Old Time Music for the Parlor


There was a time in our not so recent history when a question for most people was not, “do you play an instrument?” but “what instrument do you play?”

Before television, cell phones and the advent of the Internet, families and friends socialized not over an episode of “Survivor” but around a fireplace where they sang and made music on the popular instruments of the day.

The Bridgehampton Historical Society has set out to recreate that form of merry making with its Parlor Music Series which returns this weekend for a fall run after a successful debut last spring. Concerts will be offered Saturdays at 2 p.m. in the parlor of the society’s Corwith House and first up will be Larry Moser who will perform on the hammered dulcimer on Saturday, October 4.

“The idea is a single musician in our parlor making music as someone might have performed 100 years ago or more,” says Stacy Dermont, program coordinator for the society.

Dermont, who grew up on a farm in upstate New York, admits that the idea for the parlor music series can be traced to her rural heritage.

“Maybe a germ of this is a deep rooted jealousy,” she confesses. “I was too little to go to the square dance across the road that my neighbors had when they were teenagers. I thought they were the coolest people and to me at the time, it seemed like it was a huge rollicking barn dance. I sat on my side of the road just watching thinking, ‘Someday.’’

“In rural areas, it’s this idea of communal celebration, talking, singing, dancing and getting together.”

These days, Dermont is in a position to ensure she won’t get shut out of the fun — but because space is limited, lots of other people might.

“You don’t find live music except for church on Sundays. So I wasn’t surprised that it could attract that kind of sold out waiting room only audiences,” says Dermont of the spring series. “People latched on to it from day one. We had great audiences — consistently half of them from Sag Harbor and half from Bridgehampton.”

Larry Moser will be coming from Huntington with his hammered dulcimer. He also plays the guitar, accordion and English concertina, frequently at the Old Bethpage Village Restoration. Though often thought of as European in origin, Moser has found evidence that hammered dulcimers are much older than that.

“The Indians and Iranians today play the santour, which is like a hammered dulcimer,” he explains. “At Old Bethpage on Sundays, Orthodox Jews come. I knew it was at least 1,000 years ago, then one day, a man came and said it’s called a ‘santer’ and is in the book of Daniel in a list of instruments. Clearly that’s the same thing as santour, so it definitely goes back to the Middle East at least 2,500 years ago.”

The instrument then made its way to Greece courtesy of Alexander where it got its new name.

“The hammered dulcimer spread through Europe and into Italy in the 1500s where it became the harpsichord and the piano.”

But pianos and harpsichords were expensive, so hammered dulcimers were for poor folks.

“If it’s played with fingers, it’s called psaltery,” adds Moser. “There are very few psaltery players around anymore.”

The instrument made it’s way to North America in 1705 and was played up until the 1920s or so — at which point guitars and accordions came into favor. The Appalachian dulcimer, which is strummed, was invented in the early 1800s, developed by Scotch Irish settlers and has a much softer sound than the hammered dulcimer.

Moser notes there was a revival in hammered dulcimers when folk music made a resurgence in the 1970s.

“What limits it is the 29 courses of strings,” he says. “People ask me, ‘Is it hard to play?’ I tell them, ‘No, it’s easy to play. Just be prepared to spend half an hour a day every day keeping it in tune.’”

Admission to the Parlor Music Series  at the Bridgehampton Historical Society (2368 Montauk Highway) is $5. Seats sell out early, so reserve at 537-1088. Coming up on October 18, 2008  is nautical songsmith John Corr followed on October 25 by banjo virtuoso Bob Barta and a puppet operetta on November 1 by Liz Joyce and Steven Widerman.

 (Above: Larry Moser at the hammered dulcimer)