By Debbie Adams
The Roanoke Valley Dulcimers group got its start at the Vinton Public Library back in the summer of 2015. Kimberly Burnette-Dean, now the Vinton Library Branch Manager, and dulcimer builder and musician Jack Ferguson organized the original group.
Ferguson noted at the time the group formed that one purpose for its establishment was to pay respect to ancestors who created and played dulcimers and to keep the tradition alive—to preserve the roots of the instruments. Their desire was to “promote the Mountain Dulcimer as a unique instrument originating in southwest Virginia and the region common to the Appalachian Mountains.”
Burnette-Dean was well-known in the area as an historic interpreter at Explore Park at the Hofauger frontier homestead where she played the dulcimer for school groups who visited.
A dulcimer is a unique percussion instrument with an ancient history, dating back to the Middle Ages in many parts of Europe. The word “dulcimer” is derived from the Latin word dulcis (“sweet”) and the Greek word melos (“song”) and produces what many describe as “sweet sounds.” Dulcimers are typically played on one’s lap and plucked like a guitar.
The group continued to grow over the years, meeting at the library to rehearse for appearances at retirement homes, schools, restaurants, special events, and competitions. Invitations were coming in for them to perform. Big plans were in the works. Then came COVID– but even that didn’t stop them. They continued to meet, but via Zoom– not an easy task. Musicians Earl and Ronda Vandover would lead out each piece and the others would then join in.
Once restrictions began to ease, they began meeting outdoors in the picnic pavilion at Thrasher Memorial United Methodist Church, which dulcimer player Mary Beth Layman says has “great acoustics, was available in all kinds of weather, allowed for social distancing, and gave the players a chance to ‘keep their skills up.’”
As the Methodist church further loosened restrictions, the dulcimer group began meeting inside at Thrasher in the old fellowship hall when the weather was cold, masked and still socially distanced.
Last August (2021) they performed a concert for the community outside in the pergola at the Vinton History Museum. On February 27 several members performed at the Korean Church service at Thrasher. Their tunes included “Amazing Grace” which the congregation sang along to, “Down at the Cross” and “Kum Ba Ya.”
Now, on March 19, they were able to return to in-person practice (masks optional) in the Vinton Library conference room, in preparation for another performance at the History Museum on May 7.
The first meeting back at the library was spent working on the playlist for the History Museum concert. Practice of particular songs was interspersed with discussions of the pros and cons of different types of dulcimers, different events and competitions coming up in the regional dulcimer world, and the comparative difficulties of various tunes.
The Roanoke Valley Dulcimers group welcomes new members, at any level, even beginners. Visit the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/RkeValleyDulcimer/ for more information.
Their next meeting is scheduled for April 16 at the Vinton Library from 10:15 to 12:15.