The Appalachian Dulcimer in British folk/rock.
By Grahame Hood
When was the Appalachian dulcimer first seen in Britain? It seems strange to think that it was probably not before 1952, when Jean Ritchie arrived with her husband, photographer George Pickow, on a Fulbright scholarship to study folklore in the British Isles. “Everywhere we went the dulcimer helped ease the way…musicians throughout England, Ireland and Scotland held parties and ceilidhs whenever we came, singing and playing their best music for us”. Jean came to the UK again in 1960 and recalls meeting John Pearse, who was very impressed with her dulcimer and asked her to send him one on her return. Jean's dulcimer at the time was fretted under the melody strings only and John had already intended to have it fretted under all the strings when it arrived. When he did get it, he was pleased to see it already had this feature. By the late 1950s, Peggy Seeger was living in London too, giving banjo lessons in The Partisan Café, a well-known Left-wing folkie hang-out, whose bread & butter pudding was the stuff of legend. She would also have had a dulcimer by then, and after her marriage to Ewan MacColl, could be seen playing it in British folk clubs.
Richard Farina was a writer initially but became interested in folk music when married to the Texan singer Carolyn Hester. He was inspired to play dulcimer after meeting Jean Ritchie, and was responsible for getting Bob Dylan his first paid recording work as harmonica player on Carolyn's album along with guitarist Bruce Langthorne and bassist Bill Lee (film producer Spike Lee's father). This brought Dylan to the attention of producer John Hammond and led to him being signed to CBS. Richard recorded an album under his and Eric von Schmidt's names in London in January 1963 and Dylan guested as Blind Boy Grunt, giving the album a kudos it hardly deserves, though it has its moments and points the way towards what Richard would soon achieve. He left Carolyn to marry Mimi Baez, Joan's younger sister. Mimi was an accomplished guitarist and Richard began writing songs and performing them on dulcimer with Mimi. The Dylan/Baez connection made sure they were noticed, but they had no need to hang onto anyone's coat tails. They were good-looking and hip, and Richard was the first person to play dulcimer in a modern way, still using a noter and based on folk styles but with a Rock'n'Roll attitude that had previously been lacking from the folk scene. He basically played in variations of CGC tuning (his dulcimer had a ‘6th and a half' fret) and Mimi often used open G on her guitar, with a capo as required. There are several films of them on YouTube playing on Pete Seeger's “Rainbow Quest” TV show. The instrumental medley; ‘Dopico/Celebrations for a Grey Day' is an excellent illustration of their techniques.
Richard, Joan Baez, and Mimi on stage at the Newport Folk Festival 1965.
1965 was their year; their first album; “Celebration for a Grey Day”, came out in the Spring, credited to Mimi & Richard Farina, and featuring instrumentals as well as some of Richard's own songs, notably the much-covered ‘Pack Up Your Sorrows' and ‘Reno, Nevada'. My personal favourite track is ‘Another Country' which showed what a great writing talent Richard was becoming. One instrumental, ‘V', was an improvisation just on dulcimer and percussion, a large Turkish tambourine played by Bruce Langthorne, who, despite what you may read elsewhere, genuinely was the inspiration for a certain Bob Dylan song. They played the prestigious 1965 Newport (RI) Folk Festival, using other musicians on some numbers and took part in a dulcimer workshop presented by Jean Ritchie. Jean was initially delighted to see so many people had come to the workshop until she realised they hadn't come to see her…
The duo's second album; “Reflections in a Crystal Wind” came out later in 1965 and was a natural progression from the first. It was credited to Richard & Mimi Farina this time, and seemed a little more blues and rock oriented than the first. I have often wondered how his music would have progressed further, but we will never know, as he died in a motor-cycle accident in April 1966, on Mimi's 21st birthday and just two days after his novel “Been Down So Long Looks Like Up To Me” was finally published.
