by Frances Sherwood
David James, South Bend resident and first place winner in the National Hammered Dulcimer Contest, 1986, came to the dulcimer via several other instruments. Linking himself within the Irish tradition, James is responsible for several innovations in hammered dulcimer technique. Learning the five-note roll from the famous Irish fiddle player, Liz Carroll, James adapted it to the dulcimer, giving it a sound akin to the Irish Harp banned by the harsh Penal Laws of the 1600s.
He also has introduced the "independent hands" approach characteristic of the piano to the dulcimer, achieving a contrapuntal effect reminiscent of baroque music. Therefore, he is essentially able to play his own backdrop and is not dependent on the straight melodic line with chords to carry his tunes. Another precedent he has set is to pluck with one hand and use the hammer simultaneously with the other. James is able to play several voices at once, use harmonics, and has even transcribed orchestral scores to music for the hammered dulcimer.
In addition to winning national competitions in Chicago and Winfield and placing second in the 1985 International Competition "Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann" held in Ireland, and running workshops and performing at music festivals across the country. David James has written and published the secrets of his success in a book with accompanying tape: Hammering and Plucking: Technique for Advanced Playing of Irish and American Tunes on the Hammered Dulcimer.
James's music is rich, complex, daring and innovative, yet springs from and is part of an old tradition, Irish and American. Not only a champion dulcimer player, but a jack-of-all-instruments, a singer, and an activist, James's life and work form an anthem to the ideal of "making things right in the world."
My life flows on in endless song above the earth's lamentation
I hear the real though far-off hymn that hails the new creation
Above the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing
It sounds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing.
It all started out with piano lessons in elementary school. While in high school in Atlanta, Georgia, he heard blues guitarist Jimmy Reed, "which blew my socks off." Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddly, Muddy Waters-"in those days Atlanta was crawling with good bluesmen," and James went from piano to guitar. A "natural," he learned through listening, watching, repeating. "Somebody teaches you what progression is, and then you learn a song in G. Somebody asks you to do it in C, you learn little licks and pieces, and bit by bit, you build up a repertoire."
Similarly, attending Georgia State University for a year, he picked up bass, banjo, and moved from blues to bluegrass to old time music. It was while playing bass at a South Bend club and during a Notre Dame Blues Festival (he was a student of political science, graduating in 1970) that James came to the attention of Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong, the last of the old-time black string bands. He toured with the trio, a hectic rocky schedule of up and down, back and across: the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Border Folk Festival at El Paso, Texas, the Ark Coffeehouse in Ann Arbor, Pete Seeger's Clearwater Festival, and Kenny's Castaways in Greenwich Village.
What though the tempest loudly roar I hear the truth, it liveth
What though the darkness round me flow, songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I'm clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing.
Liz Carroll of Chicago introduced James to the Irish fiddle. And it was while playing banjo with the California Street String Band nine years ago and getting strings at the Sunflower music store in South Bend that James heard his first hammered dulcimer music. "What's that?" he asked. It was Bill Spence and Fennig's All-Stars. No turning back.
His first hammered dulcimer was built from a kit and his second is custom-made, one of the few in the United States with dampers that allow for staccato and other variations. He has appeared at Benton Harbor with Banshee, the Great Black Swamp Festival, the summer Battleground Festival in Indiana ("You go into that place and it's like walking into Paradise, all types of music - gospel, Irish, fiddle, you name it"), the Michigan Dulcimer Festival, the Cranberry Dulcimer Gathering, and the Lark in the Morning Music Camp in Mendocino, California. Toting dulcimer, guitar, banjo, violin, and bass, James has played in Michigan and Indiana with the Sugarfoot String Band, the Bluegrass Gentlemen, and the California Street String Band.
He appears at peace rallies, union events, and civil rights demonstrations playing songs for the folks like "Solidarity Forever" (all six verses), "Turkey in the Steel," "Frankie and Johnnie," "Been a Friend to Me," "Tree of Life," "Rifleman of Bennington," and "Two Soldiers." A musicologist in his own right, James knows the history of each song, prefacing each performance with "therein lies a story." When playing Irish music such as "Nellie Donovan" and "Over the Moor to Maggie" or the Turlough O'Carolan piece, "Eleanor Plunkett," he is conscious and faithful not only to the sound but the spirit, the connection with all people and music through time and space.
How can he keep from singing?
Frances Sherwood is a free-lance writer living in South Bend.
April 1988 Arts Indiana, p. 31
Reprinted with Permission