Sounds Of The Mountains: Appalachian And Ukrainian Musicians 'Play Their History'
You might be familiar with a traditional instrument called the mountain or lap dulcimer. But there’s another, lesser-known dulcimer in Appalachia called the hammer dulcimer. It’s a bigger, stationary instrument that isn’t related to the lap dulcimer at all. In fact, it’s a relative of a Ukrainian instrument called the tsymbaly.
The Hammer Dulcimer And Its Ukrainian Relative
When I first learned about the connection between the Appalachian hammer dulcimer and the Ukrainian tsymbaly, I was intrigued. With just a quick glance at the two instruments, there’s no doubt they are related. But how? With 5,000 miles of ocean and a land mass in between, where was the link?
To start my investigation, I talked with Lynette Swiger, a hammer dulcimer player from Fairmont, West Virginia. She’s a retired elementary school teacher and adjunct professor at Fairmont State University’s West Virginia Folklife Center.
I visited Swiger at her farmhouse in Marion County. She sat on a stool behind a large wooden board laced with exposed strings. The afternoon sunlight illuminated her hands as they moved across the board, gently drumming the strings with wooden hammers that resemble little skis. The music rippled and rolled, resounding into the air.
Swiger was introduced to the hammer dulcimer when she was a teenager.
“My mother was the local 4-H leader and there was a man from Manninton called Russel Fluharty,” she said.
At the time, the hammer dulcimer tradition in north central West Virginia was beginning to fade away. According to Swiger, Fluharty single-handedly kept it alive. He was called “the dulcimer man.” When Russell played for Swiger’s 4-H group, it was the first time she had ever heard the hammer dulcimer.
“And when he left, I wanted to play that instrument,” she recalled.
Swiger had her eye on a dulcimer made by a local woodworker, which cost $125. She said she got down to pennies to make up that $125.
“I remember I poured it all into a brown paper lunch bag and tied it at the top with a piece of string and took it to Ralph Campbell's house and plunked it down on his coffee table,” she said.
A Common Ancestor
Swiger learned to play hammer dulcimer in the traditional West Virginia style. And although the approach is unique to the region, many versions of the instrument are played across the world. Swiger told me our hammer dulcimer is a descendant of the hawkbrett, an old German instrument.
“Hawkbrett means chopping block, so you would chop with your little hammers,” she said.
As people migrated, the hawkbrett did, too. It made its way west, through Great Britain, Ireland and eventually to Appalachia, where it became known as the hammer dulcimer. It also migrated to the east, taking root along the way, including in the mountains of Ukraine. There it was known as the tsymbaly.
When European immigrants came to work in the Appalachian coal fields, they each brought their own version of the hawkbrett — the tsymbaly and the hammer dulcimer.
“The two instruments existed, side by side, right here in Marion County, West Virginia and really never crossed over for a variety of reasons,” Swiger explained.
As a musician and teacher of folklore, Swiger wanted to figure out why. Through her research, she found that the hammer dulcimer is a simpler instrument, while the tsymbaly evolved to be larger, more elaborate and ornate. The isolation of the mountains and the ethnic separation in coal camps also impeded cross pollination between the two.
Appalachian Music Makes Its Debut In Western Ukraine
In 2013, Swiger presented her research about the differences and similarities between the tsymbaly and hammer dulcimer at a conference in western Ukraine. So, of course, she packed her dulcimer.
“So I'm going down the Pittsburgh Airport, wheeling this trapezoid on a wooden box, it's half as big as me, and people are giving me the oddest looks,” she said. “And then I'm telling the airport workers, ‘please be careful with it’ … I have ‘fragile’ written all over it. And they're saying ‘what is it?’”
But when she got to Ukraine, it was a different story.
“I get it off the luggage rack and one of the handlers hands it to me. And he says ‘tsymbaly!’ And I said, ‘Yes! Yes!’ And I'm wheeling it down the airport and people are saying ‘tsymbaly, tsymbaly!’ ... They knew exactly what it was,” she said.
Swiger recalled that she felt right at home in the mountains of Ukraine.
“When we walked into the mountains, the people were just common mountain people, just like they are here. People would come out of their house and wave to us…their laundry was hanging on the lines,” she said. “I mean it was just like being at home.”
At the opening session of the conference, Swiger and her hammer dulcimer took center stage.
“Everyone was there,” she said. “And it was very hushed and quiet. I sat down with that instrument, and they really wanted to hear Appalachian music played on their national instrument.”
A Tsymbalist From Lviv
The hammer dulcimer community is still active in Appalachia, but the presence of tsymbaly has largely faded away. And since I couldn’t find a tsymbalist here in Appalachia, I decided to look to the source. After some intense internet sleuthing, I found my guy.
