In recent years, the hammer dulcimer has achieved great popularity in folk and new acoustic music circles. On Friday, five of the instrument's best players will share the stage at Georgetown University's Gaston Hall. John McCutcheon, Paul Reisler (with his group Trapezoid), Walt Michael and Malcolm Dalglish (with his group Metamora) are the young lions of the instrument, and their very presence is a tribute to Paul Van Arsdale, the North Tonawanda, N.Y., musician whose dulcimer prowess originally inspired them.
Van Arsdale has been playing the instrument for 54 years, but it only regained its currency in the past 10 years. "I give credit to all the colleges that held folk festivals and revived the interest, along with a few individuals that got started in it," Van Arsdale says.
"At one time it was quite a lot more popular than it was starting 20 years and back, but it had kind of faded out of the picture," he explains. "The original hammer dulcimers weren't suited to playing popular music like jazz, they didn't have the sharps and flats, they weren't chromatic. Their popularity more or less died out with the popularity of square-dancing and the old-time dances, which is where my association" with the instrument developed.
While Van Arsdale has been something of a father figure to the new generation of players, he's only had his own chromatic hammer dulcimer for about four years. "I really don't play anything too modern on it but it does give you a wider range of tunes."