Celtic instrumentalist brings Irish sound to St. Patrick's Day

For prodigious instrumentalist Maggie Sansone, Celtic music anchors her sound

  • Maggie Sansone plays the hammered dulcimer in her music studio.
Maggie Sansone plays the hammered dulcimer in her music studio. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
March 04, 2011|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

On a misty afternoon, the vista beyond her windows — the peaceful West River, lashed to life by a brisk and sudden rain — might as well be the Galway Bay of song or a fog-shrouded inlet of the Irish Sea.

Such Celtic scenes lie 3,000 miles to the east, but to Maggie Sansone, they feel no further away than a tune she can't shake from her mind.

"Sometimes I look out there and think, 'Those are the same waters that reach out and touch Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man," says Sansone, a Shady Side resident who happens to be one of America's top performers on the hammered dulcimer, an instrument that dates back 2,000 years and can — in the right hands — make sounds as primeval as haze on a lonely moor.

For the first time in years, Sansone, 60, has a new record out, the 51st to be produced on Maggie's Music, her independent label that has sold more than a million CDs. She's working on her ninth book of music for Mel Bay Publications. And she's preparing, as usual this time of year, for a concert to mark the St. Patrick's Day season, a gig in Rockville next Saturday that will showcase some of the region's best instrumental talent and show off two of its top Irish dancers.

As she shows a guest around her studio, Sansone, a multiple Wammie winner for instrumental excellence on the D.C. scene, pauses to pluck a guitar, thump an Irish drum and coax wails from a small bagpipe — instruments she has mastered, to one degree or another, and worked into the smooth and textured arrangements her label has been creating since the 1980s.

"I hope you don't think I'm hyperactive," she says with a laugh. "Collecting these things makes life fun."

But the center of the space is her dulcimer, a trapezoidal sounding board that sits atop a stand, crisscrossed by 75 strings. Sansone pulls up a chair, chooses a pair of mallets, closes her eyes for a moment, and starts hammering a complicated air.

Flashpoints

She was born in Miami to a cartoonist father and a mother who wrote ad copy for a department store.

Sansone recalls no Celtic influence in the family. Her dad, Leonard Sansone, was of Italian ancestry; her mother, Emily Stone, descended from Eastern European Jews.

"The Celts did invade Italy at some point in history, didn't they?" she says. "Maybe that explains my [artistic] DNA."

But there was always music, and plenty of it.

When Maggie was 8, Leonard, a pianist, let her sit next to him and pick out the bass parts as he played boogie-woogie. Parties at home included sing-alongs. By the time she was in her teens, Maggie was learning the recorder and classical guitar, and during high school, she taught herself so much bassoon in a year that she made second chair in the orchestra.

"A lot of musicians say they never want to stop learning, but she's one of the few who really pull that off," says Ken Kolodner, a Baltimore-based fiddler and dulcimer player who has known Sansone for more than 30 years.

None of that translated into a career plan — not yet. In 1966, when she headed to college at Kent State University, it was to study art. She kept a guitar close at hand, though, and took music classes on the side.

One day four years later, during the height of the antiwar movement, she was on her way to ethnomusicology class when she passed a mob of students on a hillside, many of them shouting at a battery of National Guardsmen.

She heard shots ring out — the same ones, she later learned, that killed four schoolmates and galvanized protesters nationwide.

To Sansone, then 19, the shootings of May 4, 1970, felt less like a flashpoint in a cultural war than, quite simply, the disillusioning end to a mostly fruitless four years.

"I don't do depression well, but yes, I started asking all those existential questions," she says. A time of soul-searching began.

Crafts and crystals

It's hard to envision from the serenely landscaped, solar-heated home she shares with her husband, environmental architect Richard Crenshaw, but in those days, Sansone seemed little different from legions of other young drifters.

She hitchhiked across Europe (she came home, eventually, after getting sick in Turkey), took a succession of unrelated jobs, and asked herself, again and again, who she was.

None of it mattered, it turned out, as much as music.

In the late 1970s, when she moved from Miami to Baltimore to live with her brother, Peter, Sansone took her guitar, mandolin and banjo along. She lived in one commune near Memorial Stadium, then another in Charles Village. She plastered notices everywhere, teaching guitar in community centers, music stores and her own digs.

Between bouts of pondering life's meaning, Sansone embraced what made her happy.

"Of all the people I knew in those days, Maggie struck me as someone who played music purely for the fun of it," says Kolodner, who met her during one of the casual jams that happened most nights at the time.

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