April 2, 2020:
I can honestly tell our followers that I have no idea whether the festival can be held on-site in Parsippany July 16-19. As of today, New Jersey is on lockdown and no public gatherings of any size are permitted. The trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic is entering a heightened phase in the next 2 weeks. New Jersey is at the epicenter of this disaster. All across our country people are bracing for the worst. It's difficult at this time to see how our festival has any import in the grand scheme of the life-and-death issues facing many of our friends. We just don't know what the situation will be like by June.
However, we know as musicians that having the arts and music, and feeling connected each other, makes life worth living. With so many people at home in isolation, the beacon of light and hope that participating in our festival will shine on us is going to make this all bearable. In late February I was already looking at how the festival would be able to survive coronavirus (that was before it was even being called a pandemic). This is not the way I wanted to celebrate our 20th year.
We are in the process of setting up a website portal that will give our attendees the opportunity to take our workshops online. This will be an adjunct to the on-site festival, if that can go forward, or it will be a replacement for the in-person festival. You'll be able to take pre-recorded webinars with our presenters and in some instances we will have "live" interactive additions to those same workshops. You can attend the festival from wherever you are and our presenters can teach from wherever they are. The "live" workshops will also be recorded and be available for later viewing on Somerset Online. I'm still working on pulling this all together and will start working with the presenters in the coming days to create the workshop content. Give me some time to make it happen.
The important point I want to stress is that full-festival registered attendees will have access to all of the content until the end of the year.
I'll be detailing how Somerset Online will work in the coming weeks. Those on my newsletter list will get invitations to attend my warm-up online meeting and see how it will work. Not on my email list? Click here.
I want to thank Carolyn Deal, Anne Sullivan, and Shelley Fairplay for their input on doing online courses. I'm particularly indebted to Deborah Henson-Conant for her guidance and encouragement and the late-night hand-holding to get me from high-level concepts to an actionable design. She's been trying to get me to do this for years and saying, to quote that movie Field of Dreams, "if you build it they will come."
I'm building it. I hope you come.
Kathy DeAngelo, Festival Director
July 17, 2019 (from the 2019 festival program guide)
Today's harp community is vibrant and diverse and thanks to social media it's not an unusual occurrence to see a folk harp or hear artists stretching its musical possibilities. This wasn't always the case. To paraphrase Isaac Newtown, we have gotten this far and come all this way because we're standing on the shoulders of giants. With this award we recognize the pioneers in the folk harp world who had no road in front of them when they took up an instrument that few were playing and even fewer were making with little guidance on adapting musical genres to it because there was a paucity of players and recordings. They forged ahead and created the path we're all on.
Kim Robertson is one of those harp pioneers. She is a towering presence in the world of folk harp and even if you are new to harp, you know her dynamic influence through the broad reach of her many recordings and the wide distribution of her harp arrangements. She is a "must have" performer and presenter at harp events and festivals both here and abroad.
She was a piano major in college and took pedal harp with Jean Henderson, who loaned her a lap harp and a copy of the Folk Harp Journal. On such small things her fate became intertwined with the explosion of "Celtic" music worldwide. She says, "I've seen the folk harp world grow up and felt the kid in a candy shop thrill when I got that Leprechaun Junior and took it on the plane and went to France." To the people at that French conservatory that small harp was a toy. This was 1973 and she says she "cut her teeth" on The Chieftains (then just on their fourth album), Clannad and Planxty and the revolutionary harp playing of Alan Stivell, the Breton harp master whose 1971 album "Renaissance of the Celtic Harp" was a huge inspiration and influence on Kim. "Here I was practicing the Nutcracker Cadenza in a small practice room and feeling really isolated. Stivell's album was a joyful discovery."
She discovered she "didn't want to play in orchestras for the rest of my life." Getting back from France she attended the Green Mountain Folk Harp Workshop put together by Christina Tourin, which included the Chieftains' Derek Bell. Christina remembers, "Kim traveled by bus back to Wisconsin and said: "My life can always be like this!" She sold her big harp and got a small harp and began offering singing telegrams!" Eventually Kim and Christina would tour together and they "introduced modes to the harp world and helped people to understand fully what only was taught in music theory class for one morning of the whole year! Modes have become a staple in learning how to improvise on the harp," says Christina.
