Ruth Barrett is an award-winning dulcimer player, singer, and songwriter. I am so pleased and honored to present her guest post. More about her music here.
In the 1970s, the genre that eventually would be called “Women’s Music” focused on singer/songwriters who wrote songs and composed music that expressed their personal awakenings and female realities, including living as “out” lesbians. I remember initially feeling confused about calling this genre Women’s Music. I came from a folk music background and “women’s music” was already a huge genre, expressing personal feelings and female experiences of life — love songs, lullabies, work songs, spirituals, and protest songs. There were also the anonymous traditional story ballads about women and their various circumstances as chattel, brides, mothers, witches, and single women.
I had the great fortune to have been raised in a musical family in California during the folk music revival of the 1950s. My parents and two brothers all played a variety of instruments and sang both American and Israeli folk music. As I entered my teens, my own interest changed to traditional songs, ballads and tunes of the British Isles. I was especially drawn to the songs that had themes of magic or the spirit world. This interest in folklore was inspiration for my original songs celebrating spirituality in nature, women, and the Goddess. The other songs I was drawn to were the ballads where women were not victims of men, but changed their circumstances by their own inner strength or sometimes by magical skills. I felt strongly about not propagating the “woman as victim” themes so prevalent in traditional songs. Instead, I researched and chose songs that were empowering, or certainly more interesting to me.
In 1971, the mountain dulcimer came into my life, a 17th birthday present from my parents. I gave the dulcimer a Hebrew name that translates as “gentle trembling”. A girl in high school had received a dulcimer as a Christmas present just a month before, and brought it to high school. She let me hold it and try it out. I was in love! I realized much later that the drone strings had put me into a light state of trance. The mountain dulcimer had only recently reached some folks on the west coast of the U.S. because of folklorist, singer, and musician Jean Ritchie (1922-2015). As far as I know, Jean was responsible for the popularity of this American folk instrument, by taking the dulcimer out of the hills of Kentucky to tour and share her family’s music and record with it. Her albums were the only way that people outside of her mountain culture heard of the dulcimer. I learned from Jean that simple accompaniments and using the dulcimer as an additional harmony voice, really allowed the story of a song to be heard. My long time music partner, virtuoso dulcimer player Cyntia Smith, and I were honored to open for Jean at McCabes Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California in the mid 1980s. In a conversation before the concert, Jean shared with me in an almost apologetic way for her simple arrangements when she saw what newer players were doing. Jean inspired an aesthetic in me that playing with the speed of a rocket was not a goal to aspire to, but supporting the message of a song was.
Cyntia Smith and I played the dulcimer primarily in a chorded finger picking style that gave more of a classical sound, like a lute or harp. This style was perfect for our original music that also included arrangements of Celtic tunes and Renaissance pieces. We recorded five albums together in our 20-year musical partnership. In 1973, I had been initially introduced to this chord style of playing from Holly Tannen, a great dulcimer player and fabulous songwriter.
Ruth Barrett and Cyntia Smith, 1983
Dulcimer players on the west coast continued to experiment with the dulcimer, exploring other types of tunings and playing styles. The brilliant Joni Mitchell proved a great example of taking the dulcimer, creating her own tunings, and using it to accompany her own songs on her Blue album. She inspired other players to experiment further. I was blessed to co-arrange (with JoEllen Lapidus) Joni’s dulcimer tablature for the songbook Hits and Misses (Warner Brothers, 2009).
Joni Mitchell, 1974
The great Malvina Reynolds (1900-1978), American singer-songwriter and political activist, was another inspiring woman that I had the honor of opening for in the mid-1970s. Malvina didn’t start writing songs until she was in her 60s. Her most famous songs included “Little Boxes,” “Turn Around,” and “We Don’t Need The Men.” Her messages were far more important than her singing voice. She was a great role model for saying with her songs what needed to be said.
The singers who influenced me were British singers from British folk rock bands – Jacqui McShee (Pentangle), Maddy Prior (Steeleye Span), and June Tabor. However, the biggest influence for both singing and song selections was definitely British born singer, feminist, and anti-nuclear activist, Frankie Armstrong. Frankie had come to the U.S. on a singing tour in the mid 1970s, and I was introduced to her powerful alto chest voice style of delivering both traditional ballads and feminist calls to activism. I learned that while some people described me as a sweet singer, learning to sing in my chest voice gave me access to a powerful new tool to express songs that called for a different energetic sound. Here’s a great video of Frankie talking about her ability to move between folk music audiences and her activism in the women’s movement:
Writing this piece as I am now in my early 60s, the enduring message that guides me is, “The song is more important than you.” I can’t remember who said it, but it had to be another amazing woman I am thankful for on the path.
Thanks to Ruth for this wonderful piece!
Some of you may know Malvina Reynolds’s “Little Boxes” from the Showtime TV show Weeds. Goes to show that you never know what your heirs are going to do with your music. 🙂
That Joni Mitchell song, “Case of You,” is one of my favorite songs. Her Blue album should be studied by every songwriter.
Find a little more about the mountain dulcimer in my video below. I play a short piece and talk about it at 1:55. In the video, when I say it’s fairly easy to play, I’m only referring to the style I demonstrate. Ruth Barrett and some of the musicians she mentions employ a more advanced style.
Want lessons in guitar, mandolin or ukulele? I teach via Skype from anywhere in the world. Contact me here.