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A Conversation with Joellen Lapidus Print-ready version

by Wally Breese
October 18, 1997

Joellen Lapidus

Wally: How did you first get interested in the dulcimer?

Joellen: I had a friend in high school who went to Goddard College, which is somewhere in New England. It was the first university that was sort of experimental, in the sense that there were no tests or grades, and she took an art class there where she made some dulcimers. And she and I were both musicians our whole life, from 7 years old, and when we saw each other (we lived a couple of blocks from each other in New York) she showed me this dulcimer that she'd made and as a woman and a musician I said, "Oh my God, I never realized that somebody could actually make musical instruments and that it could be a woman." That was my first introduction to the dulcimer.

Wally: And what was your second experience?

Joellen: In 1965, at the Newport Folk Festival when Richard Farina performed there. He was performing at that time with Mimi and Bruce Langhorn, and a whole bunch of people from that era that live here in LA right now, so I actually have had a chance to talk to them. I've jammed with Bruce which is really neat because that was my origin of mixing the dulcimer with middle eastern sounds, middle eastern drums, electric guitar. That was really my first exposure to great dulcimer playing. Then I got into the roots later, meaning Jean Ritchie and then it so happened that, if we fast forward a bit, you see I got this bug that I wanted to build some musical instruments, then in college I made little rhythm instruments. I had this professor who was a science professor actually, who made classical guitars and he and I drew up these plans of how to build a dulcimer. Then in Big Sur, where Richard Farina had hung out and Bruce and he had written the "Swallow Song" there, from what I know. There were a lot of people in Big Sur then, this was 1967, who knew Bruce and Dick Farina, and so I was following that music. It was a time of a lot of improvisation and putting a lot of Indian rhythms and Arabic rhythms to folk, you know, open tunings? And Joni Mitchell was also contributing to that music of that period, with her own opening tunings and her rhythms and her very interesting melodies. So she was a major influence for me in my dulcimer playing, as was Richard Farina.

Wally: An influence on your dulcimer playing even though Joni hadn't yet picked up a dulcimer?

Joellen: Right, because a dulcimer is all open tunings and you always have a drone going. You use barre chords, and a lot of sequences, where you take a chord position and just move it up and down the neck. There are a lot of similarities in the way Joni plays the guitar and the way a dulcimer is played. She's a very talented woman no matter what but I think that's why the dulcimer was so easy for her to pick up because she was already doing the same thing with the guitar.

Wally: When did you meet Joni?

Joellen: Well, I met her, I'm not sure if it was '68 or '69, at the Big Sur Folk Festival. What happened was I decided to make a dulcimer for the festival. I had started building musical instruments in Big Sur. You see, a lot of us lived there and many of us also worked at Esalan Institute and I was living and working there. That's why they had the festival but I was inside of it. You know what I mean? I lived on the property. I knew that I was going to have an opportunity to meet all these wonderful people. The Incredible String Band, Crosby Stills & Nash, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, I mean all these people. And I kind of arrogantly told my friends that I was going to build this dulcimer called the Festival model, and that I was going to sell it to Joni Mitchell, I don't know if she even knows this story, I was either going to sell it to her or to the Incredible String Band because those were my two idols. And before the festival opened, I was setting up my dulcimer, I had a little table, and she came walking down the path.

Wally: You saw her coming?

Joellen: Yes, and I left the dulcimer in full view. She noticed it and came over and I played it for her, and my friends were just dying, because I had told them I was going to sell it to her. The finish wasn't on it, but it was done, the strings were on it. She came over and I played it for her. I was playing a lot of the rhythms that I had learned from her, certain musical concepts. She said, "Can I try it?" So she played it a little bit and asked if it was for sale and I said "Yes." I told her the price, and she bought it right then and there.

Wally: How much was it?

Joellen: $200, which for a dulcimer was a lot of money in those days, but the dulcimer had my signature on it and it was very ornately carved. The peg head was carved and the sound holes were inlaid, which wasn't something I totally invented but it became my signature as a dulcimer maker. Nobody else did it until later. We called it the Wild Columbine because the soundholes were carved out wild columbines. Joni asked me to bring it to her later because she had to go get ready to perform, and I said to her, "Well, I'm going to have to put the finish on," and she said "That's ok, because I'm going to be in Big Sur for a few more days." I told her I'd have it done before she had to leave. She ended up staying at the Big Sur Inn up the road from where I lived. Some of my friends who were musicians and I got together with her a couple of times. We hung out and played some music and she got to know the dulcimer a little more and I taught her some techniques. That slap strum. Now the funny thing about the slap strum, and I think all her songs utilize it, it's really kind of a rock and roll strum that she probably used on the guitar, too. Maybe not, I don't know if she did but it was really taking more of a rock & roll or pop guitar strum and putting it on the dulcimer. I showed her that and on all her four dulcimer tunes that have been published she actually uses that. There is a mute, you strum it, and then you mute it with the back of your hand.

