Judge Jess Dickinson can play 30 different instruments. However, one instrument continues to fascinate him: the hammered dulcimer.
“If you ever play one, you’ll get hooked. Everybody does,” he said.
The hammered dulcimer is not new. It is one of the oldest instruments to date. The instrument was man’s first step out of the music of beating drums, and into changing tone.
“The hammered dulcimer is probably one of the oldest instruments we know. It is the first temper-related, pitch-related instrument from percussion. Music started with rhythm. People beat logs with sticks and the human experience enjoyed the rhythm of music. What was missing in the early days of music was pitch.”
According to Dickinson, humans figured out that a “catgut”, a stretchy chord, could be stretched and hit it with a stick to produce a tone. The tighter the chord was stretched, the higher the pitch of the tone would sound.
This ability to make different pitches eventually evolved into stringed instruments. This is the origin of the hammered dulcimer.
“It is a box like a guitar, but it’s trapezoid shaped, with sound holes in it. And across the top of it is a bridge in the middle. Strings go across the bridge and they make different pitches on each side of the bridge. And then there’s another bridge over on the right called the bass bridge. There are strings across it and they are the bass notes. And so you have pitches on the left side of the treble bridge and the right. And then more strings on the bass bridge. So there are three sets of strings on a standard hammered dulcimer that you can use to make pitches and you take hammers and make rhythms like a drum.”
Dickinson was raised in North Mississippi by his grandparents. At age 15 he learned to play guitar.
“I was raised by my grandparents up in North Mississippi, in the delta. My grandfather is of Irish heritage and he taught me how to play the guitar.”
He took his guitar skills and built a rock band that performed at his high school prom. From then on he became hooked on music. He attended Mississippi State University, but soon dropped out and assembled a band. They moved out to L.A. and started a job making music in recording studios. He wound up back in the south when he traveled to Arkansas and continued working on a string of musical acts, before decided to re-enroll in Mississippi State University. He then went to law school at the University of Mississippi.
It was after this long journey he found the hammered dulcimer. However, from 2004 to 2017 he served as a Mississippi Supreme Court Justice.
Now, Dickinson is not only a player, but a manager of a company, called Virtual Dulcimer Fest, LLC. The aim of the company was to start a virtual dulcimer festival. Dickinson knew lots of dulcimer players, and other musicians, and didn’t want to lose the community he had cultivated to the coronavirus.
So, Dickinson got to work with several friends and players, arranging a virtual festival. Now the festival is a way of life for the dulcimer teachers who were put out of work because of the virus.
“When we started this thing it was all volunteer.”
That was in March of 2020. Dickinson thought it was going to be a single festival with some lessons and instructions. They gave all of the profits to the instructors. But by June, these music teachers still did not have steady jobs.
“They were starving.”
So they ended up doing another festival in June. Then, one in August. And finally, a Christmas concert. The festival really started to take off.
“We decided this is something that’s gonna last. We formed an LLC in Mississippi called Virtual Dulcimer Festival, LLC, and we scheduled one in February as an LLC and that’s the one where we had 1,700 people sign up and we have another scheduled in June. So this is an ongoing enterprise now.”
The festival has gathered international attention.
“At this festival coming up, I’ll have 70 instructors, I’ve got 520 classes, I’ll have 2,000 people sign up from 15 different countries. I’ve got instructors from the United Kingdom on hammered dulcimer and mountain dulcimer. I’ve got autoharp lessons, banjo lessons, Native American flute lessons. And these instructors if they fill their classes and most do, they’ll make 300 dollars on a one-hour lesson. I can't tell you how many people it's helped survive this pandemic.”
Dickinson’s next festival is June third through sixth, on www.virtualdulcimerfest.com. The retired supreme court justice enjoys playing with a band of local musicians called Blue Grass Appeal, and is married with four children.