The West Coast was where folk harp was happening in the US; Sylvia Woods was blazing her own trail there. That's where Kim went. She struggled to find her way, doing solo gigs, weddings and background music, and creating her own unique style of music—out of necessity. They weren't all great gigs, but they were experience, and they provided a lot of fodder for her new regular column in the young Folk Harp Journal called "Worst Gigs."
Somebody heard her playing in a cappuccino bar, loved her music and got her a deal on the New Age Narada label which had also signed Patrick Ball. The rest, as they say, is history. She has 20 albums and recording projects with others to her credit. A substantial body of work for any artist. "At the time, people from my classical world looked down on me and my teacher thought I was crazy," she says. "Now when I present at these AHS conferences with all the pedal harps, I look around and everybody there is using my books!" And they have Celtic harps now because they're so practical! Besides launching into a recording career in the budding Folk Harp Revival taking shape and popularizing the appeal of the harp, Kim saw an opportunity to make the music more accessible.
She's keenly aware that being one of the first on the scene propelled her to be inventive and creative because there simply wasn't anything for her to base her work on. "We had to create the arrangements and the repertoire," she says, "and I find that it's so much more satisfying to arrange my own music. It's from my heart." Those music books extended Kim's reach. Her arrangements are so popular and well-loved that they created a dedicated fan base well before the advent of social media—where she spends zero time. If you're following Kim Robertson, you are doing it literally by going to her concerts, coming to festivals to see her and take her workshops. She's never forgotten what it feels like to be a beginner, which only adds to her strength as a music arranger and as a teacher. "New harp players keep me going," she says.
Christina Tourin reflects on Kim's artistry: "She has paved the road for so many to create music beyond the typical pianistic sound of block chords to that exciting tension and release of rhythmic mastery! Pure genius!" We completely agree and are proud to bestow our Lifetime Achievement Award on Kim Robertson.
July 19, 2018: From our program testimonial
(see the video on the left)
When the Eagle landed on July 20, 1969 and Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, it was the "giant leap for mankind" that indirectly launched the Revival of the folk harp in America. 50 years ago. Aerospace engineer Jay Witcher had designed the Eagle's control console and soon he'd be laid off, along with 40,000 other engineers. He was also a keyboard player and had a little shop where he built harpsichords. A client from Baldwin piano advised him to make small harps. Nobody was doing that. Jays says, "I listened to him!"
He was also going to the many Renaissance fairs that started on the West Coast. Jay asked Renfaire musicians what they might want: something small, something portable, something a minstrel would play, "like the pictures of the harps in the fairytale books." Research followed. He began building small lap harps, easily sellable at the fairs. He studied the Trinity College harp and "being an engineer, you know, I do mathematical analysis, and do the theoretical end of it, and draw graphs and all this kind of thing, and I change the geometry a little bit. I didn't change the looks at all; change the curve of this part, and got something usable." That acoustical analysis created a neo-Irish harp with consistently even sound.
It was revolutionary and evolutionary. Coupled with his own design sense and craftsmanship he built small harps that ended up in the hands of harp-playing pioneers like Grainne Yeats, Maire niChathasaigh, Sylvia Woods, Ann Heymann, and Patrick Ball, to name just a few. It's a Witcher harp that Sylvia is playing on her best-selling and iconic Teach Yourself Harp book. Sylvia says Jay was the "main reason I started selling harps." She got one of his harps in 1976 and toured with it and Robin Williamson & His Merry Band, sparking an interest in the folk harp at every concert. She says at every concert "someone would come up to me, asking where to buy a harp. I kept sending them to Jay. Eventually, he allowed me to be a "traveling harp store."
Maire niChathasaigh was introduced to Jay by Gráinne Yeats at her house in Dalkey, Dublin at the beginning of the 1980s. She says, "Gráinne lent me the neo-Irish harp Jay had made for her. I fell in love with its silvery sound and knew I had to order one for myself!" She was not alone. Enthusiastic musicians, seeing and hearing his harps, created a 'word of mouth' tsunami for Jay's harp-building workshop and today we recognize that he not only created the standard for performance-quality instruments but enabled the performers that went with it.
