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A Tale of Icelandic Dulcimers

Every year, since I was a little girl, my family has attended the Walnut Valley Festival, aka "Winfield." And every year, something special happens that inspires and delights me.

This year, that special moment came when I met some lovely folks from Iceland camped nearby. "Thor" (a nickname, because none of us Americans could pronounce his full name) and his wife, Hildur, were invited to attend the festival by their friend Sam, a man who grew up in Winfield, KS but has lived in Iceland for the past 40 years. The three of them sing professionally in a choir in Reykjavik, and together with a few other friends, were attending the festival this year.

As we began talking, I told them that I play the mountain dulcimer. Not surprisingly, they had never heard of the instrument, so I got mine out to show them. As I pulled my dulcimer out of its case, their eyes lit up with recognition. "It's a langspil!" they cried in unison.

Then, they began to share this history of Icelandic culture and music: There was a time when Iceland was taken over by Danish people, who outlawed all instruments except the langspil. This droning zither was, for some reason, allowed when all other instruments were not. Over time, other instruments returned and the langspil lost popularity. Now, Thor and Hildur told me, they only know one person in Reykjavik - an elderly man - who still knows how to play this historic instrument.

You can read more about the Langspil on Wikipedia and find a few recordings of it on YouTube. It appears to have been played with a bow, reminding me of some Tennessee Music Box recordings made by David Schnaufer.

Over the course of the festival, I shared more music and stories with Thor, Hildur, and Sam. Below is a link to a rough recording of them singing a tragic Icelandic lullaby about a woman who chooses to dash her baby against the rocks rather than allow it to starve to death because she has no food. What a beautiful, haunting song!

On the last day of the festival, I learned that Hildur had purchased her very own McSpadden mountain dulcimer to take back to Iceland with her. Who knows, someday the dulcimer/langspil may take over Iceland again! :)

-Erin Mae, VP

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