Sam Rizzetta is a dulcimer designer, builder, and musician who moved to West Virginia in the early 1970s. He was a member of the string band Trapezoid and founded the hammer dulcimer playing classes at the Augusta Heritage Center at Davis & Elkins College. He has built dulcimers for musicians including John McCutcheon, Guy Carawan, and Sam Herrmann (read our Field Notes with her). Rizzetta now collaborates with the Dusty Strings Company who build hammer dulcimers based on his designs. He lives with his wife Carrie Rizzetta in Berkeley County, WV.
State folklorist Emily Hilliard interviewed Rizzetta at his home workshop in July 2016. Below are excerpts from their interview.
On early musical influences…
Sam Rizzetta: I was born in Oak Park, Illinois, west of Chicago a ways, and spent my early years there. I went to school in Wisconsin, Ripon, and then later to Kalamazoo, Michigan and my wife and I came out east with the Army during the Vietnam War, stationed in Washington, and after that, we wound up working in Washington for a while. My wife at the Library of Congress, and me at the Smithsonian. But having roots in old-time music and experience growing up making musical instruments, we fell in love with West Virginia.
Emily Hilliard: Could you tell me a little bit about those roots in music?
SR: Well there are some online sources for that, I think Mel Bay published one, but my father played violin and accordion, and I had an uncle Earl Nott from Montana who was a fiddle and guitar player, but a wonderful banjo player. Played every possible kind of banjo—5-string, plectrum, Dixieland, all of that. So when he would come to visit, I would sit on the floor and listen to a banjo on his knee (laughs) and look up at that banjo and I knew that that’s what I wanted to do—play string music.
EH: And your dad, was he Italian—Rizzetta?
SR: Rizzetta. Italian. My mother too—DeMichelis.
EH: Ah! And so did he play Italian music?
SR: He played the popular music of his era, but I never got to hear him play very much. He played for dances and he once told me that he got really jealous of all the other guys who got to dance with the girls while he was playing music so he decided to put the accordion away and not let anyone know he played it. So he could just go to the dances and dance. And apparently it worked!
On coming to West Virginia…
EH: What brought you to West Virginia?
SR: After grad school and getting married, I was drafted into the Army and my wife and I lived in San Antonio for a few months where I was an artist for the Army.
EH: What sort of things did you do?
SR: I was a medical illustrator for one thing, but wound up being sent to the Pentagon to work with the defense intelligence agency, and quickly met a lot of musicians here. So my wife had a strong background in library science and got hired on at the Library of Congress, and as soon as I got out of the service, I was able to get on with the Smithsonian Institution. But we liked to get out of the city and I traveled with bands playing music and we just fell in love with West Virginia and with Elkins especially. In fact, when Augusta started, the Augusta Heritage Arts Program, it was around 1974 or ’73 and it was all crafts and arts, no music at all.
And I think it was about the second year of Augusta, a friend of mine, Paul Reisler was brought on to teach a musical instrument building class. He asked me to join him and we just naturally drew other musicians in and started having dances and so on and it wasn’t long after that we were able to press our case for having music classes as well.
On learning to build and repair instruments…
EH: Could you talk a little bit about your start in building and repairing instruments?
SR: Oh gosh, well that came about as a child out of necessity—we couldn’t afford musical instruments or music lessons and I was fascinated with guitars at that time. So as a child, I would try to cobble together banjos out of old pots and pans and guitars out of boxes and so on and I’m sure they weren’t any good but you know, it was fascinating to me and I was able to get a little bit of music out of them. So as I grew older I learned more and by the time I was an early teenager, I was building guitars and other stringed instruments—fiddles and banjos and mandolins.
EH: And was that mostly just self-teaching?
SR: Yes. My father had a little shop in the basement and woodworking tools and so on and he had no idea how to use them. He was not very skilled at handicrafts. So it became very rewarding to start learning to do woodworking because I could quickly do better work than my father. For some strange reason that seemed very encouraging. (laughs)
EH: And then how did you come to specialize in dulcimers?
SR: Well I fell in love with dulcimers! Probably in the late teenage years, I saw Jean Ritchie, and just by seeing her instrument, I was able to figure out what the scale pattern was and started making mountain dulcimers. And then saw a few hammer dulcimers as well, but they were mostly in poor repair and not being played or not being tuned and played very well. Until I encountered Chet Parker from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and also Russell Fluharty of Mannington, West Virginia and it was like hearing the pied piper, you know, walking through the woods somewhere and hearing this magical sound getting closer and closer and coming into a clearing and there was Russell playing the dulcimer. At that time, he just appeared to be a very, very, very old man playing the dulcimer. Turned out, he was about 50. (laughs)
So from that perspective, from the perspective of being 74 now, I realized that was a little short sighted on my part, thinking of him as a very old man.
