Library of Articles

  • Library: Articles

A Conversation with Ruth Barrett Print-ready version

by Wally Breese
JoniMitchell.com
October 17, 1997

Wally:
I recently spoke to Hemme Luttjebour, who did the guitar tabulature for the Hits & Misses songbooks, and he told me that you and Joellen Lapidus did the dulcimer tabs. Were you hired by Aaron Stang? (Project Manager for Warner Bros. Publications)

Ruth:
Yes. I was contacted by Aaron last winter and I was, of course, really excited having been a fan of Joni's since I was a teenager. And I can also use the cliche statement "she changed my life." I had every nuance of every song memorized and all the words and pined over every word. All the exquisite sweet pain of adolescence which she did so well and so artfully. I was, of course, younger than her. I'm not sure by how many years but I'm 43 now.

Wally:
Joni will be 54 in a couple of weeks. So she's about 10 years older than you. So were you a guitarist when you first got into Joni's music?

Ruth:
I was a folk guitarist. I basically stayed with the folk guitar. Nothing terribly complicated because I wasn't aware of too many other tunings. When I was playing I would arrange her stuff in the keys I knew, which weren't very many and I just played them. For example, I would go to my guitar teacher and say "I want to learn this song," like "Michael from Mountains," and then he would help me put it in interesting chord patterns which were new to me as a student, but we didn't attempt to go into the tunings.

Wally:
Were you or was he aware that Joni used alternate tunings?

Ruth:
I was, because it sounded that way to me. I don't think that my guitar teacher was into her, per se. I just brought him the song.

Wally:
Well, I don't think there are that many songwriters who use alternate tunings, really. Joni's the champion for sure. Michael Hedges also does a lot of alternate tunings. (This interview was conducted a month before Michael Hedges's untimely death in a car accident).

Ruth:
That's true, and I didn't really even think of it at the time because a lot of people I knew, because of her, were doing alternate tunings. So I was probably unaware of just how unusual it was. As a teenager I just thought "Oh, this is cool."

Wally:
But you couldn't play all of the songs in regular tunings because of the weird chords, and I think that became a problem over the years, especially for amateur guitarists. That's why the Hits & Misses songbooks are so great, because of the tabulature.

Ruth:
Right, and that's what I was, an amateur guitarist. I wasn't thinking that I would be a professional musician someday. I just enjoyed the music and wanted to play, and I would always see her in concert. As I said, I was in junior high so I remember my parents taking me and a friend for a birthday to the Troubadour club. So I, of course, gave her roses like a thousand other people. And it's like I died and went to heaven hearing her up that close.

Wally:
Yes, the Troubadour is an intimate place and wonderful for Joni because she's most comfortable with a small venue.

Ruth:
Exactly. I later saw her at the Hollywood Bowl. I'm not even sure when that was.

Wally:
Probably in '74.

Ruth:
But I didn't see her much after that except when I was working at the Renaissance Pleasure Fair in the mid-70's and she had a friend, I think it was Carey, as in "Carey, get out your cane?"

Wally:
Carey Raditch?

Ruth:
Yes, he was working there as a security guard or something, and she would come to visit him. This is what I heard was the reason she was there. I never met Carey, even though I worked there, I never looked him up to make sure he was there. Then I had another friend who was kind of pals with her at the time, who was a street gymnast named David, also known as the Flaming Zucchini. But I knew a lot of street artists at the time, who were good friends with me, and she really liked unusual people, so that's basically how I was able to know when she was somewhere.

Wally:
But you didn't follow her music after that?

Ruth:
Oh, I followed her music. I thought Court & Spark was the best album ever recorded, and I probably listened to it about 500 times. I was in college at that point. I had been playing the dulcimer since 1971.

Wally:
Yes, that's what I wanted to ask you, was it after you heard Blue that you started playing the dulcimer?

Ruth:
No, I had been playing before that. When did Blue come out?

Wally:
That was in June of 1971. Photo

Ruth:
Oh, that's an interesting coincidence. Because I hadn't heard the album. Well, wait. I must have because I followed everything she did. Because I got my first dulcimer in 1971, the day of the LA earthquake.

