By BONNIE BAILEY
On Tuesday and Friday afternoon each week, students gather at the Jonesborough Senior Center to play the dulcimer, and sitting in a circle, strumming strings, they join voices to breathe life into old folk songs, bringing the past into the present, if only for a few minutes.
The teacher of the class, Don Burger, has been playing the dulcimer, an instrument with Appalachian roots, for over 30 years.
“I really took to the dulcimer because it’s a simple instrument,” Burger said. “It’s very accessible, and at one time the dulcimer was very common around here.”
The history of the instrument fascinated Burger, who has even taught classes on the subject.
“I taught a class on the history of the dulcimer at King College,” Burger said.
“Its origin is about 200 years ago in Kentucky. It’s the only original American instrument.”
But it gets very little attention, he said.
“People don’t even know it exists,” Burger said. “Being a dulcimer player, I played on the streets in Jonesborough for a few years, and never once did someone come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I also play.’”
Burger organized Jonesborough’s Dulcimer Week, which took place in May of this year, to help give the instrument some publicity.
“It was actually nine days of dulcimer-related free activities so you could experience the dulcimer,” Burger said. “You could see it, you could touch it, you could even play it as part of raising awareness.”
Dulcimer Week sparked interest, which led to the class at the Senior Center, he said.
“The dulcimer is a great instrument for seniors,” Burger said. “People will have wanted to play an instrument, and then life just passes them by… but they still have a song in their heart.”
The dulcimer is a simple instrument, so it’s perfect for beginner musicians who want to learn to play something without too much complexity, he said.
To play the dulcimer, Burger said, “you just need to have a love for music and a dream of yourself as a musician.”
Originally, the class was only supposed to run for seven weeks, but with continued interest from the students, the class has been extended, Burger said.
Carol Cerniauskas, one of Burger’s students, became interested in the dulcimer after attending a concert by Joe Collins during Dulcimer Week.
“I thought, I’m going to do that, and that day I bought my dulcimer,” Cerniauskas said. “I signed up right away because I wanted to make music.”
Cerniauskas, who moved to Johnson City from Baton Rouge a little over a year ago, said the class has been fun for her.
“We don’t just learn the mechanics of playing, we get a lot of musical history. It enriches our whole experience,” she said.
Even the songs the class plays have an interesting history to them, Burger said. “The songs… have really interesting stories. Which song would you like to play?” he asked the class.
“Grandfather’s Clock,” Cerniauskas responded. Burger leafed through his notes to find the right page.
“This song was written around the time of the Civil War by Henry Clay Work,” he said.
“A lot of his songs were not easy to listen to because they were pretty honest about how people were affected. This happens to be a sentimental song, but it’s not so sad.”
The members of the small class launched into the old melody with confidence.
After weeks of practice, the group is now getting ready to perform, Burger said.
“We’ve dwindled down to a core group of people who really seem dedicated to learning and playing, to the point where we’re beginning to show off a little bit,” Burger said.
According to Burger, the class is scheduled to perform at a senior event in November, and members of the class plan to eventually take the dulcimers into area schools “to see if we can get children interested in playing the dulcimer.”
The ongoing dulcimer classes, which take place on Tuesdays at 2 p.m. and on Fridays at 1:30 p.m., are not currently open to new students, Burger said, but he does plan to schedule more classes at a later date.
The Jonesborough Senior Center is located at 307 E. Main St. For more information on Senior Center classes, contact 423-753-4781.
Locals strum up dulcimer skills