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By ANNETTE HARVISON
The Greene County Museum and halls of the county courthouse were filled with the hypnotizing sounds of the dulcimer last week as the Chickasawhay Celtics gathered for a time of fellowship through music.
The group of Greene Countians gets together once a month at the Greene County Museum to practice, bringing nostalgia and a sweet, soothing sound to the relics of the past on display around them.
Pat Bond, Scharlotte Fortinberry, Arrixie Sproul, Brenda Berry and Sandy Ezell make up the Chickasawhay Celtics. The group began nearly one year ago after Bond performed on her dulcimer at the 2017 Scots-Irish Festival in Leakesville. A few people were interested in the sound of her stringed instrument, and after a little investigating, a small group of dulcimer players was formed.
“It’s not a difficult instrument to learn,” Bond said. “It’s fun. It goes back to the old ways of people getting together and playing and singing.”
Bond began playing the dulcimer 20 years ago while living in Tennessee. She found a group while there, where she learned much about the instrument. When she moved back home to Leakesville, she began touring local festivals and soon joined a dulcimer group near Hattiesburg for a while.
Bond and Sproul began meeting at the museum where Ezell worked on the days they practiced. Ezell was eventually persuaded to join the group. Fortinberry works at the museum as well and comes from a musical family and was excited to join. Berry enjoys making music and is happy to have found a great group and a fascinating instrument. Each one brings a delightful personality which adds to their sound.
“I was in band through school,” Berry said. “I enjoy playing music again.”
Each member has a different chord, bringing both harmony and melody. Having a musical background is not necessary as the group members said the chords are written out in numbers, though knowing how to count time is necessary. The strings can be strummed with or without a pick.
“We go to Greene Rural (Health Center) to play hymns to the residents,” Fortinberry said. “They love to hear the music.”
The group has a large portfolio of tunes. They enjoy taking their dulcimers to the nursing home and lifting the spirits of its residents, whose faces, Berry said, light up when the group performs.
“Hymns were a big part of their lives,” Berry said. “It reconnects them to their childhood.”
Hymns are not the only songs the group plays. They play ‘old-country’ music, traditional songs played on the dulcimer as well as many popular contemporary songs.
During their latest gathering at the courthouse, the group played “Aura Lee,” “I’m so Lonely I Could Cry” and even “Silver Dagger” by Dolly Pardon. Sproul sang the lyrics to many songs, but no matter what tune the group is playing, the sounds are enchanting.
Over the past year, the group has traveled to several festivals where they have learned new techniques and have also performed for an audience. They have taken lessons in their travels, and give much credit to Debbie Porter, a lady from Texas that travels to festivals, including some in our area.
“We have come a long way with her help,” Sproul said.
The Chickasawhay Celtics have met many new people in their travels and keep in contact with them. John Mabry, also known as the “Dulcimer Doctor,” joined the Chickasawhay Celtics for Thursday’s practice, bringing with him a little fun and entertainment. Mabry crafts dulcimers and restrings them. He has played with many area groups and attends local festivals as well. He knows a few fun lyrics to sing along with traditional tunes and treated the group with one of them as they played together. He said the sounds of the dulcimers are unique to each instrument. The style and finish affects the sound of a dulcimer.
Though some may think the dulcimer came across the ocean on a boat with people singing tunes from their Northern European homeland, the mountain dulcimer was born along the Appalachian Mountains. It hails the title of being a true American instrument. The mountain dulcimer is a stringed instrument having just three or four strings on a fret that is on the sound box rather than on a neck. It is a member of the zither family, and like a zither, a dulcimer is played on the lap.
German immigrants that settled in Pennsylvania brought with them the ‘Sheitholtz,’ a small, rectangular box resembling the neck of a guitar with strings in the top of the instrument. As the German settlers began moving into the Virginia’s, the sound of the sheitholtz did as well, and the British Islanders that had settled the area created their own version of the instrument. They made a bigger, teardrop shaped sound box with frets on the body rather than a neck. Mountain dulcimers were made of wood and many had intricate carvings. Sometime later, crafters began making hourglass shaped dulcimers, and both styles are still used.
The group is currently preparing for a performance at Leakesville’s second annual Scots-Irish Festival to be held Mar. 30 in Green Park. The group holds practice in the Greene County Museum the fourth Thursday of each month at 9 a.m., and they gladly welcome newcomers, and even those that are just interested in what the group does.