Wally:
Was that in January?

Ruth:
Yes, that's the day I got my first dulcimer- January 1971.

Wally:
So that was before the album came out. Well, that must have been interesting. You get a dulcimer and then your favorite artist, when her next album comes out, there's a dulcimer on it.

Ruth:
Yes, and at the time there were no teachers, I just found a girl who had gotten one for a Christmas present a month earlier and brought it to school and I fell absolutely head over heels in love with the instrument and found it to be really responsive to what I wanted to do with it, which was that I could play the melody of a song and sing it at the same time. Since I was twelve, I'd been collecting American and British Isles folk music because my family was musical and that's how I did a lot of music early on. Contemporary music was a love of mine but personally I was doing traditional folk music, and just really loved the dulcimer, and there was no one who could really show me anything because no one really knew anything. There was one dulcimer book available at the time and it was written by Jean Ritchie. She's the one who took it out of the hills of Appalachia, out of Kentucky where she's from and basically popularized the instrument. Ritchie is single-handedly responsible for the fact that anybody even knows about the dulcimer.

Wally:
Is Jean still alive?

Ruth:
Yes, she's still alive and she's on email.

Wally:
Cool! So Jean Ritchie brought the Appalachian dulcimer to folk music?

Ruth:
Yes, and she had a very rich family history. Jean became more of a folklorist, and toured England and America and there was a big folk music revival that happened in the late 50s and early 60s where you had Sam Hitton, the New Lost City Ramblers and Pete Seeger and that group. And Jean Ritchie -- you might do well to email her -- she's written all kinds of books on the journey and the whole deal with her. Her story is well documented but she's still reachable. Anyway, basically she's really the one who gets the credit for introducing the whole deal. I'm sure Joellen will tell you how she heard of the dulcimer, because it's through Joni seeing her play that she got interested in the instrument. So you have no degree of separation. Another person who helped popularize the instrument in the 60s was Richard Farina, who was married to Mimi, Joan Baez's sister.

Wally:
Who has done the Bread and Roses Festival up here for years.

Ruth:
Oh, that's wonderful! Well, Richard was killed in an accident, I don't remember the year he died, but he wrote some terrific music, and he composed for the dulcimer and turned a lot of people on to the dulcimer.

Wally:
Did he and Jean play the same kind of style?

Ruth:
Not at all. No, Jean is an incredible songwriter but they were from different generations, and Richard Farina was very much a poet of the 60s. In fact, I just got an email from a person who might be doing a project on his music. He's looking for people who want to do that, and of course I responded. There was a lot of coffee house, folk music scene and all of a sudden among people who liked that type of music, the dulcimer started to appear.

Wally:
So these two people introduced it and then soon almost everybody was playing dulcimer?

Ruth:
Well, a lot of people weren't playing it. I just think the dulcimer kind of hit a renaissance in the 70s and then hit another little bump in the 80s and I only know that because that's when my dulcimer teaching flourished and then it dried up after that. You know, it becomes trendy? Then came the hammered dulcimer, which had it's turn and then the Celtic harp. You know, different fads of instruments happened. It's kind of bizarre and interesting at the same time.

Wally:
So you say you had a dulcimer before Joni's album came out. When the album came out and you heard her dulcimer songs, were you able to pick them out and play them pretty easily?

Ruth:
Oh yes, I flipped out, I loved them. I was easily able to pick them out. The first one I did was "A Case of You" but I didn't play it in her tuning.

Wally:
Yes, I was going to ask, does she do alternate tunings for the dulcimer, also? I heard that she had her strings rearranged a different way.

Ruth:
And that's only because she didn't know. That's why on the Hits & Misses songbooks we say don't try this at home! We tell people don't tune your dulcimer this way, it's just probably because she did it this way, not because it made any sense.

Wally:
It doesn't make a difference with the sound so much.

Ruth:
No, but it will have a tendency for people to break their strings, that's why we said whatever we said in the liner notes.

Wally:
So you learned "A Case of You."