Someone very impressed by Farina's playing was Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones. Though they never met, Brian was inspired enough to get a dulcimer of his own. This was an acoustic one, with violin-style pegs, presumably bought in the USA. Brian told reporters that it was an old English instrument. Keith Richards added that he thought it had a very Elizabethan sound and revealed that the Stones had been listening to a lot of Appalachian music. ‘Lady Jane'certainly had what one would imagine to be an Elizabethan sound; the dulcimer providing the instrumental icing on the cake of the harpsichord played by the American musician Jack Nitzsche. At this time, Brian was making sure that every Stones single had a different sound; the marimba on ‘Under My Thumb', the recorder on ‘Ruby Tuesday' and the sitar on ‘Paint It, Black'being the best known examples.
Wishing to use the dulcimer on stage, he commissioned Jennings of Dartford, the makers of Vox amplifiers and guitars, to build him an electric dulcimer. They examined his original dulcimer and built one based on it, slightly larger, with a Vox guitar pickup mounted at a very steep angle and volume and tone controls mounted on a wooden scratchplate. It had a scroll head but was fitted with four guitar tuners instead of violin pegs. Brian was very pleased with it. Vox decided to make a limited run of them and named it the ‘Bijou' model. Six were made, all identical apart from the last four having a white plastic scratchplate instead of a wooden one. The original retail price was 45 guineas. I still meet people who remember seeing Brian playing the dulcimer on TV and there are several films of it on YouTube.
John Pearse had a reputation as an accomplished multi-instrumentalist and a teacher, writing tutor books for playing guitar in various styles, as well as a dulcimer book for the EFDSS in 1966, and guides to playing the balalaika, 5 string banjo and ukulele. In 1970 he had his own show, “Music Room” on ITV. This featured guests (including Steeleye Span) and included a section in which he built what he called a ‘finger-staff dulcimer', basically a semi-hollow fretted fingerboard which could be amplified by placing it on a table or a simple body. Howie Mitchell had come up with a similar idea which he called a ‘dulciless' (as opposed to a dulcimore…). Pearse's finger-staff dulcimer was the inspiration for his next book; “Make & Play the Dulcimer”, which was the first tutor I bought. At that time John was touring schools popularising the instrument. There was also a John Pearse dulcimer, a basic but playable triangular three-string model, which sold well and is fondly recalled by those who started out on them.
By the mid-sixties, dulcimers were a reasonably common sight in British folk clubs. Being relatively easy to make (compared with guitars or mandolins) they were also common woodworking projects in schools and colleges, this being a time when many young teachers were very interested in folk music, often running folk clubs both in and out of school. Martin Simpson recalls one of his teachers organising school trips to see The Pentangle in concert! The first dulcimer I ever saw was built by the father of my then girlfriend in a woodworking class. The best known artisan dulcimer builder in Britain at the time was Frank Bond, who made both acoustic and solid electric models, these later being used by many well-known musicians.
Folk/Rock as we know it was still a thing of the future, but many of those who would play it were learning their trade in the folk clubs of Britain; Tim Hart and Maddy Prior for example, hanging around the folk clubs of St Albans. Dylan, Donovan and Simon & Garfunkel were having commercial success in the charts and acoustic guitar heroes like Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Davey Graham were hugely popular in the clubs, with many aspiring to play like them.
By 1968 Jansch and Renbourn had joined forces in The Pentangle, a band who could play traditional folk, blues and jazz with considerable aplomb and mix it well.
1968 also saw the rise of The Incredible String Band, whose third album “The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter”, was released that year. The ISB were an enormously eclectic duo from Edinburgh, who between them played almost every instrument known to man. Except mountain dulcimer, though ‘Witch's Hat', a song which perfectly captures a windy October day in Scotland (well for me, anyway!) does feature a competently played hammer dulcimer.
Fairport Convention were one of the early British electric bands to use dulcimer, using it on two tracks on their 1969 album “Unhalfbricking”. The two tracks were ‘Genesis Hall', and Dylan's ‘Percy's Song', both played in the key of D with a noter. ‘Percy's Song' uses it exceptionally well, starting off by just adding another layer to the mix and then going on to play counter melodies. Though not specifically credited on the sleeve it would have been played by either Richard Thompson or Simon Nicol
Oddly enough American folk rock bands did not seem to use the dulcimer at all, though folk/rock arguably had a slightly different meaning in the USA. This was the time when acoustic music and country influences were becoming a big part of American rock music, with rootsy albums like The Byrd's “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” and The Grateful Dead's wonderful “Workingman's Dead” proving both popular and highly influential. Banjos, steel guitars, mandolins and even electric autoharps were cool again, but not the dulcimer. Why? Maybe they were just too folkie?