"The West Coast had become the nexus of harp building in the early 70s and 80s," says Ray Mooers of Dusty Strings, with Jay Witcher being the genesis and the biggest influence on a budding harp market. More instruments followed and Jay ended up moving to Maine in 1980 to be close to the hardwood he needed for his instrument-building. At the 1984 International Society of Folk Harpers and Craftsmen conference, Robbie Robinson would note, "We all owe an awful lot to Jay. As a matter of fact, he’s the one who really resurrected the folk harp in this country.”
By his count Jay is "close to 1100 harps and several tons of sawdust later" in a career that has spanned nearly 50 years. For Jay, it's all about the harps, "Figuring how to make things--that's the fun part."
The folk harp world has certainly flowered and matured since those heady early days.
Today's harp makers are standing on Jay Witcher's shoulders. "I don’t know Jay personally and even though we have not crossed paths, I feel a debt of gratitude to him for jump starting the renaissance of the lever harp and I give my sincere congratulations to him for this Lifetime Achievement Award," says Ray Mooers. Dave Woodworth at Heartland Harps recognizes that "Jay and his harps have always been my North Star, even when moving into newer materials. I’m profoundly grateful to him for his contributions to the world of harp."
"It would be hard to overstate the impact that Jay Witcher has had on the harp world. He's an extraordinary character with an extraordinary life story," says Maire niChathasaigh. With our Lifetime Achievement Award we recognize that Jay's scientific approach to the making of historic harps became the norm among harp makers and as Jays says, "harps are available to the average man on the street for the first time in history." Thanks to him we have a vibrant harp-building marketplace which enables so many of us to play great sounding, quality instruments that feed our passion.
One of Jay's harps is featured on the cover of our program guide.
July 24, 2017: From the testimonial in our program guide
Laurie Riley’s primary instrument may be a double-strung harp, but she has achieved a triple crown in the folk harp world by her creative contributions three distinct areas of harp-making and playing: by study of the harper’s direct physical approach to the harp; by initiating efforts to collaborate with a couple of harp-makers to develop a double-string lever harp; and by developing a place for the harp in a therapeutic environment.
I've known Laurie since the early 70s, a time when we both were guitar-playing folksingers who ran coffeehouses, she the Folk Project and me the Mine Street Coffeehouse, here in New Jersey. Little could we have known that 40 years later we'd be connected to this vibrant harp community. Indeed my own path to the harp stems directly from seeing my old friend Laurie playing harp in 1983 at a Folk Project weekend. I'm honored to recognize all the contributions she has made to the harp world.
When Laurie discovered the lever harp in 1981 not only were there very few musicians playing the instrument, but very few harp-makers making folk harps. Laurie said, “I decided to play the harp because I knew it would be a challenge.” She added, with evident enjoyment “The lever harp was rare back then; people used to ask, ‘What is that instrument?’” Six years later, in 1987, in tandem with Laurie’s background in the study of anatomy and movement Laurie saw there was room for improvement in the way harpers hold themselves when playing the lever harp and began studying how to avoid pain and injury from playing the instrument they loved! She began to teach classes and this work had such dramatic positive effects that it became a major teaching focus for her, including her creation of a certification program for Music Ergonomists© called Transformational Ergonomics for Musicians©.
By 1990 Laurie’s ever-inventive mind began to tackle the issue of how to get the sound she wanted out of a harp. She tried the Welsh triple harp, but that didn’t provide the sound she was looking for. Then she and Liz Cifani (who sometimes played two harps at once at the Chicago Lyric Opera) met and together they came up with the idea that maybe a harp with two rows of strings and levers on each side would achieve the sound they wanted to hear. They approached two harp-makers, Triplett and Stoney End (harpmakers who are in our Exhibit Hall this year), to convince them to make a prototype and the contemporary double-strung harp was born. Ever since, the double-strung harp has been Laurie’s primary instrument. Of course, Laurie is recognized as being a leading player!