Ruth:
I made it up, I just made up my own arrangement and it sounded enough like it that I was happy with it and I could sing it. And then "Carey" was really easy to pick out, but again I wasn't doing it like Joni. People thought I was doing it exactly like she did, but I wasn't. Now I understand what tuning she was doing it in, I could hear the nuances, but I did it in one of the tunings that I knew at the time, before there were teachers of the dulcimer. I became a teacher of the dulcimer basically because I was going past on what I had made up, but then I was able to connect with a woman who played, had a couple of lessons from her and then took off from there. There was no guidance basically in the dulcimer world. People were literally making stuff up. Except for some recordings by Jean Ritchie you couldn't go out and find a book or anything, you still can't because it's written in tabulature, and so there is very little out there on dulcimer. The Rolling Stones used it on "Sweet Lady Jane" and I don't know when that came out.

Wally:
That was 1966, I think. I remember, of course, that it was after Blue, that I became conscious that Joni played a dulcimer and not a guitar on four of the songs. I was traveling around as a wanna-be hippy did back then, and I went into a friend's bedroom and there was a dulcimer, and I thought, "Oh, my God, this is what Joni plays!" I picked it up without really knowing anything and was able to play something that sounded pretty good to me. I think that's one of the plusses about a dulcimer - that it's easy to play so that people can feel like they are doing it right, right away.

Ruth:
Right, because it's a modal instrument and once you have it in tune (in a particular tuning) then you can't really make a wrong note. Then you can get more complicated than that, just like the music I do with my music partner, our focus is finger-picking and very intricate chord work and so you can get very complicated or stay very simple. Basically there are no rules.

Wally:
Do you have a performing group?

Ruth:
I have a performing partner named Cyntia Smith and we're a duo. We have five recordings out together. We began recording together in 1979 and our most recent release was in 1993. Photo

Wally:
Have you recorded any Joni songs?

Ruth:
No, we do our own compositions and traditional music.

Wally:
Do you sing too? Both of you?

Ruth:
Yes. I do most of the lead singing, and we write our own music, but my personal music was very, very much influenced by Joni Mitchell. When I hear other female artists, I hear Joni Mitchell, which I think is wonderful. When I see these weak women sitting at the piano playing these big things that don't rhyme and go all over the place I say, "You're not original, babe!"

Wally:
Right, when I see someone like Jewel selling 5 or 6 million copies of her album, it pisses me off because she's like a bland, sophmoric Joni Mitchell.

Ruth:
Well there you go, need I say more!!

Wally:
You know, it's never the originals who are the ones that the public buys into, it's someone down the line, and that's a shame because Joni really deserves to sell more than 400,000 copies of her albums.

Ruth:
Well, listen, who's had a career like hers!!

Wally:
That's true, because even though she hasn't always been commercially successful for twenty years, her artistry and her reputation has kept her career going for 30 years now. Nobody else has had that really. Joni lost some people with her foray into jazz for the Mingus album, but I don't believe that the people who truly respect and understand Joni's artistic nature can begrudge her desire to experiment.

Ruth:
Absolutely. I threw a big hissy fit that lasted a short time, because I knew she was going off on this thing and that's great but I'm not going to hear the music that I'm attached to any more.

Wally:
Well, that's what she made it sound like at the time, that she was not going back to pop music because it was too straight.

Ruth:
I remember at the Hollywood Bowl concert, someone yelled out "Cactus Tree" and she said, "That's like an old dress I used to wear." And she has a right to move on, that's the thing about having fans, too. There's all this attachment that the fans have emotionally to various songs and pieces and they want to freeze you and put you in a time capsule and meanwhile the person is evolving.

Wally:
She's never been and has never wanted to be a living jukebox, which many artists become.

Ruth:
She's a true artist, and you cannot say that about many people.

Wally:
She's a creator, and to her, once she creates it, it's there, why do it again?

Ruth:
Right, and then it's go to the next thing that inspires you and that works into something else.

Wally:
You said that you picked up a dulcimer in 1971, then in 1979 you started a duo. What were you doing in between?

