My mother was a classically-trained pianist and violinist who concertized on piano in a three-state area as a teenager. When she became a mother, she vowed that each of her children would learn piano at age five, a wind instrument at age eight, and a stringed instrument at age twelve. I chose flute for my wind instrument and guitar for my stringed instrument.
I never became that accomplished on either piano or flute, although I enjoyed playing them a lot. I used to murder Chopin. In fact, when my friend Jose Luis, a very accomplished pianist (see my earlier post “Christmas in Puebla 2007” about my visit to him in Mexico), came and played some Chopin on our piano, my sons couldn’t believe that it was the same music! 🙂
Nor was I that great on the flute, although in law school and later I was rather good at jazz improvisation on flute.
No, the instrument at which I excelled was the guitar. My first guitar was from Sears and cost all of $12.00, but after I bloodied my fingertips playing it for almost a year, my parents surprised me with a gorgeous 1964 Gibson C-1 Classical, which now lives in Istanbul, Turkey with Sevket Basdelen (see my earlier posts “I Used To Live In Istanbul, Parts One, Two and Three”). I had one lesson in classical guitar. At the second lesson, my instructor told my mother that I had outstripped his knowledge and technique.
I played lots of flamenco music on that guitar. My parents, who were teachers, used to take us camping each summer all over the United States, Canada and Mexico. One year when I was about 14, we were camped in Upstate New York at a private campground that was mostly filled with migrant workers. A lot of them were Gypsies. When we camped, I got out of doing dishes after supper because my dad wanted to listen to me play guitar and sing. So I was playing some flamenco dance tunes when some of the Gypsies came up and invited us to their area in the campground.
When we got there, we found that the King and Queen of the Gypsies were sitting in long lounge chairs atop picnic tables. The other Gypsies were ranged around them. I sat on a bench and started to play. They started to clap some intricate rhythms, and then they began to dance! Finally I accompanied several singers, both to tunes we knew in common and also in improvisations. It had to be one of the most amazing experiences in my life. I wish I had pictures!
But classical guitar proved to be mostly a stepping stone to what would become my main instrument throughout my life: the Renaissance lute. I was a big fan of Shakespeare, and I wanted to play the music in his plays on the authentic instruments. The only problem was that in the 1960’s it was almost impossible to find a lute, especially in the US. Finally I came upon a classified ad for lutes to be built to order in the back pages of the Saturday Review of Books. The luthier was Walter Gerwig of Germany.
My parents ordered me a Gerwig lute when I was 15. It took a year to receive it from Germany. It had 7 courses, or pairs, of strings, totalling 13 strings, because the top course, the chanterelle, is a “singing” string and is solo.
Our senior theater production at my high school was “Romeo and Juliet.” I composed music on the lute for the play and accompanied myself singing it:
Of course, when I went to college, my lute went with me. Here I am newly arrived at Grinnell College in Iowa in August 1969 when I was 17:
It was very hot!
I played the lute every day for hours. The summer before my freshman year at Grinnell I had studied with Lucy Cross and Joseph Iadone of the New York Pro Musica at an early music conference at Windham College in Putney, Vermont. Lucy Cross was, and remains, my lute hero.
The lute was my companion and confidant throughout my adulthood. My focus was the repertory of lutesongs from the era of Elizabeth I of England. I played and sang these Elizabethan lutesongs all over the United States, in cafes and coffeehouses, on stages at huge arts festivals, at 17th Century re-enactments of the English Civil War (and I was always a Cavalier!) and at Renaissance festivals and faires.
My mother made my gorgeous Elizabethan court dress by hand, custom-making the patterns. At this point, in the early 1980’s, there were not very many people involved in historically accurate costuming for Renaissance events. One drawback to all that crimson velvet and the lace ruff: it was very hot! At RenFaires children used to ask me about that, and I said that I had an air-conditioner under my skirt.
My sons Nick and Jason (see my post “Gap Day,” in which they are all grown up) loved the Ohio Renaissance Festival, especially since we were performers and part of the Renfest family. When they were a little older, we performed not only at ORF, but also on the Santa Maria replica on the Scioto River in downtown Columbus, Ohio.
