An interview with Roger Nicholson by Grahame Hood
Roger Nicholson-Renaissance Man
In the late seventies I bought a second-hand copy of ‘Nonsuch For Dulcimer’ for £1.20. Then I bought a dulcimer. Then I learned to play ‘In Good King Arthur’s Day‘. Whenever I met another dulcimer player on the South London folk circuit and we got chatting, it turned out that that was the exact sequence of events for them too!
Roger was born in London in 1943 and started playing guitar in the early sixties for the usual reasons; “it was a cool thing to do, and attracted girls“. He took some lessons from a Dance Band guitarist, for which he remains grateful to this day, and developed an interest in fingerstyle blues and folk playing. He went on to lead a guitar class at Cecil Sharp House (the headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society), a position he held for twelve years. Roger was perfectly happy with his guitar until he attended a folk festival at Loughborough University in 1968 run by the EFDSS. “I was playing American music, Merle Travis, blues and ragtime. I met an American with a dulcimer, he was visiting, not performing, and I thought what a nice looking and sounding instrument it was.”
Back to London he saw an advert in Collett’s record shop for the dulcimer maker Frank Bond and spent half a day with him before ordering a dulcimer of his own. At one point he thought about buying a dulcimer from a music shop. It had been made by Vox, allegedly for Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones, but it wasn't’t actually a very good instrument. He stuck with the Frank Bond dulcimer, eventually owning three of them at various times. Unlike most dulcimer players at the time, Roger fingerpicked the instrument from the start. This was partly inspired by the American player Howie Mitchell, who he still regards as his greatest influence, and also by the fact, that being used to playing guitar that way, it just felt right. “Howie worked on new construction methods, playing techniques, particularly fingerstyle, and he is credited with inventing the ‘six and a half fret’, which is sometimes called ‘The Howie fret’. He is so important to the development of the instrument. He showed me the potential of the dulcimer, what could be done outside the traditional way of playing. The dulcimer got me interested in modal music, so it led to my discovery of British modal music, which led to early music, (particularly renaissance lute music which would be an important influence on Roger’s style and repertoire) and eastern music. I listened to records and tried to copy the sort of music which sounded right on the dulcimer“.
Within three or four years Roger decided to make it his main instrument. He would sometimes take his dulcimer along to his guitar group at Cecil Sharp House, and there he was heard by Bill Leader, who had set up a small recording studio in the basement there. Bill told Roger he was starting his own small record label, and would he like to do a dulcimer record for it? Needless to say Roger was delighted to agree. He asked his friend, guitarist Bob Johnson, to sing and play on it, which turned out to be a good move publicity-wise, as Bob was just about to join Steeleye Span, to replace the departing Martin Carthy. The new line-up of Steeleye would shortly become one of Britain’s premier folk-rock groups. The resulting album was ‘Nonsuch For Dulcimer’ (Trailer LER 3034, issued in 1972). It was an extremely competent piece of work especially on the tracks where Roger was joined by Bob’s guitar and vocals. Many of the instrumental tracks were Roger’s own compositions, notably the gentle ’Spring Season (Requiem for Richard Farina)’. Bob excelled himself on the eerie Child Ballad ‘The Lailly Worm and The Mackerel of The Sea‘ and even got his fuzz box out for ’The Sheepstealer’. A fair few listeners were impressed by Roger’s take on Bach’s ‘Gavotte in D’ too. The album eventually went on to sell 5,000 copies.
Britain’s most influential ‘underground’ radio DJ was John Peel, and he was very taken with the album, playing it every night or a week. He also invited Roger to appear live on his programme, though when he turned up at the BBC he found John was snowed in and could not be there. The engineer recorded Roger playing and told him to provide answers, as if John was interviewing him, to which John would later add the questions. When the session was broadcast Roger was impressed to hear that the result was quite seamless. “John kick-started my career really, I’m sorry I never got to thank him.”