Fairport Convention's “Liege & Leif”, released in 1969, is usually regarded as the first British folk/rock album, but after its release both Sandy Denny and bassist Ashley Hutchings left the band. Ashley originally planned to form a new band based around the musicians in the Irish group Sweeney's Men, though he had also spent some time with Bob and Carole Pegg, two young musicians from Leeds who were much more interested in traditional English music. Sweeney's Men were Andy Irvine, Johnny Moynihan and Terry Woods. Sweeney's Men had moved away from the Dubliners/Clancy Brothers style of presentation which had so dominated the Irish folk scene and made use of the interplay between Irvine's mandolin and Moynihan's bouzouki, he being the first player to introduce that instrument to Irish folk. This new band did not get beyond the rehearsal stage, and Ashley took Terry Woods, and his wife Gay to join with another duo, Tim Hart and Maddy Prior, to form Steeleye Span. The new line up rehearsed and recorded an album “Hark; The Village Wait” with the aid of drummer Dave Mattacks. The album was excellent, particularly in the blending of Maddy's and Gay's vocals. Tim Hart played dulcimer on the album, though Gay could also play. Good though the music was, the two couples did not get on at all and the new band broke up without ever playing any gigs, a tragic waste of a potentially great band. Ashley recruited Martin Carthy and fiddler Peter Knight to form a new version of the band, which went on to record two more albums; “Please To See The King” and “Ten Man Mop”, both of which featured Tim's electric dulcimer extensively. Tim and Maddy also recorded three duo albums; ‘Folk Songs of Old England” Vols. 1 & 2 and 1972's ‘Summer Solstice', all of which also featured dulcimer.
Steeleye Span MkII- Peter Knight, Maddy Prior, Tim Hart, Martin Carthy, Ashley Hutchings
In the meantime Bob and Carole Pegg had formed their own band, Mr Fox who played Bob's own songs based on legends from the Yorkshire Dales and traditional English music. Their first album featured a cellist and woodwind player, but by their second album, “The Gipsy”, financial considerations meant they were down to a quartet of Bob on melodeon, whistle, organ and guitar, Carole on fiddle, Barry Lyons on electric bass and Alan Eden on drums. Barry played “American dulcimer” on two tracks; a version of ‘House Carpenter' and the album's title track, a long tale of a man's love for a gypsy girl and how he follows her when she goes off in a caravan. There is a long instrumental passage representing his trek across the moors featuring dulcimer, fiddle, whistle and percussion.
Fairport Convention carried on of course, releasing “Full House” in 1970. This featured an excellent version of the traditional Scottish tune ‘Flowers of the Forest' played on dulcimer by Simon Nicol. Simon later re-joined Ashley in The Albion Country Band. They recorded an album called ‘The Battle of the Field' in 1973, though it was not actually released until 1976. Simon plays electric dulcimer (in DBE tuning, I reckon) on the wonderful ‘I Was a Young Man', a superb track in every way, vocally, lyrically and musically, the dulcimer duetting with Sue Harris's oboe.
Gay and Terry Woods (after briefly joining Dr Strangely Strange) eventually formed The Woods Band whose 1971 album was a very interesting item blending traditional Irish material with an acoustic American sound. They had originally stated they wanted to use pedal steel guitar and a Uilleann piper, Paddy Keane, but his dad wouldn't let him join! He turned up later in The Bothy Band. One of the best tracks was ‘January Snows' which featured Gay on dulcimer and vocals accompanied by her husband on concertina. Gay and Terry continued as a duo into the mid -1970s, until they divorced. Gay later re-joined Steeleye Span and Terry ended up in The Pogues.
