LIMA — For Doug Berch, there was something magical about the dulcimer.
“I don’t know what it is,” the then 22-year-old Berch told The Lima News on April 27, 1980, “but you can throw people with all different kinds of interests into a room with a couple dulcimers and they’ll have a blast. It’s just something about the dulcimer.”
Berch was a native Brooklyn, N.Y., hardly a hotbed of dulcimer playing, and had lived most of his life in the metropolitan Northeast. “I can’t see me and a redneck guitar player being thrown together in the middle of nowhere and hitting it off,” he said.
Maddie MacNeil, of Front Royal, Va., where a dulcimer player might more likely be found, felt the ease of playing the dulcimer lent to its popularity, although that, she said, didn’t mean it was played well. “The thing that people have to realize is that they must put something of themselves into it, some of their own work. Even the dulcimer is not a gift,” MacNeil told the News on May 6, 1979. “To get the joy of it, you have to put something into it.”
Berch and MacNeil, and thousands of other dulcimer players — not to mention saw players and autoharpists and bones players and fans of American folk music — were thrown together at The Ohio State University Lima Campus for 14 straight springs from 1979 through 1992.
The Great Black Swamp Dulcimer Festival grew out of the work of Michael Wildermuth and Dr. Susan Porter at what was then known as OSU/Lima Tech. According to a booklet commemorating the festival’s 10th anniversary in 1989, “It was in Michael’s fertile mind that the idea of putting on a dulcimer festival in Lima, Ohio, was first born. Michael was, at the time, a long-time lap dulcimer player and member of the faculty of the Lima Technical School …”
Wildermuth recruited Porter from OSU-Lima’s Music Department and, with the assistance of his wife, Sharon, put on the first festival in May 1979. Two hundred people attended the first festival, which included entertainment from MacNeil and the Dulcimer Alliance, Wildermuth’s band. MacNeil appeared at the festival every year until it ended in 1992.
Porter became the festival director in 1984, overseeing its growth from a one-day festival in 1979 into what was described as “one of the largest teaching festivals in the country” when Porter was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1992.
She was a good choice. A native of Okmulgee, Okla., Porter received a doctorate in musicology from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1977. She taught at OSU-Lima from 1977 to 1993 and was the first woman promoted to full Professor of Music at OSU-Lima. Porter wrote the book “With an Air Debonair: Musical Theater in America, 1785-1815.” She had a love of American folk music dating back to her childhood, according to a Nov. 5, 1991, article in the News.
In 1982, according to the festival booklet, learning options were expanded by offering a special five-hour workshop. “The instructor was Maddie MacNeil, teaching beginning mountain dulcimer. … This concept of long-term workshops has continued to be an important and very successful part of the weekend format.”
On April 22, 1984, the News reported, that “more than 50 workshops will be offered during the weekend. Interested persons will have the opportunity to learn to play the dulcimer as well as the autoharp, the bones and even the tin whistle.”
Dulcimer workshops included teaching on both the mountain or Appalachian dulcimer and the hammered dulcimer. Although they share a name, the two are different in origin, shape and method of playing. The mountain dulcimer is plucked while the hammered dulcimer is, well, hammered with a small hammer.
“One of the more than 100 workshops being offered at the ninth Great Black Dulcimer Festival is the musical saw,” the News wrote April 17, 1987, adding that participants were being asked to provide their own saw.
The Great Black Swamp Dulcimer Festival was much more than workshops on plucking and hammering, or finding music in tools. Each year of the festival up to 10 main acts graced the stages. MacNeil and the Dulcimer Alliance were regulars along with acts like the Ruffwater String Band and Jean Ritchie.
“Much of Ritchie’s repertoire,” the News wrote April 6, 1986, “is the old songs she sang as a child in the hollers and hills near her Kentucky birthplace of Viper.” Ritchie, the News reported, “is credited with popularizing the dulcimer — especially the mountain variety.”
Dulcimer player Sally Rogers, who appeared at the festival in April 1988, may have best summed up the festival when she told the News, “I believe there should be an appreciation of the music of traditional songs, if not a love of it, a participation in music instead of a ‘Walkman’ mentality.”
“Get out the herbal tea and toss on a little something calico,” the News wrote April 19, 1992. “The dulcimer players are coming to Lima in swarms. Hundreds of dulcimer players — along with an ample portion of guitarists, fiddlers and the occasional autoharpist — will hit town Friday for the 14th Great Black Swamp Dulcimer Festival at Lima Campus.”
It would be the last festival. Porter, the guiding light of the festival who had been battling cancer for several years, died in October 1993.
“Her love of American folk music led her to play the dulcimer and organize the annual Great Black Swamp Dulcimer Festival at OSU-Lima,” the News wrote in her Oct. 5, 1993, obituary. The paper noted that a memorial service was planned for Porter at the Lima Campus. “The dulcimer quartet Sweetwater, a favorite of Porter’s, and other musicians will perform at the service.”