Mountain Music’s PA Dutch Instrumental Heritage

by Clinton Martin

When people think of PA Dutch, they often think of the Amish. Indeed in America today, the Amish are the most conspicuous of the PA Dutch roots, simply by their lack of assimilation into the mainstream of society around them. 

But, the PA Dutch heritage encompasses many German groups, including Lutheran, Catholic, and many smaller sects as well. It was these “Fancy Dutch” (as opposed to the “Plain Dutch” of the Amish and Mennonites) that brought the “Scheitholt” to America from Germany. 

appalachian dulcimer, mountain dulcimer, lap dulcimer

The Scheitholt, by name, might be foreign to you, but the modern American adaptation of this 18th-century German import is probably not – that’s the much-loved Appalachian dulcimer (or mountain dulcimer, or lap dulcimer.)

Mountain Music throughout the Appalachian range relies heavily on the sound of the dulcimer, and while the rudimentary design of the original Scheitholt has been out of style for at least 200 years in America, there are pockets of interest, most notably among PA Dutch historical societies, that are preserving, and even commissioning new reproductions of the instrument for their memberships. 

The Scheitholt was played similarly to the modern zither. It was placed horizontally on a table or on the player’s lap, the left hand pressed the strings with a wooden stick sometimes called a ‘noter’, while the thumb and index finger plucked the strings either directly, or with a horn or wooden plectrum, or with a goose quill.