When Helen Bankston first heard the mountain dulcimer playing on the streets of Asheville, North Carolina, she couldn’t have imagined that she and four other Baton Rougeans would form a society dedicated to the instrument one year later.
A community of dulcimer enthusiasts has grown in south Louisiana around the society and other similar groups, Bankston said, and they will all gather and celebrate the instrument at the 15th annual Lagniappe Dulcimer Fete, scheduled March 10-13 in Port Allen.
Regina Payne, who co-chairs the fete committee with Denise Odum, said the fete will include performances by talented musicians and instructional classes for every level from beginner to advanced over the course of the weekend.
Bankston and Payne talked about how they first fell in love with the instrument at the weekly gathering of the society, which meets from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. every Monday at Community Bible Church, 8354 Jefferson Highway.
Bankston recalled the day in 1996 she followed the music to its source — a shop in Asheville that sold dulcimers.
“I had to have one,” Bankston said.
Bankston learned to play in 1997, when she took a Leisure Learning Class on the instrument at LSU.
Five of the class members got together and decided to keep meeting after the class ended, she said.
“We decided if we wanted to keep learning — to keep up our playing skills and get better — we’d have to,” she said, and so the Baton Rouge Dulcimer Society was born. “We had a blurb in Smiley Anders’ column,” she said, “Thirty people showed up that first night.”
The group later changed the name to the Lagniappe Dulcimer Society, but the membership has remained relatively stable over the years. All of the living members who started with that first group still come to practices, she said.
For the past 15 years, the society has organized an annual festival, the fete, bringing in performers to entertain and teachers to conduct workshops for every level from beginning to advanced.
The instrument is most popular in the Appalachian Mountain-areas, Bankston said, and as such, “we’re a bit off the beaten path for dulcimer festivals,” she said. Organizing the fete — which this year will take place at the West Baton Rouge Community Center, 749 N. Jefferson Ave., Port Allen — gives players who can’t get to bigger festivals in other parts of the country a chance to enjoy the music of the talented string of artists, and learn from experienced teachers.
As the more experienced society players practiced music for the fete at their Feb. 1 meeting, beginner and intermediate students went through their third week of lessons in the back classrooms of the church’s fellowship hall.
Pat Murphy led the beginner’s class, which limped through a slow, steady version of a song called “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” which got progressively faster as smoother as they progressed through the class.
“Boom bada boom, bada boom bada boom. Down, down-up, down, down-up, down,” Murphy repeated, slowly at first, then faster and faster.
“See? It’s not so bad,” Murphy said, adding that they’d need to practice the strumming rhythm until it was second nature. “If you’re sick of it, too bad, because you need to learn that rhythm,” she said, triggering laughter from her students, who stayed after class to continue practicing.
That seems to be the kind of person this music draws to the society meetings, said Murphy, who has only been playing for two years and loves it. It’s simplicity, and the fact that the instrument is especially forgiving of players with hands too small to reach some guitar chords easily, or those with arthritis, are part of why people love it as she does.
“It’s three strings and a box. It’s not complicated,” she said. In fact, part of its historical appeal is its simplicity. It was cheap, easy to make, and easy to play.
Not having access to an instrument is no impediment to taking classes at the fete, Bankston said. There will be loaner instruments available.
For more information about the 2016 Lagniappe Dulcimer Society Fete, visit the society’s website, www.lagniappedul cimerbr.org.