Wally: She does do that with her guitar.

Joellen: It's kind of hard to know whether she taught it to me or I taught it to her or if we kind of reminded each other of it and applied it to the dulcimer. That was a very exciting period of time for me.

Wally: Well, your dream came true to sell Joni Mitchell a dulcimer!! Aren't you glad the Incredible String Band didn't come along first!

Joellen: They might not even have showed up, I don't remember, but that was a magical moment. It really changed my life because it made me take myself seriously as a musician and as a musical instrument maker. I eventually left Big Sur and went to study music in Marin County and continued building instruments. Through Joni I met and built instruments for people such as David Crosby and Jackson Browne.

Wally: Dulcimers or other instruments?

Joellen: Dulcimers. They didn't necessarily play them themselves. Maybe they gave them away to various girlfriends.

Wally: Or maybe they just kept them around the house.

Joellen: It gave me an entrance into a professional world. Even though I had been a musician all my life, I hadn't been a professional one, and from that point on I started building instruments and performing professionally, so it was a big event for me.

Wally: What was Joni like back then?

Joellen: She was very shy, extremely talented, and struggling with fame. I don't think it was easy for her in those days. I think she's gotten more used to it now and has taken charge. You know I learned a lot from her about what it meant to be an artist. The commitment, the amount of work, just the quality of her voice which was so extraordinary, and the ability to cut loose, you know, really enter into musical spaces, and to really explore these spaces improvisationally. Not just written songs, but to be able to kind of let go.

Wally: So when you were first teaching her the dulcimer, when you were showing her things, was she vocalizing along with the playing, sort of improvising?

Joellen: When I first sold her the dulcimer she just played it instrumentally. That whole exchange took about 15 minutes. And then later after she got the dulcimer, we spent this one afternoon especially, up above Big Sur with my friend Molly, who was a violin player and had a little place up there, Joni sang along with the dulcimer. Not with words but by using her voice as an instrument. We were at the top of this incredible canyon, and it was an extraordinary afternoon. I imagine everyone who was there will never forget it because it's one thing to hear an artist that you've admired for a long time perform but it's another thing to be with them as they create in the moment. So it teaches you something about the nature of music, that it's not just the perfect finished song or the published song but the music that you sometimes make that never gets recorded or never gets written down. Those are the very exceptional moments in music where you're just playing music in nature for itself. Just for the experience.

Wally: And no one recorded that. (sigh.)

Joellen: Right, and I don't regret that. Sure, 30 years later I wish I could hear that again, but it's recorded in my memory. It was a huge inspiration for all of us, and I guess for her too, because that summer she went to Europe and wrote those four songs.

Wally: Yes, to Europe, then Crete and she hung out in the caves there.

Joellen: And actually I don't have it anymore but she sent me a post card thanking me for the wonderful dulcimer and she told me that she had written some new songs. It was really nice. For me it gave a feeling of having made a contribution to the world of music that I loved.

Wally: Absolutely!

Joellen: Yes, it was quite a hit for me. The other thing about Joni is she's an incredible thinker and philosopher. I don't see her anymore, but I have learned so much from her about being an artist and finding your own way and as an artist being willing to take chances, and not let people try to edit and change your stuff out of its original meaning. I've just learned a lot of things from her about hard work and integrity and creativity. She's been a tremendous inspiration.

Wally: So was that first dulcimer that you made for her the one that she used to record the Blue album?

Joellen: Probably. I don't remember all the sequences but I came down to LA a number of times and connected with her. By then, I was living in Marin County and then I can't remember the years, I probably could figure it out because I published a book of my own called Lapidus on Dulcimer.

Wally: I have it.

Joellen: You have it?

Wally: Yes, it was published in 1978.

Joellen: That's right, and I can't remember if when she came back from Europe her dulcimer had been smashed or something, but somewhere along the line she ended up buying a second dulcimer. That first one she gave to singer-actress Ronee Blakely.

Wally: So smashed doesn't mean unrepairable?

Joellen: No, no. I think I repaired it actually. I repaired that dulcimer more than once. But then she got a second dulcimer which was called the Princess. It was very ornate. There are pictures of them in my book.