I also put together a “consort” of musicians and actors who performed at festivals. We did Elizabethan lutesongs, as well as short skits from plays of that period:
The Lute Society of America, of which I was a member, meets every other summer at Case-Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio for a week of intensive classes, individual lessons and concerts. All the top lutenists in the world attend and give classes and lessons.
The great British lutenist Jacob Heringman and me at his master class at the LSA Summer Seminar:
Luthiers also attend the LSA Summer Seminars. One day I was practicing in my dorm room when the great luthier from Tokyo, Hirotaka Watanabe, stopped by. He wanted me to try one of his lutes. By this point in my career as a lutenist, I recognized that my Gerwig lute was not entirely historically authentic, and I yearned for one that was.
There was no way that I could afford a Renaissance lute by the great Hiro Watanabe. But he became such a fan of my singing and playing that he offered me a very special price on a custom-commissioned lute that he would build for me. We put our heads together, and I asked if it would be possible to have a lute built in a lower key than the standard tenor Renaissance lute, which is in the key of G. Hiro said that he could build me one in the key of E, which would be great for my voice, and still make it so that it was not too big for me to comfortably play.
So then another wait began for my new lute. A case had to be custom-built for it in Germany and shipped to Tokyo where Hiro was making my instrument. Finally the lute arrived in Ohio. I fell in love at the first note.
But the lute was not my only instrument. I became a fan of the Celtic harp while performing for ten years at the Ohio Renaissance Festival, listening to the great Lady Amelia Penner play. My brother found a harp-builder in Kentucky at a Highlands Game. Craig Pierpont built Celtic harps at his treehouse in southern Kentucky, where he lived with his wife and their four teenage children (!). My brother Ray took us there and I tried out his harps and fell in love with the one in the photos, which was named Jane, my middle name. She has 25 strings. It was a great instrument to add at Renaissance festivals because it is much louder than the lute and the music is mostly folk music that is more accessible to the general public than are Elizabethan lutesongs.
Of course I also kept playing the guitar. I took my classical guitar to Istanbul, where it lives to this day, because it was my smallest one and fit in the overhead compartment. Unfortunately I was unable to bring it back. 😦 But I still have my other 1964 Gibson guitars: a J-type steel string flattop acoustic and a Melody Maker electric:
Then there is the inexpensive nylon string guitar I got last summer, so that I would have something to play now that I can no longer play the lute because of painful and crippling osteoarthritis (see my earlier post “Pain”). And the J-type is very difficult as well. I am playing the Melody Maker though!
Here I am playing the Melody Maker in my early 30’s with my group Townsend Wilson & Friends:
We did originals and covers by such diverse artists as the Shirelles, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, and Stevie Nicks. Other members of the band included my brother’s girlfriend, later wife, Mary Colleen Russell (see her and my brother Tom as they are now, as the parents of the bride in my earlier post “A Wedding Fit For Kings”) and Ted Wilson, now Eakins, the father of my sons (who are in my post “Gap Day”).
Although at this point in my life as a musician I’m quite limited in the instruments I can play (in fact I gave my Celtic harp to one of my nieces last month because I can no longer play it), I can still sing. One place I enjoy singing is in my choir at church:
I’m so very happy that my mother insisted on my receiving musical training and that my parents provided me with instruments that enriched the course of my life!
[ADDENDUM 9/30/2016: I’ve brought my lute downstairs in preparation for playing it again! And the “weird harp” pictured below is now off the wall, and I’m playing it, too. Watch for a new post about my Society for Creative Anachronism activities, which are inspiring me to play my instruments again. Now I regret a bit giving away my Celtic harp, but hey–it’s always good to pass an instrument on to the younger generation!
[ANOTHER UPDATE 1/16/2018: I broke down and got a new lap harp, this time a purple one, and have been playing it quite a bit. You can find out about it and even listen to a track here.
[ALSO there are some tracks of me playing the harp here: More of my music: Traditional folk harp
[A photo of the purple harp from another event:
[AND news of an upcoming Bardic Circle where I’ll be playing, too: Bone necklace, part 2, and sundry plans]
Now for the weird circular harp!