Frequently Asked Questions

Most of our public appearances are in the style of what we call "informances" where we spend a portion of our time talking about and answering questions concerning our music and instruments. The following is a list of our most frequently asked questions (in order of frequency). If you have a question that is not answered here, please ask, and we will do our best to answer it.  Email here:

"What is that?"

Most of the time, this question refers to the hammered dulcimer, the concept of which dates back thousands of years to ancient Persia. The hammered dulcimer is a trapezoidal shaped box with strings running horizontally across it and those strings are struck with small wooden sticks, or mallets, referred to as hammers, hence the hammered dulcimer. This instrument made its way across Europe during the Crusades and then across the Atlantic with the British colonists to the New World.

The hammered dulcimer is the ancestor of the modern piano and played a part in the development of the harpsichord as well. The piano is a box with strings running across a sound board and those strings are struck by mechanical hammers attached to a keyboard. The hammered dulcimer is merely a smaller box with strings that are struck by hammers held manually by the player rather than connected to a keyboard. The harpsichord is a similar design to the piano, but the strings are actually plucked, which gives the harpsichord its brassy sound, but limits the volume it can produce. The piano, originally called the pianoforte (meaning soft and loud) adapted the characteristic of striking the strings from the hammered dulcimer rather than plucking them like the harpsichord, and was therefore, able to adjust its volume from soft with a light strike of the strings to loud with a more forceful strike of the strings. Even though the hammered dulcimer is the ancestor of the piano, it is not tuned like a piano, nor does it have the piano's range.

The word "dulcimer" is mentioned in the King James Bible in Daniel 3:5, 3:10 and 3:15 and that reference is used by many to prove the age of the instrument.  Some scholars, however, think the term "dulcimer" did not refer to the modern instrument as we know it, but possibly the psaltery, a box with strings that were plucked instead of struck.  This does not alter the fact that there are images dating back to the 12th century of a trapezoidal shaped box with strings being played upon with sticks.  So, perhaps the diplomatic way of viewing the age of the dulcimer is to say that it is definitely many hundreds of years old, and the concept of a box with strings that are struck with sticks, regardless of the tuning or the name, is most likely thousands of years old.

For more information on the origin of the hammered dulcimer, please refer to this page from the Smithsonian Institute:

"Is that the kind of guitar they had back then?"

The guitars of the 18th century were more like what would be called a mandolin today - smaller bodied, with 8 to 10 strings in double courses.  These instruments were designed to be played in small, intimate settings such as a parlor or a family room, where the volume of the instrument would have been sufficient to entertain the family. They were also one of the few instruments that were considered appropriate for ladies.  The guitars used today are a modern Spanish style, of a design dating from the mid-19th century, and they have the larger body we have come to recognize that also produces more volume.  If we were to use an authentic 18th century style guitar, very few in our audience would be able to hear it.

"Is that a violin or a fiddle?"

Yes. The violin and the fiddle are the same instrument and their names are derived from the same root, the Old English word fithele (denoting a stringed instrument) which in turn was based on the Latin vitulari (meaning "to celebrate" or "be joyful").  Nowadays the different terms generally refer to how the instrument is played; most tend to associate the violin with classical music and the fiddle with bluegrass or mountain music. As our former fiddler, Paul Brockman, says, "If Itzhak Perlman can call his 1714 Stradivarius a fiddle, I can call this a violin." As a side note, Paul's fiddle was hand-made for him by his brother Jimmy in 1984, and features a unique scroll carving of a man that from some angles looks a lot like Paul.

"Is that a clarinet?" "Is that bamboo?" and "Did women play the flute (or violin) in the 18th century?"

The confusion about the clarinet comes from the appearance of one of Susan's instruments, a simple system flute made in 1835 of an African blackwood (ebony, cocus, or grenadilla), which is the same wood used to make modern clarinets and oboes. However, those instruments are held vertically and have reeds, whereas the flute is held horizontally and is cross-blown. One rule of thumb is that if you see someone playing an instrument sideways, it's generally a flute. A similar confusion about bamboo arises with another flute made of boxwood.  Boxwood is similar in colour to bamboo, but in fact comes from the same plant that is used to create hedges and topiaries in formal gardens.  It takes two to three hundred years for boxwood to grow thick enough to make a flute, so while this instrument is a modern reproduction, the wood is actually over 200 years old.

