There’s a coals-to-Newcastle element in the idea of an Englishman going to the United States to teach students the mountain dulcimer at workshops across the country, but that’s what Dan Evans has been doing for the last couple of decades. With 15 international tours and five CDs under his belt, Dan is one of a small handful of international dulcimer players and his skilful, original playing and engaging performances have won the hearts of audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, and in France.
Music is in fact his second career but his engagement with the dulcimer in fact began at 16, when he made his first instrument. What attracted him was the beauty and simplicity. ‘I wanted to play an instrument but didn’t want to get bogged down in something that would be complicated to learn,’ he has said. ‘I was always good at woodwork and with the help of a book and a few basic geometry principles I was able to build a mahogany dulcimer.’ He played the instrument for many years, though it has now been retired to his loft. These days, his dulcimers are custom-made for him. The latest is currently under construction by Doug Berch from Michigan, who like Dan is also a finger style player.
Dan was originally inspired by Kentucky’s Jean Ritchie, the folklorist and singer-songwriter credited with single-handedly reviving the dulcimer and who, with husband George Pickow, was herself an instrument-maker. Ritchie, who died last year age 92, was regarded as “the mother of folk music”, the voice of Appalachia, and Dan was privileged to meet her on his first trip to Kentucky in 2000. Ritchie was very approachable and Dan had a backstage dialogue with her about the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, which Jean would typically sing a capella to end her concerts. Like many folk singers, she thought that ‘Amazing Grace’ was a deep-south gospel song, when in fact it comes from Olney in England, where Dan now lives. He told Ritchie the story of the song and, on his return to England sent her a booklet about it from the local church.
Roger Nicholson, a fellow-Englishman, who fell in love with the dulcimer when he heard one being played at a folk festival in the 1960s, was another influence on Dan. The two first met in the 1970s and, two decades later their fruitful friendship resulted in a tour to Boston and the Adirondacks. Dan’s second album, Spirit Dancing (1997) featured two duets with Nicholson, who sadly died in 2009. Dan still honours Roger by playing one of his compositions in concerts.
Originally called the Appalachian dulcimer and now more commonly known as the mountain dulcimer, the instrument featured on many folk-rock recordings in the 1960s and ‘70s, including albums by Richard and Mimi Fariña, Joni Mitchell, Steeleye Span and Pentangle. Brian Jones played the dulcimer on the Rolling Stones’ recording of ‘Lady Jane’ and over the years it has featured prominently in Dolly Parton’s work, on disc and on stage.
Dan’s instrument is tuned to Ionian tuning, commonly referred to as DAA today, and is fretted the same as the original dulcimers played by Ritchie and Nicholson, though that is not the case for most dulcimers today. The dulcimer also lends itself to modal music and, in the footsteps of Roger Nicholson, Dan retunes the dulcimer to create atmospheric and medieval-sounding modal music.
Working in the Ionian mode, and more recently Bagpipe tuning (AAA), he has developed several styles of dulcimer playing that are uniquely his own, including a method of accompanying songs using chord inversions and finger-picking. ‘Few performers sing with the mountain dulcimer today,’ he explains. ‘It’s great to hear music on the dulcimer and I delight in the virtuosity of the great players – but accompanying songs is good fun too. The dulcimer’s sweet sound is an ideal accompaniment for many folk songs, and it’s surprising what can be done in Ionian tuning with just three strings and no half-frets.
‘When I started playing the dulcimer, I followed the traditional principle of tuning the dulcimer to suit my voice. Typically I’d be in (or near) the key of C. I like the organic nature of this approach but it had two main disadvantages: You can’t play with other instruments and the strings were never optimised, sometimes being over-slack and limiting the tone of the instrument. As my voice developed it became higher and I started using D and later E as typical keys to sing and play in. As I played with other musicians more it became important to tune the instrument to a fixed key so we were in tune.’
Dan’s skills as a performer have been enhanced by his long experience as a teacher, of dulcimer and voice. A once reluctant singer himself, he approaches the voice classes as a psychologist as much as a musician, emphasising the benefits of singing not just for musicians but for all of us. For 23 years, he has run a voice workshop, Everyone Can Sing, for all levels and styles of singer – including those who feel they can’t sing. Over 5,000 students have come from all over Europe and beyond to attend Dan’s voice class, including professional opera singers and eminent voice coaches.
Dan’s CD albums enjoy international distribution and have received critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Following his first, largely guitar-based CD, Guardian Spirit (1993), his subsequent two albums (Spirit Dancing and Autumn Dance, 1997 and 2002) are a mixture of guitar and dulcimer pieces with accompaniments on guitar, bass, violin and vocals from leading exponents in the fields of jazz and classical music. His last two, Let It Be Me and Au Vieux Moulin (2010 and 2014), are dulcimer-based and feature classical guitar and string bass from jazz musician Andy Crowdy.
As well as eagerly awaiting his new Dough Berch dulcimer, Dan is planning a big tour of Connecticut, Vermont and New York states in spring 2017. He recently made the brave decision to close down a number of well-paid income streams, like his voice workshops, to focus more on the dulcimer and developing his own music.
Having recorded with Roger Nicholson and more recently on Au Vieux Moulin with Stephen Seifert, the leading American dulcimer player, Dan is keen to record duets with more of work with other inspirational dulcimer players and hope to add to this collection on his next US tour. Watch this space…