Housewife-turned-harpist Takes A Traditional Path

Richards' Album Showcases Celtic Instrument

October 01, 1991|By Michael R. Driscoll | Michael R. Driscoll,Staff writer

Perhaps if Rockville housewife-turned-traditional-musician Sue Richards had been a little more enthusiastic about housework, she never would have discovered the Celtic harp.

But thanks to the slowly growing interest in her type of music, Richards may clean up after all.

Maggie's Music, a traditional music label based in Annapolis and run by hammered dulcimer virtuoso Maggie Sansone, has chosen Richardsas its first new artist -- other than Sansone herself.

The album,"Grey Eyed Morn," features Richards in a stunning and predominantly solo performance, showcasing traditional music from the British Isles. The music is rendered with energy and a haunting ethereal beauty.

Some of the tunes feature guest artists, including Sansone and WestCoast Scottish fiddling champion Calum Mackinnon. But the spirit of the work belongs to Richards, a three-time winner of the U.S. National Scottish Harp Championship.

For the time being, the public can also hear Richards live on the weekends at the Maryland Renaissance Festival in Crownsville through the middle of October.

She also plays on several of Sansone's own albums, "Sounds of the Season" parts one and two, and her most recent work, "Mist and Stone."

Richards isa frequent performer at corporate functions, weddings and private parties -- even the occasional Irish or Scottish funeral.

"Usually they want something traditional, but sometimes they leave it up to me,and then I try to choose something low and meditative," she said. "It's one of the passages of life, and people always want music for themain event."

Richards' other album, "Celtic Lace," was recorded privately with her partner, guitarist Karen Ashbrook. They perform as a duo under the name Ceoltoiri (pronounced Kyul-tory, and meaning musicians in Irish Gaelic) throughout the Washington area.

The album title refers to Irish lace, another name for the clumps of dust that can collect on shelfs, under curtains, or in the corners of the house. Richards joked that both she and her partner have been too busy with the music of late to look after their houses.

"We haven't marketed it very well," Richards said of the album. "It's hard to sell tapes and be a musician at the same time. Fortunately, Maggie's going to take that over for us. She's an incredible businesswoman, who really does her homework well. I have absolute trust in her business abilityto sell the album for us."

The Celtic harp, or Irish harp, is small, generally standing about waist-high, and more easily carried thanthe much larger and heavier concert version.

Both are shaped in the form of a triangle with two gracefully curved legs, but the Celticharp is played purely by strumming, as opposed to the concert harp, which has pedals that can affect the tone.

Richards first studied the concert harp. However, she "never quite liked it. I knew that I wasn't good enough to compete in the concert hall world. But I kept onwith the lessons until I was an adult, when I quit and got interested in folk music."

Living in Wisconsin at the time, she sat in witha group of hobbyists who got together once a week to play traditional folk music.

As she learned her craft, Richards tried several other instruments, but eventually decided that since she had studied theharp for so long, she might as well stay with it.

"I started out as an accompaniest, just doing chords," Richards said, "and little bylittle started learning the tunes. When we moved to Washington, D.C., I didn't known anyone, and I had all this time free, so I just learned tons of tunes. I went down to the Irish session every Wednesday evening at Kelly's Irish Times, where they just play tune after tune for about five hours, and I learned tons of music there.

"After all, the harp is a very Irish type of instrument. I found one for sale in the Whole Earth Catalog -- this was about 1978 or so -- and I've been playing Celtic music ever since."

Asked what attracted her to folk music, especially the traditional style as typified by the Celticharp, Richards said "it's a much brighter sound (and) you don't haveto deal with pedals. Plus this harp is so much cheaper, about a thousand dollars compared to $20,000 or $30,000 for a concert harp. And it's much easier to take with me, out into pubs. This harp and I have had some great times some really great experiences."

Richards saidshe has been enjoying her life as a traditional musician, especiallysome of the unexpected privileges.

"The perks of being a musicianare really nice," she said. "There are places where I play in trade,like at Cool Font Lodge, this health resort in Berkley Springs, W.Va., where the family can go along. Instead of paying us, they give us the weekend free, including the entire family."

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