger players as well: Jeff Hames, Aaron Thornton, Josh Noe, Aaron O’Rourke, Sara Elizabeth Musgrave, and many more. These folks are a beacon of hope for the future of the mountain dulcimer, and I’d love to see them connect with a larger audience.


DS: You’re as accomplished as a luthier as you are in your playing and teaching. Can you tell us a little about your goals in building mountain dulcimers?

Jerry: I’ve always worked toward building a dulcimer that is very responsive to a delicate touch, and yet able to sustain a single note as long as possible. I’m still working in this direction – basically making dulcimers custom-designed for my own delicate and subtle approach to playing.