Ruth:
Before that I was doing folk things on my own and with other people, and began to play professionally in the mid 70s. You go to different parts of the country and the dulcimer is a lot more popular than it is say in Los Angeles, for example. A lot of the time it's church music, literally. We did a festival in Texas last year, and I'd say a good percentage, at least half, of the people want to learn dulcimer so they can play hymns.

Wally:
Really! So that's what most people in the Appalachians Mountains play?

Ruth:
Here is a simple instrument, but you can also do complicated music on it. Like my partner Cyntia does flamenco music on the thing, no one does that, but some people just want to learn "Amazing Grace" and that makes them happy, so they do that.

Wally:
When did you meet Joellen Lapidus?

Ruth:
We met in the late 70s, early 80s originally, because we both lived in LA.

Wally:
Had you heard of her before you met her?

Ruth:
Probably, I'm pretty sure because people who play the dulcimer usually hear about each other, if you're playing around. But her style of music is like night and day from my own. She was into jazz, and you can see how that would appeal to Joni. As opposed to traditional music, she was more into contemporary sounds than I was, and I was a real traditionalist at that time. I still tend to be more toward that scene but I write most of my own music now. She was more into exploratory sounds that were like jazz and so that's what she did. And Joni heard it and obviously liked it.

Wally:
Had you and Joellen worked on anything together prior to the Hits & Misses songbook? Had you known each other?

Ruth:
We were acquainted and Joellen would ask me to jam with her. We hung out some but because of circumstances, not often enough.

Wally:
Did you work together for the songbooks, in the same room?

Ruth:
Yes, oh yes. Everything we did was together except some details in the end. Because we had a hard time. It was around the holidays and it was nuts!

Wally:
That's funny, because it was September when Hemme started his work and the guitar parts were basically finished a month later. Then, the company asked for the dulcimer arrangements. Why was their request so late?

Ruth:
What they did was they had done the dulcimer songs in guitar and that's when Joni said, "Oh, no. I played it on the dulcimer and it has to be done on dulcimer." That's what I was told. They didn't totally expect that that's what she would say.

Wally:
But that was good because it got you guys involved. How did you go about doing the transcriptions?

Ruth:
Well, this was really wonderful because as soon as Aaron called me, I called Joellen because this is the person who probably taught Joni the friggin' chords. I said "I'm not going to do this by myself, here is the person who knows." I felt really excited to share the project, and I knew that what I could contribute is that I knew every nuance of her singing, because I'm a vocalist and I grew up singing these songs, but Joellen had taken the songs and arranged them her own way. I was doing them verbatim and I was copying her, that's what I did. So it was great because I took out my old scratched up Blue album and what we did is we listened to this tune and that tune, and basically Joellen knew the tuning that they were in already, and would start going along, and where she made a change, I would say, "No, no, this is what she does here and there," and so basically we took it frame by frame, chord change by chord change, and where I heard maybe a different strum pattern or she heard a different strum pattern and some places we would go back and forth for 15 or 20 minutes saying "What is she doing there?" because then the guitar would be in there and often it would be hard to hear what was the dulcimer and what was the guitar.

Wally:
So you never got to hear the multitracks with just the dulcimer tracks or anything, just the album.

Ruth:
Right. There were places where the guitar did more fancy stuff sort of inspired by the dulcimer, and the dulcimer was just going steady on a particular chord. So there were a couple of places where we had the dulcimer doing something that we weren't 100 percent sure whether it was the dulcimer or the guitar doing it but if a dulcimer player was doing it on their own it would be great to have that little embellishment. So it would really be an arrangement that could be played solo.

Wally:
To go back a second, how did Aaron know about you, and why did he ask you?

Ruth:
That's what I asked him! He couldn't find Joellen. He was looking for her and I think he may have found me through McCabe's Guitar Shop, because I have students who were referred through there because when anyone asks about the dulcimer they refer them to me. That's how I think he found me, so when he found me, of course, I knew where Joellen was.

Wally:
Well, it was lucky for you that he couldn't find Joellen because then they might not have needed you.