Vsevolod Sadovyj is a classically educated musician and multi-instrumentalist from Lviv, Ukraine. I met Sadovyj over Zoom, in typical millennial fashion. He wore a hoodie and hipster glasses. A drum set filled the screen behind him, speakers lined the shelves and I spotted a keyboard peaking into the frame. It was the home of a musician.
Sadovyj’s tsymbaly was much more ornate than Swiger’s hammer dulcimer.
“It’s decorated in the mountain style, with a lot of colored glass [decorations],” he said. “It’s got a lot of wooden elements…steel strings.”
Sadovyj lives near the Carpathian mountains of western Ukraine, a terrain which has greatly influenced the traditional music of the region.
“The scale and the tempo is precisely matched to the landscape,” he said. “And you're always going down and going up and going down and going up. It's 90 percent instrumental music, really fast and highly decorated melodies, fast tempos and rich in ornaments.”
Sadovyj said nowadays not many people play tsymbaly. It’s heavy and hard to tune.
“There is a joke, it says that the tsymbalist…half of his life, he's tuning his tsymbaly. And the other part of his life he's playing on an untuned one,” he said with a laugh.
But Sadovyj has taught himself how to play, drawing inspiration from traditional music and blending it with his classical training and contemporary interests.
“I think one life is not enough for going through all the traditions of tsymbaly just in our mountains,” he said.
Sadovyj is a full-time musician and music teacher. He plays in a group called “Lemko Bluegrass Band,” whose style blends traditional Ukrainian music with bluegrass. In the past several months, he and his fellow musicians have been playing gigs to raise money in support of Ukrainian troops. Lviv, the city where Sadovyj lives, has been mostly spared from the violence in eastern parts of the country.
Sadovyj said there’s a growing trend of young people like him who are interested in preserving traditional music and Ukrainian culture, an act which feels significant, especially amidst the current circumstances.
“The traditional arts, the folk music, the dances…it all matters,” he said. “We have treasures we see around us. I want to listen to it [traditional music]. I want to share it with my friends.”
A Meeting Of The Musicians
Sadovyj’s passion for the tsymbaly and folk music of Ukraine felt so similar to Swiger’s commitment to the hammer dulcimer and folk music of Appalachia. And after talking to them both, I found it puzzling that both instruments originated from a common source, centuries later nearly collided right here in West Virginia, but then promptly went their separate ways. They were like magnets of the same pole, repelling each other when they got too close.
So I decided to interfere. I set up a Zoom call to bring Swiger and Sadovyj together, along with their instruments.
Swiger was in her farmhouse in Fairmont.
“I live in the mountains on a farm,” she described to Sadovyj. "If you go to your mountains, the Carpathian Mountains, if you go there and look around, that's what it looks like here.”
Sadovyj was in his home on the outskirts of Lviv.
“I'm now in my place, in my home. It is a small house, a tiny house and outside there is a small village outside the city,” Sadovyj said.
From there, the conversation took off, talking about tuning and melodies and musical terms that went right over my head.
Sadovyj played his tsymbaly for us, cell phone in one hand, and hammer in the other.
We had just a 40 minute time limit on Zoom, which quickly timed out. The next 40 minute call also maxed out. And as we talked, they exchanged knowing smiles, united as insiders with this instrument that has transcended time and place.
“Folk traditions are only by ear,” Sadovyj explained. “We had an attempt to write down the songs, but it is a very interesting quest, because every word, every verse is different. There is some core, and we learn the core. You understand me?”
“Yes! We do the same here… exactly!” Swiger exclaimed in agreement.
‘We Are Playing Who We Are As People’
Throughout my conversations with Sadovyj and Swiger, they both expressed a deep commitment to preserving the heritage of their people through music.
“In Ukraine, we have really deep, deep roots. And we still have evidence in a village," Sadovyj said. "The grannies are singing in the 9th or 10th century style. It's really a treasure.”
“This traditional Appalachian music, it's our roots,” Swiger said. “If you look at the titles, they are named after specific people…events in the area, places, creeks. So when we play those tunes, we're playing our history. We may not know it, but we are playing our history. And we are playing who we are as people.”
And that, I learned, is what links the hammer dulcimer and the tsymbaly. In both western Ukraine and in Appalachia, these instruments are vessels, holding a history and culture that is so specific yet altogether universal.
As we wrapped up the Zoom meeting, Sadovyj proposed they call again.
“Maybe we will meet once more and you will show me your dulcimer,” he suggested.
Swiger agreed. She’d have her dulcimer ready to go.
This story originally aired in the July 29, 2022 episode of Inside Appalachia.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, which is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation.
Subscribe to Inside Appalachia to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.