Cold Frosty Morn in A Minor for Dulcimer

“Cold Frosty Morn” is another haunting Irish, modal tune which is played in the Key of A Dorian, a minor key. Last month, I re-tuned my mountain dulcimer to DGD, capo 1 so that I could play the tune, “The Congress Reel” in A Dorian. Why not find another tune to play while the dulcimer is re-tuned to this modal configuration. With a little effort, I figured out a pleasing arrangment for “Cold Frosty Morn” in both a lower and higher octave. Often this tune is played by placing a capo on the 4th fret of the mountain dulcimer to play in A minor. The disadvantage is that the wonderful, deep string tones of the lower frets of the dulcimer are lost. Sometimes the dulcimer seem to whine. DGD, capo 1 tuning eliminates this problem.

I “auditioned” my dulcimer collection to find a dulcimer with balanced tones. Since the A Dorian scale (DGD, capo 1 tuning) is on the middle string, it is helpful to have a bass string which is not too loud. A strong bass string can overpower and drown out the melody on the middle string. This dulcimer has a phosphorus bronze string on the bass but it does not appear to be wound. Also, placing a capo on at the first fret shortens the fretboard. Dulcimers with a short vibrating length can lose their resonance when a capo of placed anywhere on the fretboard. And sometimes some of the strings “buzz” when a capo is used. These are other considerations, especially when purchasing a dulcimer.

There is a saying, “A person can never have too many dulcimers.” However, I reached my limit and vowed never to purchase another dulcimer. I have to admit, it is tempting. Over the years, there have been many changes in mountain dulcimers. Quality of wood, larger body and shorter scale length all have improved the tone and ease of playing dulcimers.

I was determed that I had purchased my last dulcimer until I stumbled upon a Bob Magowan dulcimer at an estate sale. This dulcimer was too good to be true and has turned out to be my “best” dulcimer. It is made of Tarara wood, also called canary wood because it sometimes is yellow with red streaks. Tarara wood is a colorful, excotic wood from the forests of Brazil and Bolivia. The dulcimer is sturdy with an ebony fretboard overlay and no buzzes, The action is just right. The f-shaped sound holes seem to reverbrate the sound through the air. The tone is deep, resonates. Guess I am just lucky! This dulcimer is a pleasure to play. Thanks, Bob. Now, no more dulcimers.

Bob makes only one standard dulcimer. What I had assumed was the model number turned out to be a scripture psalm reference which Bob had placed inside the dulcimer. Comforting touch.

About the tune, Cold Frosty Morn

“Cold Frosty Morn” or “Cold Frosty Morning” was written to commemorate the battle of Culloden Moor, near Inverness in Scotland. On the morning of April 16, 1746, the English Army massacred a Scottish Army composed of 7000 men — killing many of the soldiers. This ended the Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland. The forces of Prince Charles Edward Stuart (the Young Pretender), were attempting to reclaim the throne for his family as the ruling Queen had left no direct descendants except the exiled Stuarts. It didn’t help that the Stuarts were Catholic, not loyal to the Church of England. Prince Charles Edward Stuart had returned to Scotland after being raised in Italy to take up the rebellion left by his father. Prince Stuart met a British army led by the Duke of Cumberland, son of the Hanoverian King George II. The battle was decisive and it finally settled a contest for the monarchy which had lasted for almost 60 years. The Duke of Cumberland went on to scour the highlands, burning homes, driving off cattle. The British government was determined to punish the Scots and destroy their highland way of life, making sure they did not rebel again. As a result of these atrocities the Duke of Cumberland was given the name, “the Butcher.”


For “Cold Frosty Morn,” tune your dulcimer to DGD and place a capo at the first fret. In this arrangement, either strum across the strings and/or flatpick. Although this tune works great when the melody is played with the other strings sounding out as drones, adding chords can change the feeling of the song. Or add the bass string to the melody string and play them in unison on the runs. Some suggestions for chords in the DGD – capo 1 tuning are giving at the bottom of each tablature arrangement.

I arranged versions for both lower and higher octaves. The tune’s melody actually goes across all the strings. Here is the fretboard with the dulcimer tuned to DGD-capo 1. The A minor scale is found on the middle string. It can also be played beginning on the bass string and ending on the melody string. The A Dorian mode uses the F sharp note and not the F natural note.

About tune variations

As with most of these older tunes, many variations exist. I found a wonderful arrangement of “Cold Frosty Morning” on YouTube played by David Schnaufer on mountain dulcimer and Butch Baldassari on mandolin. (A link is provided at the bottom of this post The tune begins at 50 seconds.) My arrangement is slightly different than Schnaufer’s. Yet, you can still tell they are the same song. In any event, I play much slower! Schnaufer is the master, indeed. It is the enjoyment, not the speed, of playing a tune which brings satisfaction, in my assessment. Enjoy this great, haunting Irish tune!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s