John Pearse asked Roger to do a book of arrangements from the album. Then he started to get phone calls and letters from folk clubs asking him to play there. There was also the offer of a tour of France and Germany. Roger teamed up with Jake Walton, a singer, guitarist and dulcimer player from Cornwall who had just finished a psychology degree at Reading University, and was teaching guitar in secondary schools in South London. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement, especially as Jake, unlike Roger, held a driving license. Though Jake became a professional musician, Roger never did, enjoying his full-time job as a Public Relations officer in the Foreign Office. He fitted gigs in where he could; weekends and holidays.
In 1974 the British folk record label Argo was issuing a series of albums featuring unusual instruments; Bob Stewart’s psaltery, and also one of sitar and another featuring flamenco guitar. Roger was asked to do a dulcimer record. Though mainly a solo album, ‘The Gentle Sound Of The Dulcimer’ (Argo ZDA204) also featured Jake Walton, Gerry Roff on dulcimer and banjo and Trevor Crozier on some tracks. The album was entirely instrumental this time; again a mixture of traditional and early music, some of which were Roger’s own compositions. Several of the tracks were inspired by the duo having played several times at Allington Castle, near Maidstone in Kent, a religious retreat.
In 1976 he recorded ‘Times & Traditions For Dulcimer‘again for Bill Leader (Trailer LER2094). He was co-credited on this album along with Andrew Cronshaw, who played hammered dulcimer, chord harp and flute and Jake, who by this time had added a hurdy-gurdy to his instrumental arsenal. He had become very taken with the instrument while touring France, and had a friend make him one. He is probably best known as a hurdy-gurdy player today. He also got to sing on a few tracks this time. This is probably my favourite album of Roger’s, particularly the English tune medley ‘Mr Sharp’s Fancy’,(the Mr Sharp in question being of course the well- known English song collector after whom Cecil Sharp House is named) and Jake’s lovely setting of the W.B.Yeats poem ‘The Song Of Wandering Aengus’, played as a dulcimer duet with Roger.
As well as playing, Roger began corresponding with other players and had many articles and arrangements published in various magazines in the UK and in the USA. His erudite and succinct appendix on modal music in Neal Hellman’s 1977 ‘Dulcimer Songbook’ is particularly recommended. He also published two books of arrangements taken from his first two albums. The pieces he wrote for Dulcimer Players News led to Lorraine Lee arranging a two week tour of New England for him and Jake in 1978, the first of five tours of America they undertook.
The same year, Roger recorded another album for Bill Leader, ’The Dulcimer Players’ (Transatlantic LTRA502). This was an anthology of players, including the American Holly Tannen, who was working in Europe at the time, Pete and Chris Coe, and Liz Sobell, who was married to the instrument maker Stefan Sobell. Though best known these days for his guitars, Stefan’s distinctively shaped six string dulcimers were the industry standard for professional players on the UK folk scene in the late seventies. “Liz is a great player of jigs and reels, and took a lot of persuading, but I think she is one of the best things on the record.” One of Roger and Jake’s tracks featured is ‘Who Liveth So Merry’, which, though set to a pretty enough tune, has lyrics which are wetter than a cod’s bathing suit. Jake agrees; “They made me do It”, he whispers, darkly.
There were two more records recorded in the US, ‘Bygone Days‘(Front Hall FHR015) in 1980 and ‘An Exultation Of Dulcimers’ with Lorraine Lee (Greenhays GR707) the following year. This is the only one of his albums currently available on CD (GREEH CD707). “Jean Ritchie invited me to a festival in Kentucky, and then she played over here and toured. She asked Lorraine and I to record for her label.” ‘Exultation’ is actually Roger’s favourite of all his albums; “It was great to work under Jean’s auspices (she appears on a couple of the tracks) and with such great musicians”.
There was one more album, ‘The Free Spirit-Music For Dulcimer‘ which was recorded with Jake, Lorraine and Marc Robine, and issued in Germany on Folk Freak FF4008 in 1982. Roger decided to stop touring in the US in the mid-eighties; “It was just too tiring. I’d come back and have to go to work the next day, so I decided not to do it anymore”.
