Johnson City Press: Group finds passion in all-American instrument

Group finds passion in all-American instrument

Jessica Fuller • Dec 31, 2018 at 11:26 AM

It’s never too late to find a new passion. 

For Carol Cerniauskas, that passion just happens to be the dulcimer. 

When her husband died a few years ago, Cerniauskas was looking for a new hobby to pick up, whether it be painting, pottery or music. Her daughter suggested the dulcimer to her one day, but Cerniauskas waved it off. The next day, she saw a dulcimer player at Jonesborough’s Music on the Square series. 

Joe Collins, a renowned dulcimer player, was playing Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture on the four-stringed instrument. She was blown away and thought, “I’ll never be able to do that.” 

Before she knew it, she had a dulcimer of her own in her lap. 

“As part of Dulcimer Week, they had a workshop all day,” she remembers. “I got hands on, and I got hooked. That very day I bought a dulcimer from Joe Collins.

“I’m in my 80s, and I thought, ‘Well If I’m going to play the dulcimer, I’ve got to really put my heart into it because who knows how long I’ve got with it.’ ”

Cerniauskas takes each Friday afternoon to play the dulcimer with several other players at Mockingbird Music Room and Gallery in downtown Jonesborough. The group is led by Don Burger, who has been playing the instrument for about 30 years. 

Burger has been a musician for 60 years, and while he is proficient in more than 10 instruments, he said the dulcimer is special to him. 

“I came upon the dulcimer as fairly easy to play, all-ages, and I like the authenticity,” he said. “It’s arguably the only American instrument.” 

Burger started Jonesborough’s Dulcimer Days three years ago, which has grown from a one-weekend festival to a weeklong event filled with more than two dozen events and a dulcimer on every corner in downtown Jonesborough.

The instrument has struck a chord with the community, and Burger leads the weekly session with regular members coming to learn different songs.  

Friday afternoon, Burger and three students played Christmas carols, and the tunes of “Silent Night,” “Deck the Halls,” and “Jingle Bells” filled the music room.

It might not be “1812 Overture,” but students of all ages are invited to improve their skills with each strum. 

“You can find the style and the kind of music you like to play, whether it’s slow and easy or some contemporary music,” Cerniauskas said. “We have to search and find where our niche is.” 

The dulcimer is a relatively young instrument, with hints of its birth popping up around 200 years ago. Burger said the creators of the first dulcimers appeared in Kentucky from innovative musicians using whatever materials they could find to create an instrument. 

Burger started playing the dulcimer on the streets of Jonesborough about six years ago when he was asked to teach a class at the Jonesborough Senior Center. Interest with the instrument grew until it ballooned into Dulcimer Days. 

The group meets each Friday at 2 p.m. at Mockingbird Music Room and Gallery, 210 Spring St. No. 2, to practice. Burger stressed that anyone who is interested in picking up the instrument is welcome to the sessions. The group sometimes plays for special events in the area. 

Email Jessica Fuller at [email protected] Follow Jessica on Twitter @fullerjf91. Like her on Facebook at

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