Ashley Hutchings left Steeleye in 1971, determined to find a more Englishsound. He had married the traditional singer Shirley Collins and produced “No Roses” for her with a group of musicians who were credited as the Albion Country Band. The next year he produced “Morris On”, an album of Morris tunes given the folk/rock treatment, which went on to be a hugely influential album, and can be credited with getting many young folk fans involved in Morris dancing throughout the 1970s.
One surprising user of the dulcimer was the band Led Zeppelin, whose Jimmy Page used it in the studio on the song ‘That's The Way' on the group's third album, released in 1970. Actually Zep knew their folk music well, and Page often mentioned his admiration for Bert Jansch. “Led Zeppelin III”had a much more acoustic sound than previous albums, with acoustic guitars in various tunings, mandolin and banjo all being used to good effect. Arguably the boundaries between folk and rock were pretty flexible at that time, with many rock bands featuring acoustic instruments both live and on record, Family being a particularly good example.
Joni Mitchell also did a lot to popularise the dulcimer, using it live from 1970 onwards. Hers had been built by a lady called Joellen Lapidus, who gave up working in the lingerie department of Bloomingdales to become a hippy dulcimer builder. She had been in the audience for Richard & Mimi Farina's 1965 Newport Folk Festival gig, remembering the audience dancing in the rain, Langhorne's amazing drumming and realising she was witnessing the birth of modern American dulcimer playing. In September 1969 she headed off to the Big Sur festival in California intending to sell her instrument to either Joni or The Incredible String band, “my heroes”. Joni bought it and took it with her on a sabbatical backpacking trip to France, Spain and Greece, which inspired many of the songs that appeared on “Blue”. She used it on four of the albums ten songs; ‘All I Want', ‘Carey', ‘California' and ‘A Case of You'. Reviewing it in the NME in July 1971, Nick Logan considered the last two to be the finest songs she had ever written. Sadly, she never used dulcimer on record again. There was something of a dulcimer revival in the USA in the 1970s spear- headed by young songwriters like Robert Force & Albert d'Ossche and Neal Hellman who wrote a book of Farina arrangements (which you can now download for free) and also “The Dulcimer Songbook”which is full of interesting ideas and directions to explore.
There was a brief period at the beginning of the 1970s when record companies were convinced that ‘progressive folk' music (my own definition, remember those Deep Purple albums with “File under progressive” on the back sleeve?) was going to be The Next Big Thing. Many interesting albums, quite a few of which featured dulcimer, date from this period. Bands using dulcimer from this period included Trees, The Sun Also Rises, Plainsong, Tir Na Nog and Pentangle. Bert Jansch played dulcimer on a few Pentangle tracks, notably ‘A Maid That's Deep in Love' from the 1970 “Cruel Sister” and ‘Willy O'Winsbury' from 1972's “Solomon's Seal.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there actually was a band called Dulcimer, a young trio from Worcestershire whose first album, “And I Turned as I Turned as a Boy”, was issued in 1971. They used dulcimer on a couple of tracks, played by member Pete Hodge, as well as a host of other unusual instruments liberated from junk shops in the best Incredible String Band style. Their stock in trade was songs based on local legends with vocals very much inspired by Simon & Garfunkel. I could make a pretty good case for S&Gs ‘Scarborough Fair' being one of the most influential tracks ever in the folk scene. Even if they did pinch it from Martin Carthy.
Clive's Original Band (C.O.B.) released their first album “Spirit of Love” in 1971. Clive was Clive Palmer, a founder member of the Incredible String Band, best known as a banjo player but at that time mainly playing guitar, his companions being vocalist ‘Whispering' Mick Bennet (who I believe to be one of the truly great British vocalists, though he has never had the appreciation he deserves) and multi-instrumentalist John Bidwell. C.O.B. were completely unique, an acoustic band playing music inspired by living and working in Cornwall for many years and incorporating a host of other influences. John and Clive had invented the dulcitar, basically a dulcimer with a special bridge to make it buzz like a sitar, and John used it on several tracks on their two albums. From 1972, they toured the UK extensively, often supporting major acts like Fairport, Pentangle, Sandy Denny and Ralph McTell.
