Cumberland Gap — Dulcimer Beginnings & Ralph Lee Smith

The dulcimer community lost an iconic mountain dulcimer player and historian when Ralph Lee Smith passed away in December. Ralph said that to play the dulcimer, you should also know its roots and beginnings. And he was the person who connected the dots for me; tracing the humble beginnings of the dulcimer and its evolution into the modern instrument that it is today. Ralph collected many early dulcimers. He authored books including two historical ones and seven books of dulcimer tablature. The first tune in his book, “Songs and Tunes of the Wilderness Road,” is “Cumberland Gap” alluding to the importance of this part of Appalachia to the mountain dulcimer. Although I never met Ralph, I was well aware of his historical work from his articles in Dulcimer Players News and communications he had with my father.

Ralph’s premise is that the modern mountain dulcimer evolved from scheitholts which German settlers brought with them to this country. These German immigrants came to Pennsylvania in the 1700’s and then spread out and down through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley on the “Great Philadelphia Wagon Road.” Eventually they journeyed through southwestern Virginia and through the Cumberland Gap to Kentucky, Tennessee and further west. Several pockets of musical instrument makers settled in southwestern Virginia and Kentucky. Over the years they crafted and refined the scheitholt into the instrument which we know as modern dulcimers. Ralph Lee Smith’s extensive research on this subject and tracking down these old dulcimers is impressive and important to understanding the history of the dulcimer.

Family Scheitholt

Little did I know that the scheitholt hanging on the wall in my parent’s home was modeled after one of these old, old instruments. My father found the scheitholt at a garage sale in Harrisonburg, Virginia. It was made by an elderly fiddler luthier who said he got the pattern from a zither dating from the 1700’s which he found in a barn. Ralph Lee Smith also knew of this fiddler-maker and confirmed the story of my father’s scheitholt shown on the left in this photo.

We also discovered that we own a very old mountain dulcimer crafted by an early Virginia southwest dulcimer maker. Excited that I wanted to learn to play the dulcimer, my father purchased this old Virginia-style dulcimer at a flee market in Verona, Virginia, for forty dollars. It is identical to some of the dulcimers described in Ralph Lee Smith’s historical books. These dulcimers have the characteristic teardrop shape, curved handle and drilled holes in the fretboard for sound. To make it easier to tune, my father replaced the wooden pegs with mechanical ones. Alas, the fretboard was badly warped making the dulcimer unplayable. It is now hanging on the wall of my dining room and would have had more value if it had been left untouched.

Cumberland Gap – Mountain Range and a Fiddle Tune

Cumberland Gap is a pass in the Cumberland Mountains which are part of the Appalachian mountain range. The Cumberland Mountains run north to south and the gap is about the only place in the mountain range to forge a passable route to the western frontier of Kentucky and Tennessee. Daniel Boone carved his Wilderness Road through this Gap which opened Kentucky and Tennessee to settlement.


“Cumberland Gap” is also an old fiddle, banjo and dance tune and was named for these mountains. The tune probably dates to the late 1800s although the exact origin is unknown. Several old-time fiddlers commented on the similarity to old Scottish ballad, “Bonnie George Campbell,” except this one is typically played at a faster pace. There are as many versions to the melody as there are musicians and there are numerous versions of lyrics. Some lyrics refer to the Civil War and the fact that the Cumberland Gap changed hands between the Confederate and Yankee forces three or fours times. Other lyrics are more of a nonsense nature and refer to the pioneers living in this region.

Recordings of the Song

The tune has been recorded by many well-known folk singers and artists. Woody Guthrie recorded a version of the song in his Folkways sessions in the mid-1940s. Pete Seeger sang it in the 1950s. The song made it across the Atlantic Ocean where one of Britain’s most popular musicians, Lonnie Donegan, recorded a version of it in the “Skiffle” style. The song reached the top ten in the British popular charts for over a month in 1957. (“Skiffle” style is a type of music played with home-made and folk instruments with influences of jazz, blues and Appalachian folk.) Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs recorded a version the song in the early 60s. West Virginia sitting US Senator, Robert Byrd, also recorded it to show off his fiddling skills.

Connection to the Beatles

The song has an interesting connection to the Beatles. Paul McCartney and the other Beatles would have been teenagers when Lonnie Donegan and his “Skiffle’ music was popular. The Beatles hosted a television show special in the 1960s, “Around the Beatles.” A rockabilly artist, PJ Proby, had an appearance on the show in 1964 and performed the tune, “Cumberland Gap.” Thus, the Beatles knew of this song and style of music. Paul McCartney rehearsed “Cumberland Gap” in anticipation of his 1991 “Unplugged” concert. This rehearsal was officially broadcast as part of the Oobu Joobu radio show. (The Oobu Joobu was a radio show created by Paul McCartney in 1995 and included demos, rehearsals, live performances, and unreleased recordings of Paul McCartney and the Beatles).  Paul McCartney, however, never performed “Cumberland Gap” before a live audience.

Collections of American Folk Tunes

A version of “Cumberland Gap” appeared in the 1934 book, American Ballads and Folk Songs, by folk song collector John Lomax.  The song is also included in the 1960 book, Folk Songs of North America, edited by Alan Lomax, son of John Lomax. Alan was assistant archivist for the Library of Congress folk collection.

This extensive song book had guitar chords and arrangements by Peggy Seeger. Peggy is the half-sister of Pete Seeger and they were family friends of Alan Lomax. Peggy Seeger spent much of her adult living in Great Britain — singing and performing as a member of the folk group, “The Ramblers.” She recorded albums, wrote books and was advocate for many causes. In addition to the banjo, Peggy also played the mountain dulcimer.

Playing “Cumberland Gap” on Dulcimer

Over the years, the tune, “Cumberland Gap” has evolved. There are several, almost completely different, melodies to the tune. Contemporary musicians interpret “Cumberland Gap” in numerous ways — part of the folk process. It is played in bluegrass style, a driving old-time fiddle style and even as a slow melodic ballad.

Since the basic tune is very repetitive — only eight measures which repeat for both the chorus and verse — it is a good one for improvising, adding “breaks,” combining it with other tunes and changing up the melody. I used the version in “Folk Songs of North America” sung by Peggy Seeger as a starting point for my arrangement and adapted it for the dulcimer.

Peggy Seeger’s rendition is unique because there is a “break” in the middle of the song — rather than at the end. These five measures, #13 – #17, break up the monotony of the tune and pick up your interest in what is being played. The measures provide a an opportunity to improvise and make this otherwise simple tune into something creative. It also makes the song an odd number of 21 measures long. If you don’t like this “break” it can easily be omitted — just skip from measure #12 immediately to measure #18.

Ralph Lee Smith’s arrangement of “Cumberland Gap” is completely different. It makes another way to play the song! Enjoy them all — and remember the history of this Appalachian region in relation to the dulcimer as told to us by Ralph Lee Smith.


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