As the nineties progressed, interest in the dulcimer grew again. Roger was invited to teach at the annual get together of the UK’s Nonsuch Dulcimer society, and in the late nineties he was invited to America again to teach at a dulcimer festival in the Adirondack Mountains, and the next year Lois Hornbostel asked him to the Swannanoa festival. Roger was impressed by the growth in interest in the dulcimer in the US, saying in an interview at the time; “It’s just got bigger and bigger, there are societies, clubs, up to a hundred festivals of various sizes. I think the simplicity of it is an attraction. There were many people at Swannanoa who were in their sixties and seventies who were playing an instrument for the first time, and it is a dulcimer. There is a large bedrock of the dulcimer audience who are like that, and good for them. There are many people who make a living from the dulcimer over there, Neal Hellman, Lois Hornbostel, Lorraine Lee. If I was living there I could probably make a living too, which would include teaching, but a lot of travel, and that doesn't’t appeal to me.” In 1998 he issued a ‘best of’ cassette; ‘The Dulcimer Archive’, as well as a book of arrangements for twelve of the pieces. There was also talk of him doing a tuition book for Mel Bay.
Six years ago Roger accepted the offer of early retirement from the Foreign Office. Not long afterwards, he suffered a stroke. While on holiday in Syria in Easter 2005, he was hospitalised by a heart attack. He has since made an almost complete recovery and still plays both dulcimer and guitar at home. He rarely plays in public now, though he still teaches dulcimer, an activity he enjoys enormously. He deeply regrets he can no longer ride his beloved racing bike.
Roger currently owns two dulcimers, one being by Frank Bond, and being used for AAD and GAD tunings. The other is by an Australian maker called Bill Docherty, who sent him a dulcimer after hearing one of his records. Roger of course wrote to thank him, and Bill said that that had just been a stock model and he wanted to make him something really special. “A couple of months later it arrived complete with my initials in marquetry on the back. He also made one for Jean Ritchie, which I have seen. I’m grateful every time I open the case, it’s a lovely instrument”.
Roger remains the most influential British dulcimer player, and his albums are not too difficult to find on E-bay or in specialist record shops. None of his early albums are available on CD at the moment, though public fascination in Britain with early 1970s folk music is the strongest it has been for decades. Whoever would have expected to hear Vashti Bunyan’s ‘Just Another Diamond Day’ used to advertise mobile phones?
The Docherty dulcimer is used for CGC and BbGC tunings. “The tunings are what suit the respective dulcimers. I’ve experimented over the years with various string gauges and tunings. It can make a lot of difference”. Neither of Rogers dulcimers have a six and a half fret, and that is just how it feels it should be. “I’d been playing for four years before I even heard of one, and just used tunings to get the modes. so I never needed it. (He does sometimes bend a string up a semitone to get a note that would be otherwise unavailable) Likewise I don’t use a capo; as I don’t sing so don’t need to play in odd keys. A lot of American players don’t use modal tuning and they put the capo on the first fret and get the minor modes that way. Another thing I feel strongly about is using the left thumb, which I think is limiting to your technique, you get the stretch but the hand position is turned and if you are going to play with any dexterity you need your fingers all in the same plane. It slows you down. In America I saw people using capos, the six and a half fret is standard, and I saw one and a half and even eight and a half frets in use. The dulcimer has its limitations and you have to work round them. People are trying to play blues and ragtime on dulcimer. I do that on guitar. I don’t think that kind of music suits the dulcimer, one instrument doesn't‘t suit every sort of music. The special quality of the dulcimer is its modal aspect, it’s the only Western instrument with modal fretting and it would be nice to keep it that way”.
There may be a new crop of youngsters learning ‘In Good King Arthur’s Day’ yet!
(With thanks to John Shaw)
Written by Grahame Hood for Nonsuch Dulcimer Club magazine.