It is often forgotten that there were many minor influences on acoustic music at the time, notably early music, with instruments such as crumhorns and hurdy-gurdies being revived and played by bands such as Amazing Blondel and Trevor Crozier's Broken Consort, and later by various Albion Bands. The influence of Indian music was also very evident, sitarist Ravi Shankar particularly, with the Beatles, Donovan and the Incredible String Band all dabbling in Indian music, some more successfully than others. Not all sitar players played Indian music of course, John Renbourn using it to play folk with Pentangle and early music on his influential “Lady and the Unicorn” album. In the late 60s/early 70s there was a great deal of interest in Indian spirituality and culture generally, and a trip to India was on every hippie's wish list. Vocalist Alisha Sufit's band Magic Carpet released a self-titled album in 1972, combining electric guitar, sitar and tabla drums with Sufit's open tuned guitar and dulcimer. It worked very well, and Alisha still plays to this day, and still uses dulcimer live.
Another occasional user of the dulcimer both live and on record was Dave Cousins of The Strawbs. They had started out as a bluegrass band called the Strawberry Hill Boys and Dave was highly rated as a banjo player in that style. He used the dulcimer on the title track of “Dragonfly” and more famously on ‘Benedictus' from their 1972 “Grave New World” album, on which the band “finally lived down their folk image” as the Melody Maker put it, the same magazine also informing us that Dave owned two dulcimers; an acoustic one fitted with a pickup and built by Bernard Ellis and a solid electric by John Bailey. Bailey wrote two how-to- build books for the English Folk Dance & Song Society, one for guitars the other for dulcimers. He also built instruments for many artists of the time, including The Incredible String Band. He features in the film about the ISB, “Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending” in which Robin Williamson goes to his house and tries various instruments, including a dulcimer.
Though not really falling into the category of folk-rock, Roger Nicholson was nevertheless a huge influence on the British scene, releasing his first album “Nonsuch for Dulcimer” in 1972. The first British dulcimer album, it also featured Robert Johnson, the guitarist who was just about to join Steeleye Span MkIII, their most commercially successful line-up. Roger once claimed that his first album had sold 40,000 copies, and there cannot be anyone interested in the dulcimer who did not own a copy at one time. Originally a finger-style guitarist, Roger always fingerpicked the dulcimer and went on to make many more albums, often in partnership with vocalist/guitarist and hurdy-gurdy player Jake Walton.
Over in Ireland the first Planxty album, released in 1973, stunned everyone who heard it from the opening track onwards; the interplay between mandolin and bouzouki and the use of the Uilleann pipes on ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsies/Tabhair Dom Do Lamh' became hugely influential. Irish folk music would literally never be the same again, with bands like De Danann and The Bothy Band carrying on the progression. As mentioned, Sweeney's Men had used the mandolin/bouzouki combination a couple of years earlier and Finbar and Eddie Furey had introduced a folk audience to the pipes, but Planxty took it to a whole new level. With very few exceptions, notably Paul Brady, dulcimers were rarely used in the new Irish music. It's just my personal theory, but it perhaps the new popularity of the bouzouki may have been to the detriment of the dulcimer? The new style of Irish instrumental music generally became a much greater influence in the UK scene, and in Ireland. Politically too, things were changing. The IRA's mainland bombing campaign meant that what were once seen as jolly rebel songs about bayonets slashing orange sashes to the rattle of the Thompson gun were no longer quite so amusing, and choosing to sing them could become a political statement in itself.
From Brittany, Alan Stivell came to the Cambridge Festival in 1973, a musician dedicated to reviving the Breton language and its music. As in Ireland, young Bretons were becoming much more political and searching for their own cultural identity. Stivell assembled a band consisting of musicians from a jazz and rock background with a folk edge. He played harp, bagpipes and bombarde, and had a fine fiddler in Renee Werneer, and an accomplished side man in Gabriel Yacoub, who played guitar, banjo and dulcimer. On lead guitar was the wonderful Dan Ar Bras. Their two then-current albums “A L'Olympia”, recorded live at the famous Paris venue, and “Chemin De Terre” (released as “From Celtic Roots” in Britain) were both superb. Yacoub played dulcimer on ‘Susy Maguire' and ‘An Dro Nevez', on the latter album and was pictured on the inside sleeve playing it. He left before the end of the year to form his own band, featuring his wife Marie: Malicorne, setting out to do for French music what Stivell had done for Breton music. Both bands were enormously influential in Europe, inspiring similar bands in Belgium and the Netherlands. Lyonesse, also from Brittany, were one band inspired by Stivell. Their first album, released in 1974, featured an excellent dulcimer led track in ‘Waltz for Ker Ys'.