Ruth:
It was so interesting because the two of us together is what made us able to nail it, because we heard different things. My emphasis was as a vocalist and her style of dulcimer playing is different than mine. Her stuff is more focused on rhythmic strumming and mine is more finger picking. So she would play the dulcimer, we would tune up to the album and she would play along and I would kind of line up the vocal part with the chord changes and so on and so forth, but she knew the chords, she probably taught them to Joni, so she knew what the chords were.

Wally:
And you said earlier she knew the tunings also.

Ruth:
The way the dulcimer was tabbed out was the way Joellen does it. If you compare her tab book with just indications for strum and slap and all the way the pauses are written out, and the way the rhythm is done, that's the way Joellen does it, and she did it on her own.

Wally:
Now, does Joellen only have the one book, Lapidus on Dulcimer?

Ruth:
Yes.

Wally:
How was it working with her?

Ruth:
It was thrilling, we totally enjoyed it. We had a great time together and we had a great time just telling stories of those days. I would love to meet her again some day, and I'd love to give her the music I do as a thank you and pray that she would like it.

Wally:
Or that she would even play it, to be honest, because a lot of people give her things and she never plays them ... she went to Sweden in May of 1996 to receive the Polar Prize which is like the Nobel Prize for Music and some Swedish musicians who had done a tribute album gave a copy of it to her. They asked her a few days later if she'd listened to it and she said, "Oh, I think I made it to track #3."

Ruth:
Well, it's got to mean more to other people than to her because, again, she's moved on. We're kind of in the moment with it and she, as the creator, has moved on, which is her prerogative. Photo Photo by Henry Diltz

Wally:
Yes, and that's what she needs to do. Have you heard about her finding her daughter?

Ruth:
Yes, I don't know a lot of the details but I'd heard that she had a daughter about 20 years ago.

Wally:
32 years ago, actually. Joni has been getting a lot of awards over the last couple of years but I think the biggest reward was re-connecting with her daughter. A lot of Joni's music has a longing in it that may have been partly because of the fact that she had given up a child.

Ruth:
Yes, it's got to hurt really bad.

Wally:
So I wonder if not having her child is what made her music touch us so deeply.

Ruth:
It's true, well I think it touched us too because when someone is authentically in a painful place, not trying to write a song that is painful, that's the difference between being and trying. She was the real McCoy. By the way, I'm glad you're doing the work you do on the homepage because new generations of people who are browsing for information will get turned on to her.

Wally:
Thanks. I love most aspects of my work for Joni. Well, Ruth, is there anything else you'd like to say about working on the Hits and Misses project?

Ruth:
It was an honor, it really was an honor to be involved with bringing her music to people. It was incredible, it was a wonderful feeling and I felt like it was a blessing. I also felt that because of the fact that both Joellen and I truly appreciate Joni that they couldn't have found two better people to do it. To be blunt, and we've said that to each other. If anyone else had done it, it wouldn't have been as good, they wouldn't have got it the way we got it.

Wally:
Yes, I was really pleased with the result. I didn't know anything about you but I did know Joellen's name. So I was really pleased when I saw that she was involved. I was also pleased when I heard that the songbooks were delayed because of Joni's request for dulcimer transcriptions.

Ruth:
Yes, well, Warner Brothers may be doing future dulcimer projects and I hope to be involved with them.

Wally:
Aaron tells me they are going to be doing a Complete Joni Mitchell songbook where they'll be including just parts of songs the way Acoustic Guitar magazine does. So there'll be at least one more dulcimer song for you two to do, "All I Want."

Ruth:
Wow, that's good to know. Now that we're warmed up.

Wally:
Yes. Well, thanks for talking with me, Ruth. I'll probably call Joellen tomorrow.

Ruth Barrett can be reached at Aeolus Music, P.O. Box 1608, Topanga, CA 90290 for album mail-order inquiries, bookings, etc.

Copyright protected material on this website is used in accordance with 'Fair Use', for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of the copyright owner(s). Please read Notice and Procedure for Making Claims of Copyright Infringement.

Comments on A Conversation with Ruth Barrett

Comment using your Facebook profile, or by registering at this site.

You must be registered and log in to add a permanently indexed comment.

Facebook comments