As to whether women played the flute in the 18th century, some probably did, but most women adhered to the etiquette of the time that deemed it unseemly for ladies to play the flute or for that matter, the violin or cello. However, rules of etiquette, like laws, are generally reactive rather than proactive, so we assume that some women must have been playing these instruments or it would never have occurred to anyone that it wasn't a good idea.

"Did women play music in public back then?"

Music was considered an essential part of a lady's training, learning to sing or to play the harpsichord or English guitar.  However, with the exception of those few singers and actresses who appeared in formal stage productions, women generally did not perform in public.  A woman's most prized possession was her reputation, and one quick way to sully that reputation would have been to engage in un-ladylike behavior such as playing the fiddle or singing in public.  A real lady would have reserved her musical talents only for the entertainment of her family and guests in the privacy of her home.

In modern times this has all changed and now it is perfectly acceptable for women to play the flute, fiddle, or cello without damaging their reputations.  We hope that our audiences will overlook this inaccurate representation of gender assignments and enjoy the music.

"Is that a cello?"

Yes, that is a cello, and we have found in our research that the cello was a popular instrument in the 18th century. Not only was it used in symphonies and orchestral settings for classical music, but it was also used by fiddlers as accompaniment when playing for dances. While the fiddler would play the melody, the cellist would play a background part, a harmony piece or a countermelody, and on occasion play the melody as well. Neil Gow, acclaimed Scottish fiddler and composer, was often accompanied by his brother, cellist Donald Gow.

"Where do you get your 18th century-style clothes?"

We make some of them ourselves and purchase the rest through 18th century vendors known as sutlers. Some of us take part in historical reenactments from the Colonial and early American periods (about 1740-1830). There is an extensive sub-culture of people involved in that hobby and, consequently, there are many businesses that market to them. At most events, the sutlers sell clothing, patterns, fabrics, etc., and at some larger events, it is possible to buy an entire 18th century household, from clothing to tools to house wares. Here are a few links to sutlers that can help you make just as much of a fashion statement as we do.

Barkertown Sutlers
Burnley & Trowbridge Co.
Cobb Creek Merchants
Fugawee Corporation
Jas. Townsend & Son
Kannick's Korner
Panther Primitive
Past Patterns
Smoke and Fire
The Silly Sisters
Split Rails

"Is this music Celtic?"

Sort of. The music of colonial America was the music the people of Europe brought here with them, so we play tunes that originated in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France, Italy and Germany. Very often the tunes gained new titles after they emigrated and over time the tunes from the British Isles turned into what we now call Old-time and Bluegrass music.  By the way, that word is pronounced 'keltic,' with a hard 'c.' It’s only pronounced 'seltic' when you're referring to basketball, which the original Celts did not play.

"Do you write your own music?"

We do, on occasion, write some original material in the style of the 18th century that blends well with the actual 18th century music we play. Our first album, Jefferson and Liberty, features an air that Paul wrote called "Glen Affric," which we paired with "O! Say Bonnie Lass." The Road Out of Town has three "neo-traditional" tunes - "The Eighth of August," which Susan wrote, and two of Bob's compositions, the title cut and "McPherson's Farewell to Craig Dubh." Our fourth recording, Lynnhaven Bay, includes the title cut by Paul and two more of Bob's tunes: "Jump the Broom" and "Captain Nathaniel Colley."


We have received many comments over the years about our music, our instruments and our appearance, but a couple of them stood out from the rest:

"You all just have perfect faces for this kind of music." We puzzled over this for a while, and then decided to take it as a compliment.

"You guys are better than a nap." We heard this from a man in a tour group from New England who thought our presentation on music of early America at a local historic home would be his opportunity to sit in the back and catch up on his sleep.


Susan Lawlor ~ Updated June 23, 2015


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