John Molineux was another outstanding player of the time, making the excellent “Douce Amoure” in 1976. He lived in Brittany from the mid-seventies and later joined the John Renbourn Group, who blended folk and early music and featured Keshav Sathe on tabla, who had been a member of Magic Carpet. This version of the group recorded “The Enchanted Garden” in 1977, and a live album; ‘Live in America'. If you haven't already done so, look at ‘John Renbourn Group Farewell Nancy' on YouTube, a solo performance by John Molineux which is a master class in his dulcimer style.
Roger Nicholson's accompanist Jake Walton played dulcimer in the group Lazy Farmer, whose 1975 album also featured Wizz Jones, ex C.O.B. member John Bidwell on flute and two banjos! To keep up, volume wise, Jake played his dulcimer through a little battery-powered Pignose amplifier.
In real terms, folk/rock was commercially moribund in Britain by the mid to late seventies. Though Fairport were always popular on the live circuit, Steeleye were probably the most successful band still working in that field, having a huge hit with ‘All Around My Hat' albeit in a form that owed more to Status Quo than Cecil Sharp. Armchair music critics (most of whom had not even born at the time) will now happily tell you that the tsunami of punk swept all the irrelevant old music away, which is nonsense. Pubs that once had live music simply found that discos brought in more money for less effort or that there was more profit to be had in converting the old club room to a carvery. Punk ruffled a few feathers to be sure, but few punk bands were commercially successful and the dinosaur rock bands like Pink Floyd, Yes and Genesis that they so despised carried on to be more successful than ever.
Five Hand Reel, a Scottish quintet, released their first album in 1976, going on to record another three by 1979. Featuring bassist Barry Lyons (Mr Fox, Trees) Dave Tulloch on drums and Tom Hickland on fiddle, the band was completed by Dick Gaughan and Bobby Eaglesham, whose vocal styles contrasted yet blended so well. Bobby played dulcimer on some tracks, notably ‘The Beef Can Close' from their third album “The Bonnie Earl O'Moray”.
Though folk/rock gradually vanished from the larger venues, the genre still continued in the clubs and many amateur or semi-pro bands carried on as before. Some still released albums, sometimes only locally and in limited numbers, the record collector fraternity later claiming them to be ‘long lost acid folk classics' and asking £400 for them. Many of them have been re-issued on CDs, and there have been several compilations of this material which are well worth checking out. The 1975 Stone Angel track ‘The Skater', based on a local legend and featuring dulcimers and Jew's harp is particularly worth seeking out.
Another later track I particularly like is ‘Sleepless Night' by Mick Wills from his 1988 album “Fern Hill”. Producer Nick Saloman, a.k.a. Bevis Frond, plays electric dulcimer over Mick's acoustic guitar on the instrumental, which also features alto sax. Bevis Frond sometimes plays dulcimer live, albeit using it more like a guitar and playing it through effects pedals.
In 2005 I came across The Eighteenth Day of May, a young band who were one of the few to successfully channel the spirit of early 1970s folk rock. They played a mixture of traditional and their own songs in a style that owed a great deal to bands like Fairport and (particularly) Trees. Their lead vocalist, Allison Brice, played dulcimer on four of the twelve tracks on their first, and sadly only, album.
This cannot be a definitive list of all the bands using dulcimer in the UK, but I hope I have given you some pointers to assist further exploration. In these days of the art centre gig circuit, many 70s bands are still occasionally gigging, notably the Strawbs, and more recently Plainsong, both of whom still feature dulcimer. Check out YouTube too, there are many performances both from the 1970s themselves (There are some great Steeleye MkII clips) and from more recent revivals.
Corrections and comments most welcome!