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Dulcimer player moves to online jams


Staff Writer

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Don Burger has played his dulcimer in just about every nook and cranny of Jonesborough, but now he’s looking to bring his dulcimer jam session group — that typically gets together each Friday at the Mockingbird Music Room — online.

“A big advantage of this is that when we would have a regular get-together, you could only participate if you could get there,” Burger said after trying out a couple of apps to see which service will work the best for the group. “Now even if you can’t get there, you can be there. I think that’s a significant change in the connectedness. So that means you can be sick and be there.”

The plan for now is to allow one person to play at a time, otherwise with the lag and online glitches you get what Burger said sounds like “muppet stuff.”

Burger said he has tried apps like Zoom and WebEx and plans to try out Google Duo later this week. Other groups, organizations and even churches are navigating this time of social distancing and, to keep some normalcy, have utilized such apps to conduct church services and hold meetings. 

For Burger, it’s no different. He’s just trying to keep the music going while bringing people together through song.

“This is so much in process,” Burger said. “The use of (these apps) are kind of going viral in its own way. Like the pandemic, this good thing is exploding — so much so that fairly soon, everyone is going to be doing this. People are just sort of figuring out how to use their phones to keep life going, to keep some sense of normalcy going.”

Gatherings like these when Don Burger, second from the left, could perform on a stage with friends, have been suspended, but Burger is determined to soldier on. (H&T file photos)

Recently local schools and businesses have closed down due to the COVID-19 health crisis — but that hasn’t stopped Burger, who has a history of soldiering on.

“The only way I can face tragedy and adversity is just to charge at it,” Burger said. “What can we do? I’ve learned a lot about the power of ‘we.’”

Apart from sharing the dulcimer with folks in Jonesborough, Burger also aims to bring music to everyone’s everyday life as much as possible and that includes the group, Keep Jonesborough Beautiful.

“Music is now part of what we do for Keep Jonesborough Beautiful,” Burger said. “So we’re gonna play music with environmental songs that people will be able to see and hear. We had a meeting in Mill Springs Park and we met more than six feet apart. And it worked. It was better than a meeting at the town offices. It was great. 

 “We were faced with the fact that all our events coming up that we work really hard to get out into the public about recycling are canceled. Plus Jonesborough’s not picking up recycling. That’s a big disaster but we were in good spirits.”

Burger joined forces with KJB for nearly the same reasons he first started his crusade to bring the dulcimer back to Jonesborough. He decided he wanted to volunteer his time, but in such a way that added to the community while also appealing to his artistry. And what better way to do that than setting up in courthouse square or in front of the Chester Inn to play a few dulcimer tunes for the everyday passer-by?

“It’s been six years or more of playing in front of the Chester or Sue Henley’s porch or somewhere on a bench downtown,” Burger said. “Now it feels like there’s been some success with this movement of getting the dulcimer back but now that it’s here, how can we offer everyday music to people without charging big ticket prices? Without changing the rhythm of their lives, we’ll just populate Jonesborough and other places with music. It’s kind of working.”

In a way, Burger adopted another local legend’s tendency to greet those making their way through town; Burger said before he started playing throughout downtown, his old friend Alfred Greenlee would join the musician on his walks and Burger took note of how many folks Greenlee would say hello to and wave at from the park bench in front of the courthouse on Main Street.

“Before I played, I’d talk with Alfred,” Burger said. “I walked with him and did it to get to know the town and to exercise. I started looking for places where music could be included in the everyday life of the town. 

“But I felt that kind of welcome because of Alfred. And I used to go over to his house and sit on his porch there to play. His other family members would invite me to play at their houses or come get some coffee and play.”

Now he’s aiming to continue his dulcimer mission of spreading hiss musical gospel of sharing music in everyday life by playing on the streets and continuing his Dulcimer Days week-long event, which normally occurs in May — even if that is only through electronic means.

“Dulcimer Days is a good example (of everyday music) because it’s on porches and on the street and near the storytelling center, the Mockingbird Music Room, it’s at the visitors center, in people’s living rooms.”

“If people still can’t gather, I’m going to do it anyway. I’m going to figure out a way to do it. And if someone tells me I can’t do that, I go, ‘Okay.’ and I go find another way to do it that’s acceptable.”

He’s also happy to continue working with his dulcimer friends, who he says come with all sorts of stories.

One story came about after Burger and a student went for a walk and took a break on the porch of a house he thought was unoccupied. When the new resident showed up to find two strangers on the porch, Burger claimed they were the welcoming committee. Little did any of them know a new dulcimer story was starting right there with the renter who had owned a dulcimer for about 20 years and wanted to learn how to play it.

“She invited us in and we set up an appointment for her to come join the group,” Burger recalled. “Isn’t that a fun little Jonesborough story? I‘ve been in a lot of small towns. I don’t think I’ve ever had that.”

“Each person who is part of this dulcimer society have stories like that about how they came to Jonesborough to play dulcimer. I’ve been kind of blown away by how each one has some kind of amazing story.”

Burger said the group is open to beginners and is designed to be a welcoming environment for first-timers and those who know their way around the wooden instrument.

And now, with its recent remote access, the dulcimer group is also a way to share music at a time when you can’t share much togetherness through this health crisis.

“A couple of the folks I’m Zooming with think they may have been exposed to someone who has the virus so they are seriously quarantined and monitoring any symptoms,” Burger said. “But they’re getting together (with the group). In some cases, at least at first, we were the only contact. It’s face-to-face contact with someone you have some common interests with.”

For those affected and those unsure how they feel about the times in which we’re living, Burger said he hopes the online option can be a source of at least one thing — hope.

 “I think hope comes to mind,” Burger said when asked why sharing music through the dulcimer group might be important. “We do it to feel a sense of hope through shared interests. I found when I’m doing these sessions, you can fit a certain amount of songs in that amount of time, but we don’t because we talk. We talk at our dulcimer sessions, but (lately) it’s changed what we talk about, feeling some kind of miracle of being together and doing this. There’s a hope that comes from just being able to have something.”