Wally: I'm wondering why there are no photos of Joni in your book?

Joellen: This is what happened. I went to Warner Brothers to do my book and I also went to A&M; records. A&M; was willing to do the book that I wanted to do because I wanted it to show the 60s & 70s and it was being written from the point of view of leaving that era, and I wanted to use the Joni Mitchell songs, obviously. And Joni gave me permission, but she explained to me that she didn't own the songs anymore. Warner Brothers technically owned the songs so it was up to them.

Wally: That's awful.

Joellen: They wanted to do a 95-page book with no photos except Joni maybe. Bare bones. No record, there was a little record in the back of my book to help people learn how to play. So it was a really a hard decision. I could have the Joni Mitchell songs but not have the pictures and the sense of humor and sensibility that I wanted, and know that it would sell more copies, or do my own book that was more me and what I was trying to express and have the color photos of the instruments at the end, and Warner Brothers wouldn't do any of that. They knew that if they gave me a little bit of a book and had the Joni Mitchell songs in it, it would sell a million. They knew it would sell a lot so they weren't really interested in me except as a vehicle for this other thing, so I ended up going with A&M; and if you read in the back, the biography that I wrote, there's a lot about my meeting Joni at the festival and the second dulcimer being delivered to her and all kinds of stuff like that. So I went with A&M;, and that's why this Hits & Misses project is so wonderful because it finally gave me an opportunity, along with Ruth Barrett, who got in on it because they couldn't find me at first.

Wally: That was good for Ruth because then she could be involved.

Joellen: Yes, but you see I had all the original transcriptions. We transcribed these years ago. When Joni wrote the songs I immediately transcribed them into dulcimer tabulature. At one point she had actually forgotten the songs, and I gave her the tabulatures and she was able to relearn them. So the tabulatures always existed and it's the same tabulature which is in my book, which is a little different because it shows all the arrows, it shows all the strumming.

Wally: Is there a picture of any of the dulcimers you made for Joni in there?

Joellen: I believe there's a picture of, wait a minute here's a copy. Now you see the cover of the book? That's Joni's third dulcimer, that's the Harlequin.

Wally: Yes, with the lips on the side!

Joellen: That's the third dulcimer that I built for her. That was much later. Now if you go to the back, to page 209 at the beginning of the color photos, that's the Harlequin, and you can see the whole body, and it's half a wood called Padauk ( a wood from South America) and half Rosewood. Then on page 215, the top picture is the instock of the Harlequin. See the two Harlequin shoes? That's the end piece of the dulcimer. So that's the third dulcimer. If you look on page 212, that's a dulcimer called the Daffodil, but the shape, if you think of columbines instead of daffodils, it is very close, the columbine is a little more intricate, a little more lacey, but the peg head where the pegs are, that's the shape, that's really what the first dulcimer looked like. Go back a page, to 211 and that's Joni Mitchell's second dulcimer. That's the Princess. If you see the inset, the little carved soundhole, you can see the intricacy. It's all three-dimensionally carved. And the peghead is like two or three kinds of wood.

Wally: Great! What's this I read about an accordion, you're an accordion fan?

Joellen: That was my first instrument. I still play accordion. But my accordion teacher was this incredible contemporary composer who was at the Manhattan School of Music, so I wasn't being exposed to folk songs, I was being exposed to a huge array of music, which was really fun to put on the dulcimer. So the whole generation of dulcimer players who came out of the 60s and 70s used the dulcimer to express a whole variety of music. Just like Joni, as is shown over the whole span of her career, she has gone through all kinds of music. Where Jean Ritchie came from was a whole different kind of cultural experience with the dulcimer. Those were the origins, but my generation of dulcimer players, most of us were urban, and we grew up with all kinds of mixtures of influences, and we took all that music and put it on the dulcimer. Ruth is part of that generation, too. She's more in a folk tradition than me because I grew up playing in orchestras and classical music.

Wally: So as far as you know, those four songs are the only dulcimer songs Joni's published?

Joellen: I know those are the only four songs that she's recorded on official records. Whether there are any unofficial songs, I don't know. I've actually been out of touch with her for quite a while. But I have sent her a couple of cards here and there. When I saw that she reunited with her daughter, I sent her a card, but I just figure that she's into other things and I'm into other things and if we ever pass again, great. If not, she's certainly made a huge contribution to my life and I feel happy to have made a contribution to her life and music.

Wally: Well, you certainly have, because when people think of Joni Mitchell, they most often think of Blue which is probably her most popular album and the dulcimer is all over there. So if it wasn't for you, the album would have been much different.