And also after we moved to Washington, I met Howie Mitchell who was making mountain and hammer dulcimers in the Washington area and playing with groups there. He had done some experiments with hammer dulcimers that were intriguing to me so I used some of that as a springboard to do more with them. Ultimately, tuning the sound box is better and expanding the range to have more bass range, adding more chromatic capabilities because they were limited to more simple diatonic scales at that time.
EH: And at that time, dulcimers weren’t really that known or that popular?
SR: Correct. Neither the mountain dulcimer nor the hammer dulcimer, but mountain dulcimers you could find because there was a little bit of a revival in the 1950s especially in and around Virginia and you could find a few new ones made at that time. The hammer dulcimer was more obscure, Chet Parker did play at Newport sometime in the 60s —he’s on one of those Newport Folk Festival recordings and I probably encountered him and some of the old lumberjack dulcimers when I lived in Kalamazoo.
EH: What about in Kentucky—Hindman has a big dulcimer school. Was that happening at that moment?
SR: It was, but that didn’t involve hammer dulcimers until a little later—like in the 1970s, oh… who was it… the folklorist who worked there from California—his name is escaping me. Oh, Guy Carawan. Guy and Candie Carawan and his son Evan became a really good hammer dulcimer player, but in the early 70s sometime, Guy Carawan started playing dulcimer—hammer dulcimer and got me to build one for him. So it was kind of starting to catch on because it was an exciting instrument. It had more volume than the mountain dulcimer, so it could be heard and used at square dances. It was percussive and rhythmic and you know, the old timers had used them at barn dances as well as parlor instruments, and they were also used to accompany hymns in small country churches. So there were a few around, they were just not as well-known at the time. There was some presence of the hammer dulcimer in West Virginia, going back at least around 1844 because I found records of it in central West Virginia at that time and we found a number made in West Virginia.
Russell Fluharty’s dulcimer has been in his family since the late 19th century, then Worley Gardner and his brother in the Morgantown area started playing and building them. There had been builders in or near Morgantown. We found some old dulcimers built there. Worley was a dance caller and fiddle player as well, so he used the dulcimer a little bit in that context. So he spread interest in the Morgantown area. Russell Fluharty lived in Mannington, but he traveled all over playing the dulcimer. And he was a very special person. He… well you can read some of the articles about him in Goldenseal probably and his experiences with finding a dulcimer and getting his first dulcimer, so I won’t recount all of that for you.
But one amusing thing was that when he got his first dulcimer, there was no one left who knew how to play it. So he had to figure out how to tune it, how to play it, and what the intervals should be. So he would travel around the country playing it, and he would offer $100 to anyone who could come up and play his dulcimer. And he told me he figured if he ever found anybody who knew how to play it, that it would be worth it because then they could show him how it was supposed to be played. But he never had to pay up on that. Until later in life when of course, there were lots of dulcimer players.
On the origins of the hammer dulcimer…
EH: I don’t know much about the origins [of the hammer dulcimer]. Is it a Scots-Irish instrument? It seems like it might have some Eastern European or Middle Eastern influence.
SR: Oh, there’s been a lot of conjecture about the history and more and more things being learned all the time. But it appears now that it developed somewhere along the trade routes between ancient Persia through Turkey, Eastern European countries, up into Germany. And some of the most ancient traditions come out of ancient Persia. But it apparently spread from Eastern Europe everywhere. Spread to India, especially the Kashmir region, Southeast Asia, we get some good immigrant players from there. China has several hundred years of history and pedagogy with the dulcimer, so they produce some fabulous, fabulously skilled players. Japan is one of the more recent places that it went, so there was not an old history there. But it spread to Eastern Europe and England certainly by Renaissance times. The crusaders brought versions back with them from the crusades. So for a while it was a courtly instrument, then out of fashion, became a street instrument and was very well-known by the time colonists came to America, so it was brought over at that time. We’ve found lists of ships inventories of fiddles and dulcimers coming maybe to Virginia and to Boston area.
EH: Yeah, it seems like there are analogs in many different cultures.
SR: Right. So it’s spread somewhat worldwide. We don’t find them in Africa except in parts of Northern Africa, but you know, on most of the other continents. So in America they spread both among English communities, as well as Scots-Irish.
And you know, they had those traditions. In fact, in recent times, like in the 1950s or 60s it had declined in Ireland to the point that we could only pinpoint maybe three players at that time. Whereas in Scotland it was pretty popular. In England and in Wales, so on. So the ones that came into the Appalachians may have come from more than one source.