Laurie’s third contribution to the folk harp world, began a year later. She became "curious about the effects of music in medical settings" when her father was in intensive care in 1991 and not expected to survive. Laurie says, "A harp in a hospital was unheard of at the time, and the nurses were skeptical at first, but his vital signs consistently improved when I played." She says that soon they were saying, “Please don’t stop!” Then doctor whispered to Laurie, “Did you know Pythagoras said music heals?” That got her attention! Her father recovered, and so did a number of other patients for whom she was asked to play at the time.
We all know how one thing can lead to another and for Laurie that was co-creating a therapeutic music certification program which would address both music skills and the essential medical knowledge needed for working in a hospital or hospice. The Music for Healing and Transition Program was conceived in 1992 and became official in 1993. In 2002, she created the Clinical Musicians’ Home Study Certification Course, now known as Harp for Healing. Laurie was also a charter member of the National Standards Board for Therapeutic Music. Although not active in these programs currently, she offers CEU workshops for graduates of therapeutic music programs.
Laurie believes that the success of therapeutic music is largely due not only to its profound beneficial effects on patients, but to the fact that "those harpers and other musicians who wish to make a difference in the world, without having to be concert performers, can do so in a very meaningful way." Laurie has spent her professional musical life making a big difference in so many ways. Please join us at the festival at Thursday night's concert to honor Laurie and hear her perform and be recognized with our Lifetime Achievement Award.
Photo (left to right): Ray Mooers, Sylvia Woods, Kathy DeAngelo
From the testimonial in our 2015 program guide: In early 1985 we were searching for a harp method to include with a new harp we were developing, and as the first step-by-step instruction book written exclusively for folk harp, Sylvia’s eternally-popular book, Teach Yourself to Play the Folk Harp, was the obvious choice. That’s how we came to know Sylvia. With more than 50,000 copies in print since its 1978 release, most of you probably already have this book, whose far-reaching effects were graphically illustrated at the Folk Harp Society conference in 1998 in Galveston, Texas. Sylvia was pulled up in front of a 300-person audience to receive a surprise award for the 20th anniversary of her book. The presenter asked the audience to stand up if this book had been an important part of their harp-learning experience, and almost as one, about 90% of the people in the room rose, clapping and cheering.
Besides this notable achievement, Sylvia’s illustrious career is studded with many other shining accomplishments. In 1980, she became the second American ever to win the senior All-Ireland harp championship. She played on numerous movie soundtracks, including Dead Poets Society, and wrote and recorded the gorgeous Harp of Brandiswhiere suite, which won several awards and helped to catapult the folk harp into the public eye. And, of course, she founded and still runs the iconic Sylvia Woods Harp Center, boundless source of all things harp.
As with many things of this nature, the whole of Sylvia’s influence on the folk harp world is greater than the sum of her individual accomplishments. She fell in love with the folk harp at a time when there wasn’t much to be found in the U.S. in the way of instruments, music or recordings, and she took up the banner with tireless enthusiasm and dedication. In 1976 she toured for 3 years with Robin Williamson and His Merry Band, and then began teaching harp, then writing, and then selling harps, and in the process of doing what she loved, she turned countless others on to the harp and helped nourish their interest. She is fun, unflappable, down-to-earth, and one of the hardest-working business persons that we have ever met. As a teacher, performer, composer, arranger, retailer and promoter of folk harps and harp music, Sylvia has inspired, encouraged, advised, guided and, yes, enabled more harpists and builders than we can ever know.
In fact, if it weren’t for Sylvia Woods, Dusty Strings harps may never have gotten very far. In 1985, we’d been building hammered dulcimers for a few years, and more and more people (no doubt inspired by Sylvia) were asking us if we could make harps as well. So we did some research, built a couple of prototypes, and took our first 25-string harp down to California to show it off to Sylvia to hopefully hear how great it was. When she asked why it only went down to a D, Ray replied, “Well, we play a lot of tunes in the key of D on the hammered dulcimer.” Sylvia laughed and with the directness and tact that are a large part of why she is so trusted an advisor, proceeded to give him our first two useful pieces of harp advice: 1) Harpists like having a low C string, and 2) Using wound strings in the bass makes them feel less like rubber bands. She sent Ray packing--back to the workshop for some more design refinements.
