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Historic dulcimer collection featured in free musical exhibits at the Tennessee State Museum
Curator Mike Bell presents the dulcimer collection from the late dulcimer performer David Schnaufer. Rick Diamond/Getty Images/AFP.

NASHVILLE, TN.- A collection of historic dulcimers is being featured this fall as part of three exhibits at the Tennessee State Museum centered around a musical theme. The dulcimer exhibit, which is entitled David’s Dulcimers: Instruments from the Schnaufer Collection, opened Oct. 11, 2013.

The dulcimers were owned by the late David Schnaufer (1952-2006), who was himself a dulcimer virtuoso and a Vanderbilt University Blair School of Music faculty member. He donated his outstanding collection of dulcimers to the Tennessee State Museum in 2006, shortly before his death.

Schnaufer devoted his life to recording, performing, and teaching the instrument. His personal collection was developed through antique store finds, private purchases and trades, and it traces the development of the dulcimer from early forms to contemporary styles.

The donation, with instruments dating from the early 1800s to the late 1900s, includes a variety of hourglass-shaped dulcimers, a Scheitholt, which is the German predecessor of the mountain dulcimer, and some rectangular-shaped music boxes. Twenty instruments from this collection will be on view as part of the exhibition.

Five historic instruments from the State Museum’s permanent collection also are included in the exhibit. An 1840s hammer dulcimer is being featured that belonged to the McDowell family, who in the 1920s and 30s gathered music and information about early traditional hymns and folk songs in the Caney Fork River Valley. Also included is a lap dulcimer that belonged to Tennessee author and poet, Emma Bell Miles, of Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The graceful curves of hourglass and teardrop shaped Appalachian dulcimers were common styles in the mountainous regions of West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky, but the farming communities of Tennessee produced a box-like style of dulcimer that found its grace in the sound it

made rather than its outward appearance. Called “music boxes” by their creators, these instruments have three to four strings on a fretboard attached to a simple box made of local hardwoods.

The majority of the music boxes that have been located have been found in Tennessee or can have their roots traced back to the state. Family histories indicate that the music boxes were most likely built between 1879 and 1940 with the majority of them built in the late 19th century.

David Schnaufer ̶ Dulcimer Virtuoso
“The dulcimer is the wild animal of the musical kingdom.” These words were written by Schnaufer in 2005. “It can be anything, bagpipe, guitar, fiddle, banjo, slide guitar, harpsichord, mandolin, but mostly itself, a droning, angelic power chord of delicacy that lives in its own world, in tune with its surroundings at a level that the well-tempered revolution could never quite tame.”

A native Texan, Schnaufer first strummed a dulcimer in an Austin music store on his 21st birthday and left college three days later to search out other dulcimer players. Before moving to Nashville in 1985, Schnaufer lived in Colorado and West Virginia where he learned to make dulcimers and immersed himself in traditional Appalachian fiddle tunes and old-time string band music. In 1976, Schnaufer won the first national mountain dulcimer contest in Winfield, Kansas. "I only knew three songs," he said, "but I knew them very well."

Schnaufer’s Nashville career as recording artist, studio musician and dulcimer professor revived the sound of the traditional Appalachian dulcimer in contemporary music and earned him the title of “dulcimer virtuoso.”

Schnaufer made his own albums and also recorded with a variety of artists including Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins, Mark Knopfler, and Cyndi Lauper. He played everything from traditional fiddle tunes to jazz, and inspired his students to find innovative ways of playing the dulcimer.

Attired in his signature straw hat and suspenders, Schnaufer was a respected Nashville performer, songwriter, and professional studio musician. He was known as Music Row’s “dulcimer cat” with session credits including The Judds, Kathy Mattea, Hank Williams, Jr., Linda Ronstadt, and Sting.

In addition to making numerous solo recordings, Schnaufer toured with Willie Nelson, opened for the Everly Brothers on tour, performed on The Nashville Network’s Nashville Now and played a solid-body electric dulcimer in the country-rock band the Cactus Brothers. Schnaufer’s dulcimer recordings will play in the gallery during the exhibition.

In 1995, Schnaufer was appointed Adjunct Associate Professor of Dulcimer at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music in Nashville and was one of the first teachers in the folk music program. Blair’s dulcimer program grew to include over 50 community and university students, and Schnaufer also taught numerous workshops at festivals and folklife centers across the country. In 2005, he co-produced Wax, a documentary that captured the drone of the Tennessee music box on an Edison Cylinder Recorder.

“David Schnaufer always believed that the power of the dulcimer was to put music in the hands of everyone,” stated State Museum Curator Mike Bell. “He was dedicated to passing on traditional music and keeping time-honored songs alive and relevant to modern life.”

David’s Dulcimers: Instruments from the Schnaufer Collection, is on view through December 29, 2013 and is open to the general public free of charge.

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