You might not think a musician best known for his work with the hammered dulcimer would have anything to do with music for the Olympics but one of Walt Michael’s original compositions, "Snowblind," was commissioned for the recent Winter Olympic Games. Like most good traditional folk musicians, Michael performs on an array of instruments, including guitar, mandolin, and banjo. He has performed at the White House, Lincoln Center, and the Kennedy Center and he has toured extensively throughout Europe, Canada, and the United States.
He performs with his band, which includes Barry Mitterhoff, on Friday, September 15, under the auspices of the Princeton Folk Music Society at Christ Congregation Church on Walnut Lane. Michael has recorded 14 albums, and his latest album, "Live at Dean Castle," was recorded live on the Tradition Bearers Record label out of Glasgow, Scotland. "It’s the label of `Living Tradition’ magazine, the magazine of Scottish traditional music," Michael says in a phone interview from his office at McDaniel College in Westminster, MD, where he is artist-in-residence. Michael graduated from McDaniel in 1968, with a bachelors degree in English.
"I kind of created this job here (at McDaniel)," he says. "What I wanted to do was come here and start a program in the traditional arts that also included dialogue. I wanted to address matters of race and class through the arts and through the eyes of artists. For almost four years I produced these two separate weeks of workshops and concerts on campus for the general community, and it developed a reputation. We received some human relations awards for fostering harmony among the races through the arts. After four years of this, I was hired as artist-in-residence."
Michael was raised in Bethesda, Maryland, the son of a golf-playing Methodist minister and a housewife. Fortunately, Michael notes, McDaniel College has its own nine-hole golf course.
Now 60, Michael took to the guitar with the emergence of the first folk music renaissance in the early 1960s, inspired by an area radio station that played the music of Odetta; the Weavers; Peter, Paul and Mary; and early recordings by a then-emerging Bob Dylan.
When he began playing guitar at age 13 he was also working as a page in the Supreme Court (during the Kennedy Administration), which allowed him access to recordings at the Library of Congress. The Supreme Court wasn’t far at all from the Library of Congress, where the young Michael would hole himself up for hours, listening to folk music. "The Library of Congress’ folklore division was right there, and between 1960 and 1963, the folk revival was in full bloom," Michael says, adding it took him a long time to get comfortable with an acoustic guitar as a young teenager.
When he was older, he frequented the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., where so many nationally recognized folk and blues musicians would perform.
Having a more-or-less full-time position at McDaniel College enabled Michael a more solid footing to continue touring selectively in Scotland and around the United States and U.K. Michael has founded a non-profit presenting arts organization, Common Ground on the Hill (www.commongroundonthehill.org). "It’s an idea I conceived of 35 years ago," he says, "but I almost forgot I had done it. Once I got my skills together I was able to execute it. The concept is that artists have a very broad view of things because we play for everybody. The same artist who plays at the White House may play for victims of hunger the next day, so my sense was that artists have a perspective that is broader than probably anyone else’s."
Michael offers an example from his own career: "As a student here at McDaniel years ago, I did volunteer work in impoverished coal mining communities. Twenty years later, I was playing music for coal consortium buyers, the owners of these companies, at the same time recognizing everyone’s humanity and recognizing that people just don’t know each other. Maybe, as artists, we bring an opportunity to see that come to pass, and so, the onus is on us to share that broad-based perspective."
As a student at McDaniel, he did volunteer work in Appalachia as well as voter registration and civil rights volunteer work. He also produced a number of field recordings of Appalachian music for the Library of Congress.
Michael says his fascination with hammered dulcimer began after he had been performing on guitar for a number of years. As a 25-year-old, while attending graduate school at Drew University, Michael attended the Fox Hollow Folk Festival in New York State, where he saw Bill Spence playing the hammered dulcimer. "I had never seen one before, and I fell in love with the sound of the instrument," he says. "So Bill built me one, and it just took off from there. Since then I’ve been able to replicate the instrument he made me; most of the hammered dulcimers you hear now are pretty thin-sounding and airy. The one I use for my shows is much more capable, and the difference between this and most other hammered dulcimers is like the difference between a Gibson parlor guitar and a Martin D-28 acoustic guitar. The instrument is really the forerunner of the piano. It’s got 81 strings, and you play it with these small hammers."
After his previous band, Bottle Hill, dissolved in the 1970s he formed Walt Michael & Company specifically to focus on the sounds of his hammered dulcimer. "I became known for that, even though at most of my shows, I also play guitar about half the time. When you’re tuning a hammered dulcimer, you are tuning 81 strings," he says, as opposed to six strings with an acoustic guitar.
`It’s not just the beauty of the sound (of the hammered dulcimer), but the power of it. In retrospect, I felt like I’d found my instrument," he says. "So now, when I teach students traditional music, I let them know, `you may not have found your instrument yet, just keep trying different instruments until you find out what it is.’ Often you’ll find that the really great players can play a whole lot of instruments. Del McCoury played banjo with Bill Monroe for years but what he is known for is singing and playing rhythm guitar. A lot of those cats can just play anything."
While the life of a traditional folk musician isn’t any easier than the life of a traditional jazz musician, Michael says his life has its own rewards. "It hasn’t been easy," he says, "but it’s fun when you’re passionate about what you’re doing. You’re not going to make a lot of money and you’re not going to own a really big house, but the payoff is, you get to travel and meet lots of interesting people."
At Michael’s September 15 concert the audience can expect some very fine ensemble playing, with plenty of room for everyone to take solos, Michael predicts. "I really like making music with other people, people who listen to one another and respond to one another," he says. "I’m attracted to music and songs that make great statements and that’s why traditional music is so great: it’s been winnowed by time, so the really good stuff stays around, and people keep singing these songs. The show in Princeton will include some pieces from the Shetland Islands, as well as anything from old Tin Pan Alley songs to bluegrass and blues standards and folk ballads."
Walt Michael & Company, Friday September 15, 8:15 p.m., Princeton Folk Music Society, Christ Congregation Church, 55 Walnut Lane. $15. 609-799-0944, www.waltmichael.com.