Since those early days, Sylvia has been a steadfast friend, mentor and sounding board, encouraging and inspiring us in our harp-building endeavors and tirelessly critiquing our instruction manuals so everything is accessible to the non-technical among those in the harp community. Over the years, her advice and support have been invaluable. By the end of 1999, Sylvia was so well established as a leader in the harp community that she was honored by the Harp Column Magazine as being among the “Most Influential Harp Forces of the Twentieth Century”. High praise indeed. Many, many people have benefited from Sylvia’s contributions to the folk harp world. Indeed, the mission statement of The International Society of Folk Harpers and Craftsmen, of which Sylvia was the first president, neatly sums up her life’s artistic goals to “educate, cultivate, promote, foster, sponsor, and develop among members and the general public an appreciation of the folk harp as a musical instrument and living cultural tradition; to develop and improve the quality of the instrument itself and of its related components by educating harp makers and encouraging communication between them; to encourage the composition and performance of music for the folk harp; and through education to improve the quality of performance of harpers.”
Sylvia has done and continues to do all these things and more and so we thank her with all our hearts and congratulate her on receiving this Lifetime Achievement Award.
–Sue and Ray Mooers, Dusty Strings
July 31, 2014: The Somerset Folk Festival awarded Sam Milligan its third Lifetime Achievement Award at its opening concert on July 31, recognizing Sam for his efforts to expand the harp world with his pioneering harp books, his role as the first editor of the American Harp Journal and his substantial contributions to the Historical Harp Society. Our tribute to Samuel Milligan was written by Nancy Hurrell, who met Sam 35 years ago and was inspired by him, follows:
There are exceptional persons in the harp world who make extraordinary contributions, gifts that just keep on giving. That’s the case with Sam Milligan. His bio might read, ‘harpist’, ‘arranger’ and ‘writer’, but the real experience beyond these terms is so much more. As harpist, this talented player performed in orchestras on Broadway and Radio City Music Hall, but his very first instrument was the Clark Irish harp, for which he began to arrange music, one of the first persons in America to publish music for the lever harp. Sam’s books for Lyon & Healy’s new Troubadour harp in the ‘60s became all-time classics. “Fun from the First” and “Medieval to Modern” are still the standards, decades later, for new harp students. As a writer, he not only contributed articles to journals, he blazed the trail for us as the founding editor of the American Harp Journal, America’s very first harp magazine. With an interest in the Celtic harp in those early days, he wrote a ground-breaking journal article in 1967, “The Oracular Nature of the Early Celtic Harp”.
Sam says he was born in a manger in Missouri, a barn really, during the depression, but a few weeks later he was taken to Texas where he grew up. His parents were both singers, and his Irish father proudly presented him with, what else, but an Irish harp! The harp would be his ticket to college, with scholarships to Del Mar and later the University of North Texas. He was so precocious that the year after he graduated, he was offered the position to teach harp at the university! While teaching, he took a graduate course in Renaissance music, and thus, experienced his ‘conversion’ to early music. Soon after, Sam decided to try his luck in New York City and while playing harp gigs, he landed a job with Lyon & Healy Harps in their NY showroom. At the time, Samuel Pratt was developing the new Troubadour lever harp and wanted to publish music for it, since most of the harp music was written for pedal harp. So Sam was asked to put together some of his arrangements, and the “Medieval to Modern” books were born. Meant for beginners, the music in Sam’s books was nonetheless sophisticated and interesting, from folk songs and medieval hymns to Bach. So good, in fact, they are in the repertoires of most harp players today. Over the years, Sam has continued to arrange marvelous solos and ensemble pieces regularly performed by groups around the country.
