CHAPTER 4: Dulcimers in the British Isles since 1800 > Dulcimers in Scotland

"Sawing up the coal-house door": after the first world war

Thereafter there is a gap until the early years of this century, when today's players started playing: Jimmy Cooper's recollections are quoted here since they are the most vividly expressed, but are supported by the accounts of many others:

"There were dozens of dulcimer players after the first war - they were so easily made. Now, the likes of violins and accordions were expensive and we'd no money to buy them, so you'd to make your own instrument. They had wee houses, no bathrooms, just single ends and down in the yard were coal cellars where you kept the coal - I've seen them take the door up and saw it up to make a dulcimer, a couple of planks of wood for the sides, old keys from a piano.

[keys = tuning pins]

"I was thrown in at the deep end; it was 50 years ago [= 1920s and 30s], we all learnt from one another, After the first war there was no jobs and no dole, so we took up busking. It was illegal in the main streets but not in the back rows: one day we got chased off, we were playing outside the police station ... another time I was sitting outside a big tenement block with my mate, a woman went to throw us some money, she knocked a flower-pot down on to his head - I'll not forget that ...

"You see, in Scotland at that time it was always a dulcimer and a melodion played at all the dances. We had a makeshift drum, toot it was something unusual to have a drum in the band, Then in about 1922-23 came the saxophones, and the dulcimer died out ,.. they were still played in the pub and on the street, on the boats going up the Clyde, I didn't play with two dulcimers because I always made mine loud - some of them you couldn't hear above an accordion. You hear it better when you're away from it...

"I don't know what makes the difference in tone between one instrument and another: in Scotland everybody made their own, but I liked mine the best, There were shop-made ones, but they were no good - I never would have them: we had to make a D instrument to play in the key of G: a shop one would have doubled up, they didn't have them strong enough; they'd be low-keyed, my G would be their C. If I was to put that one at low pitch, you couldn't hear it behind a newspaper - it's got to be up, and look how that one's bent already.

"We used to buy wire at half-a-crown a pound, no.II we used to call it, we used the same gauge all over, Most people had four wires to a note, some had three, Five wouldn't be much good - you can only hit four, and you're lucky if you do hit the four! Aye, there were always two sound-holes, Most of the shop ones had bridges like yours, continuous all the way up, "I saw this bloke busking in a pub, and I went and had a go; he says, 'You'd make a good dulcimer-player', I says, 'Och, I threw it under the bed 20 years ago', so I did, aye. So he says, 'Can you do this, can you do that?', he threw a towel over it ((see fig. 157 )) 'Can you do that?'... he wasn't very pleased, and somebody says to me 'You shouldn't do that!', I says, 'Why, who's that?', 'That's the great Scott from Glasgow...'"

more of Jimmy's memories from this time here
more on Jimmy's own playing here