Joellen: She's so sought after, and when people find out ... I'm in a choir now, I actually just do instrumentals, I used to sing also but I'm too busy, and when people find out I've made her instruments, all of a sudden they look at me with these goo-goo eyes. So I realized that we had this connection for a number of years and it was very wonderful. She was always three or four steps ahead of me in her thinking about culture. She loves to talk, actually, and she really is a thinker, and people don't really know this about her and I think she doesn't like to accept dogma or bigotry and she really thinks for herself. She really taught me how to think for myself.

Wally: Yes, she's very concerned with borderlines and not having them. Like the song "Borderline." So tell me a little bit about working on the Hits and Misses songbooks? I was told that Ruth was contacted first because they couldn't find you, and then after she called you, you talked to Aaron Stang?

Joellen: Yes, all three of us worked together constantly. It took us a couple of months to get the thing done. What was difficult was even though I already had the transcriptions, it was good that Ruth and I worked together because Ruth has certain musical skills, her ear is better than mine, and she can remember a vocal line note for note whereas I always make up my own. So since we had to go measure by measure and replicate the recording, not just do an arrangement of the song, the two of us were a great team, because I know the dulcimer, I know what Joni did on the dulcimer, I've seen her do it, you know, I know how she tuned it. There's a funny story, actually, I guess she broke some strings and she put the strings back on backwards.

Wally: With the bass strings in the middle, yes, I've heard about that.

Joellen: They tried to make it into a religion on the Hits and Misses book, but I said no, we can comment on that but we don't want to get all these dulcimer players trying to be like Joni Mitchell and play with the bass strings in the middle, that will drive everybody crazy.

Wally: It doesn't make any difference in the sound though, does it, Joellen?

Joellen: Well, maybe infinitesimally, because if you're strumming, some people strum actually bass to the melody string, I strum melody to the bass strings. In fact, if Ruth had done the book without me, her arrows would have been opposite because she plays backwards, or I play backwards to her. So we wanted to make the tabulature note for note as best we could as it was on the album, but we also wanted to make it intelligible to current dulcimer players. And we didn't want Joni's indiosyncracies to become dulcimer dogma. So we explained some things, like one song she tuned way up to a high E, and we said to people she tuned it way up, but don't because you'll break your strings. Tune it in D, that's the way it should be. So we have little notes and stuff. I know more about the contemporary dulcimer players who play my style and Ruth knows more about dulcimer players who do picking, so between the two of us I think we crafted a really terrific tabulature of the four songs that's never been in print before.

Wally: Right, you did three of Joni's four dulcimer songs, "Carey" and "California" are on Hits, and "A Case of You" is on Misses.

Joellen: "A Case of You" is one of the most beautiful songs.

Wally: I think it's my favorite of the four songs.

Joellen: So are you a dulcimer player?

Wally: You know, my only experience with the dulcimer was after I had heard Blue. I was a hippie back then, as most of us were, and I was traveling around to go to some music festival. I stayed with a friend and went into their bedroom and there was a dulcimer. I said, "Oh my God, Joni Mitchell plays dulcimer." No one was there at the time, so I couldn't say "How do you play this?" so I just picked it up with a pick and within a couple of minutes I was playing that opening part to "All I Want." And I said to myself "This instrument is really easy to play!" I think that's the wonderful thing about dulcimers. Maybe one or two more times after that I played around with one, but that's it. I'm not sure how popular the dulcimer is now. What's your take on that?

Joellen: It's definitely waning.

Wally: Is it? Does it wane and flow regularly?

Joellen: Well, I think over the last 10 years it has really waned. Ruth and her partner Cyntia perform, I don't really perform anymore except with the choir. We've done several tunes where I use the dulcimer and everyone says, "What is that?" I had a group called the Shimmering Orchestra and we don't perform anymore. Actually, in 1978 I really left the world of music.

Wally: After you wrote the book?

Joellen: After I did the book. I actually knew that I did the book as either an end of an era or the beginning of a new level of doing that. And actually I stopped performing and I was teaching at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Los Angeles and Ruth used to teach there, too.

Wally: Do you still teach?

Joellen: Not really. If somebody called me up and asked me to give lessons I probably would. I'd find out what the going rate was and I'd do it, because it would be fun, but I play music now just for fun and with the choir. I play all kinds of instruments. They call me the orchestra.

Wally: Was one of the reasons you stopped performing music because the book wasn't successful?