I met Sam in Texas, some thirty-five years ago. I needed a harp technician to regulate my pedal harp and my teacher recommended Sam, but he was hard to get hold of because he was performing nightly at the Bronco Bowling Alley! When he did come, he happened to bring along a small medieval harp he had made, and I was fascinated by this small historical replica. Sam is the type of person who happily swims along in many streams at the same time, equally at home as harpist for a local Brooklyn opera company, in demand for over forty years as harp technician to NYC professionals, and a passionate promoter of early music from Baroque Spanish to the ancient Greek lyre. Many harp players were first introduced to medieval and Renaissance music in Sam’s books, long before the Historical Harp Society was formed. Sharing his love of all sorts of harp music makes him the perfect official liaison between the American Harp Society and the Historical Harp Society, a popular member of the boards of both groups. He is loved by everyone around him, probably because his mantra is “cheerfulness”. He admits to a fondness for Democritus, the “laughing philosopher.”
Just mention his name to someone who knows him, and they will smile. He is the kindest, most generous of persons, volunteering time and wisdom to organizations as well as offering funds for the HHS to provide an historical harp for college students. When you meet him, you might not even realize he is such a legend in so many aspects of the harp. Summing it up, Sam says that “Nobody promised me happiness, which is in any case a matter of the moment. But I have managed to achieve contentment, which should be enough for any man.” How fitting we recognize this gentle giant in the harp world with a lifetime achievement award. -Nancy Hurrell
July 23: 2013: Here's the Thank You card I received from Louise following the festival:
How can I thank you enough for all the courtesies you extended to me this past few months? It was such a delight to get to attend Somerset, and to receive all those accolades was icing on the cake. I hope I can live up to the kind words that you said and printed in the program! It has been my joy through the years to play the harp for others, and later to teach group workshops at conferences & festival. It's so fulfilling when some person who attended would tell me later they received help and encouragement from something they learned. My dad was a lifelong music teacher and would e so proud. You are a wonder at organizing to be able to handle all the hundreds of details involved in producing Somerset. You are a pro in every way.
July 19: 2013: If you weren't at the festival on Thursday July 18, you missed a brilliant performance by one of the harp community's most-beloved performers and presenters, Louise Trotter. Louise was awarded our second Lifetime Achievement Award following her performance and we held a reception following the concert in her honor. Here is the testimonial we included in the 2013 program:
You can’t pack much more into one professional lifetime than what Louise Trotter has accomplished in her long and distinguished career as a musician and harpist, teacher and performer. She says that she started playing piano when she was 6 years old and knew right away that she wanted to be a musician because she loved performing right from the start. Performing has been her life’s passion. Every time you see her perform she brings such energy to the stage and engages her audience on a very personal level. Even if you’d never seen her before, she finishes her performances and you feel you know her. The wit. The charm. The precise yet sensitive touch on the harp and the beautiful arrangements that speak to the years of maturity and experience.
We’re lucky that her father really liked the harp and built her one when she was 9, though she says she didn’t particularly have his passion for it at the beginning. Perhaps picking up on his being a life-long musician, she eventually realized that harp was her ticket to a music career. She felt she could do interesting things with it because of its novelty then. Her first professional gig at 18 was an 8-week stint doing a collegiate variety show, traveling across Texas with the troupe by train, doing 2 solos with the stage band in 4 shows a day. By the end of the summer she had earned $150. What a start! After moving to Houston in 1975 with her husband and 3 children, she found she could get paid for playing the harp. She says “You have to perform as much as possible to develop stage presence and confidence.” And for decades she’s done just that and it shows.
By the folk harp revival in the early Eighties and with the creation of the Folk Harp Journal and the International Society of Folk Harpers and Craftsmen (ISFHC), Louise really got into developing her stage act and performances and she began teaching more and more workshops. She does it all. She has CDs. She has books. From pop standards, hymns and spirituals, jazz classics, and of course, her country & western influences, Louise plays everything with consummate style. Then she puts all of that down on paper and publishes it in terrific arrangements for solos, duets, and ensembles. The sheer breadth of her recording and publishing career is a testament to her energy and creativity.
Louise Trotter has performed at many Somerset festivals and it’s good to have her back. She is a beloved figure here and her workshops are always popular. She just has a way of connecting with you at whatever level you’re at. Tap into her experience and enjoy her workshops this weekend.
The ISFHC gave her their Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. We’re overdue in recognizing her contribution to our harp community. We present Louise with our second Lifetime Achievement Award and recognize her extraordinary career. Please be sure to chat her up while you’re here this weekend and extend your congratulations too.