Some of them were rectangular like some of the New England instruments were. Russell Fluharty’s instrument was like that. Rectangular. It only had one bridge like the one you’re talking about having. So that was not unusual. Worley Gardner’s dulcimer— I believe his was trapezoidal shaped. And we found more of the old trapezoidal shaped ones maybe in North Carolina, but you know, the history is unclear.
On musical influences in West Virginia…
EH: You had said that you had met a lot of musicians around Elkins when you moved there. Could you talk a little bit about them?
SR: Sure. Probably the ones who were most influential to me—the older ones—would have been Woody Simmons who lived in Mill Creek, West Virginia with his wife Laverne. And Laverne had a little café there across from the high school for many, many years. And Woody was a fiddler who won lots of fiddle contests and a champion fiddler who had played with bands. He also played banjo. And when we lived in Valley Head, I met Blackie Cool who lived in Monterville, West Virginia, and was an amazing guitar player. He played some fiddle and banjo and some other instruments but mainly he was a guitarist. And he grew up down in that area around southern Randolph County. Ran off with the circus when he was a young teenager and toured around the country and learned guitar from all different cultures. Learned Spanish guitar on the streets of Mexico, learned blues from the black coal miners when he worked in the mines, learned polka music when he worked in the steel mills and shipyards in Pennsylvania, so Blackie was just a fount of guitar styles and a great guy.
On becoming a dulcimer builder…
SR: when my wife Carrie and I left Washington, D.C. I was already building instruments and doing music full-time and we went to Charlottesville where she worked for the university for a while, but she quit that when we decided to move to West Virginia, so we moved to south of Valley Head, built our own house on the ridge top and the two of us built instruments and I would tour with the band. Then later on in the late 1970s, I left the band [Trapezoid] to focus more on the instruments and touring solo because it was easier to earn a living solo than with a group.
EH: How has your building evolved in dulcimer making? You were talking about some new innovations and materials.
SR: Oh, well it’s a constant evolution. As a player as well as a builder, I could see ways to improve the instrument and to make more kinds of technique and more kinds of music accessible through the dulcimer. So I added more chromatic capabilities, I invented totally chromatic versions, and started designing instruments for Dusty Strings Company in Seattle, Washington in the early 1980s. They’re probably the largest manufacturer of both hammer dulcimers and harps. So that’s been a wonderful association.
One of the fascinating things about the dulcimer early on is that it has strings stretched across a box, but by adding bridges to those strings, you can get more notes out of each string. And long ago, several hundred years ago, someone added the single bridge and then a second bridge to carry bass notes, and I’ve added two more bridges so that you’ll see some of the instruments here have four bridges across and without increasing the size of the dulcimer, we’re able to have a much, much wider range. So we still have an instrument that’s very portable, you know, compact and lightweight, and yet we can have three or four more octave range out of it and increase the capabilities of the instrument.
So today there are a number of terrific players and performers and they’re pretty much all using, you know, much more sophisticated dulcimers now than the historical early American ones. It’s still basically a simple idea—a box with strings, but it’s had an interesting evolution in the last 40 years or so. And that wouldn’t have happened without increasing interest. I got interested and a few other builders did. We wanted to play more sophisticated music. But there was also enough interest in the instruments to buy the ones that were manufactured and without that we wouldn’t have had the resources to kind of keep going and keep expanding.
EH: Where do you source the wood from?
SR: Well, the wood comes from all over. Some of the wood comes from our own wood lot here or when we lived in Valley Head there. We used to cut hickory to make the hammers and maple to make some of the frame and bracing parts and sound boards of some of the instruments were red spruce that came off the mountains in West Virginia. But today we’re concerned about renewable resources—the sound boards of many of my dulcimers today are made from mahogany and often sapele, which is in good supply so we’re not diminishing the supplies of that wood. And the frame woods can be a variety of hardwoods– the frame woods and bridge woods– and much of that is walnut, which can come from the central of West Virginia. I still have a stock of walnut that I bought in the mid-1970s around Webster Springs in West Virginia.
Today I’m actually building a lot of the instruments with carbon fiber composite so we’re not even using wood entirely in them any longer. And that comes out of also having designed and fabricated parts for airplanes and I designed and built canoes and kayaks and written on that. So over the years, that technology has crept into my instruments to the point that some of the mountain dulcimers and hammer dulcimers are almost entirely carbon fiber.
You can see the mountain dulcimer hanging on the wall which is entirely carbon fiber and one next to it has some pearl and abalone inlay, which is an outgrowth of my background as an artist long ago. So I like to keep a hand in some of the decorative aspects of the building.
EH: And then the dulcimer can double as a canoe—a tiny canoe if you need it.
SR: Or a canoe paddle!
EH: There you go.
SR: Right—it’s totally waterproof!
For the full transcript of our interview with Sam Rizzetta, contact the West Virginia Folklife Program.