Dulcimers add musical charm to Roche de Boeuf festival

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 12

Not far from the carnival music at yesterday’s Roche de Boeuf festival in Waterville was a quieter sound – one that might have been heard 150 years ago.

The Black Swamp Dulcimer Gathering brought their sweet stringed music from the 19th century to the modern day.

“We just love the sound,” said Vickie Halsey, one of the founders of the 20-member group.

Northwest Ohio’s history has always been an important part of the annual Roche de Boeuf festival, sponsored by Waterville’s chamber of commerce.

But festival organizers gave this year’s festival, the last of the 1900s, the theme of “As the Century Turns,” and put a focus on activities from the 1800s.

So yesterday there were soap makers, bobbin lace makers, blacksmiths, and potters, all showing their wares. But probably the most popular was the dulcimer group.

Members play two varieties of the instrument: A mountain dulcimer looks like a small, elongated guitar and sits on the player’s lap, and a hammered dulcimer is a carved box with a series of taut strings stretched across its face. The strings are struck by felt-topped hammers and produce a piano-like sound.

The group, with the female members decked out in bonnets and long dresses, played dozens of selections from its repertoire yesterday, many of them Civil War-era standards and folk favorites.

The titles belied the songs’ age: “Mississippi Sawyer,” “Lincoln and Liberty,” “Gray Cat on a Tennessee Farm.”

The instrument can inspire fanatical devotion in some of its players. Just ask Claire Sniegowski, the sister-in-law of dulcimer player Rosemarie Tokar and a member of the audience yesterday.

“You know how they say some women are golf widows?” Ms. Sniegowski asked. “Well, Rosemarie’s husband is a dulcimer widower.”

Festival organizers called the 19th century activities “lost arts.” But Ms. Halsey said that dulcimer music is no lost art: There are more than a dozen dulcimer groups throughout Ohio and Michigan, many of them formed in the last five years.

“There’s been a resurgence,” she said. “People like the music of a bygone era.”