Joellen: No, the book was very successful. The reason I left was the thing that I was doing with the instruments was that they were really works of art. It wasn't like making dulcimers, each one was a sculpture, and two things were really going on. One, I couldn't sell them for what they were worth, because with the amount of work and material that went into them I would have had to sell them for a couple thousand dollars, and there really wasn't a market for that. Although I think Cyntia's instrument now is at least a thousand dollars. They are made with the finest guitar techniques. Her husband is a guitar maker, a very fine guitar maker. But I was just going through a life crisis and it was just time to make a change. The other thing was that I was trained very informally and I kind of had a sense that I had to get more training in woodworking to make myself more efficient or I had to just move on to something else, because I couldn't make a living at it.

Wally: It's such a shame that you couldn't make a living with something that you were so emotionally attached to, and so good at doing.

Joellen: Yes, that's really why I stopped because it was too heartbreaking. Each instrument was so personal, just like you would make a sculpture, and I couldn't do that and then run around town and try to sell them. Although I never really had a dulcimer for sale in my whole career, except for maybe a month. Whenever I finished an instrument I always had a buyer, I never had an instrument where I was worried it wouldn't sell, but there was no way really of making $10 an hour. There was no way I could get what I had put into it. There were people making $100 and $200 dulcimers producing them in a certain way, and I knew I wasn't competing with them because I was doing it in a different way, but I would go to craft fairs and things like that and I would have two instruments there and I would tell people the price and people would just snub their noses. It just wasn't for me, so I dropped out for a couple of years and became a cabinet maker to support myself and then I went back to school in 1984 and became a psychotherapist which is how I support myself now.

Wally: You mentioned that you've worked with other musicians besides Joni. Wendy Waldman was a name I noticed in your book.

Joellen: Yes, I built a dulcimer for her.

Wally: She's not well known, but I love her music. I used to have all her albums in the 70s.

Joellen: Actually I didn't build one for her, what happened was I had an instrument that I had built for myself, and it was actually after a concert of hers at McCabes. I have this funny little arrogant streak in me. I went up to her and I said "I heard it through the grapevine that you were looking for a dulcimer and I build the most beautiful dulcimers in the world. You ought to see them." So she looked at me, decided I was okay, then I went up to her house, which at that time was in Topanga Canyon.

Wally: What year was this?

Joellen: God, I don't know but it has to be before '78 because her picture is in the book. So I went up there, and a friend of mine named Robbie Long, I was selling some of his dulcimers, too. And he's actually a very successful songwriter here in LA now. Anyway, so I went up there with all these instruments, and one instrument of mine which I was selling for $800, all the other ones were $300 or $350, but the only one she wanted was mine. And she bought it. She did it in two payments, too. But I got that wonderful photo. It's in color but in the book it's in black and white.

Wally: So who else have you sold dulcimers to?

Joellen: David Crosby, Garth Hudson from the Band. He's in the book. His instrument is the Queen of Spades, which is a very interesting instrument which he designed that has pegs at both ends and we have banjo tuners so you can actually retune while you are playing. That's Garth's instrument. That's about it.

Wally: I guess you know there's going to be a Complete Joni Mitchell songbook coming up from Warner Brothers within the next couple of years? Aaron says that it's going to be like Acoustic Guitar magazine where they don't reproduce the whole song, just part of it. I guess that then, "All I Want," which didn't end up on Hits & Misses, will need transcribing.

Joellen: Yes, we didn't do "All I Want."

Wally: Well, you'll have to then. That'll mean a little more work for you and Ruth.

Joellen: Well, that's exciting. It was such a wonderful experience 30 years ago, and I think working on the Hits & Misses songbooks was also great. It allowed me to give back a little bit of what I feel like I got from Joni.

Wally: Cool. It's a shame you didn't get to talk to her when you were working on Hits and Misses.

Joellen: The thing I learned from Joni as an artist is that she would create her art and then move on to the next creative moment. It's not that you don't remember fondly but she's already moved on from all that stuff, the collected works, that's not what she is creating anymore.

Wally: Right, like you said, she's a true artist and it's what she's currently creating that she's most interested in.

Thanks to Joellen Lapidus, Ruth Barrett, Steve Dulson, Henry Diltz and Susan McNamara.

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Added to Library on November 10, 2005. (18686)


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ProdigalRose on

At age 50, I am finally getting back into the guitar after thirty years ... but Joni has recently reinspired me into considering the dulcimer. I am not sure if the dulcimer is still "waning" in usage as Joellen mentions above. I hope not. I am still researching the fretted mountain dulcimers with more than four strings also.

Great article!

PS Mercy, already 13 years since it was published? Where goes the time?!