Beautiful Dreamer

While sorting through stacks and stacks of dulcimer tablature that I have accumulated over the years, I ran across a partially finished version of Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer.” This is one of my favorite Stephen Foster’s songs. It is very melodic, beautiful. And I see why I never completed the tablature — it is difficult to play on the mountain dulcimer.

Diatonic vs Chromatic Scales

The mountain dulcimer has a diatonic scale — meaning that it uses a 7 note scale with no sharps or flats on the fret board. In comparison, a chromatic scale has all 12 notes – whole notes as well as sharps and flats. Contemporary dulcimer players have added 1-1/2 frets and 6-1/2 frets which give more opportunities to play in additional keys and find additional notes.

“Beautiful Dreamer” has a sharp at the first note, or a D# note–a note not found on the dulcimer fretboard while tuned to DAD in the Key of D. This one note, oddly enough, gives the song it’s character. Omit this note and the song is missing something.

“Beautiful Dreamer”

“Beautiful Dreamer” is a parlor song; a slow melodic song, perhaps mournful or pensive. It is meant to be played in a soft, quite parlor — not a loud and noisy vaudeville stage or nightclub. According to the sheet music, it was the last song that Stephen Foster wrote. While that claim is questionable, it was published after Foster passed away.

Experimenting around and “doodling” on the fretboard.

I like this song, and kept “doodling” on my dulcimer. With knowledge that a person can play additional keys in any given tuning, I tried out the song in the Key of G. With luck on my side, the 6-1/2 fret on the middle string has the missing note – a G# in the Key of G.The rest of the process if figuring out the tablature. To retain the low resonating tones, I wrote the tab for a lower octave and played the measure with the G# an octave  higher. It makes an interesting contrast. Another option would be to play the entire song an octave higher. This sounds nice on a baritone dulcimer but songs a little chinky to me on a standard dulcimer.

Here’s my tablature.. Try it out. Stum, fingerpick or use a combination of techniques.  I love the tune and my arrangement. It is written in couplets of 3 notes sort of 9/8 timing. This gives natural phrases. It’s also necessary that you play all the notes — not just the ones on the melody line; so this is an “advanced” tablature tune. The DAD tuning is used; the key is G. To capture the essence of the song this arrangement uses both 1-1/2 and 6-1/2 frets.

Stephen Foster

Stephen Foster is probably our country’s best known composer. He was born in July 4, 1826, in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania. This town is now known as Pittsburgh. Foster was very musical, He performed in vaudeville shows as a child and was self-taught to play many musical instruments.

This was the era when vaudeville and minstrel shows were prime. Foster signed a contract with the most famous of the touring groups, the Christy Minstrels. The agreement included that the Christy Minstrels would be the first to play his songs in their shows. This helped immensely with familiarly of his songs. Foster signed a publishing contract with the publishers Firth & Pond Co., a New York City publishing company, with credits to include “As sung by the Christy Minstrels.”

Stephen Foster wrote over 200 tunes including some of our best known songs including “Oh! Susanna”. Other favorite tunes are “Camptown Races” (a race track was 40 miles away from Pittsburgh), “Old Folks at Home” or “Swanee River”, “Hard Times Come Again No More, “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair, “My Old Kentucky Home and “Old Black Joe.” The Songwriters Hall of Fame aptly stated that “Fosters’ songs were the first genuinely American in theme, characterizing love of home, American temperament, river life and work, politics, battlefields, slavery and plantation life.” (

Foster died in New York City on January 13, 1864 at aged 37. In spite of all the popular tunes he wrote, Foster died penniless. Copyright infringements contributed to this as well as a drinking problem. As with other great composers, life was not easy for him.

This patchwork quilt square reminds me of “Beautiful Dreamer” and the 1800’s. We have Foster to thank for many memorable songs. Try my arrangement of “Beautiful Dreamer.”

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