Jan 28, 2008

The Dolceola

In September, 1997, I found myself at the Memphis Dulcimer Festival. The program indicated that at 2:00 PM on Saturday afternoon, Andy Cohen would be playing the gospel music of Washington Phillips, accompanying himself on the Dolceola. I didn't know who Andy Cohen was, or Washington Phillips, or what a Dolceola was, so I attended this session. I was completely captivated with the music, the instrument, and the musician. We have stayed in touch and become friends through a common love for this marvelous instrument and its music.

Andy is a very talented musician, mostly known for his blues interpretation and his encyclopedic knowledge of blues roots musicians. Andy is married to Larkin Bryant, long recognized as a dulcimer expert and author of the staple instructional “Larkin’s Dulcimer Book.” They have recorded and performed extensively both as a team and individually.

The Dolceola was a piano in miniature manufactured in the early 1900's by the Toledo Symphony Manufacturing Company of Toledo, Ohio. Not very many of these instruments have survived. Andy has catalogued around forty. He has published an article entitled "THE DOLCEOLA, The World's Smallest Grand Piano" in the journal, Experimental Musical Instruments.

Nothing delights me more than bringing old devices back to life. The Dolceola is no exception. Through my relationship with Andy, I was given the opportunity to restore a Dolceola for a client in Montana. It became a very enjoyable job, although one that tested my patience on more than one occasion. I even managed to reproduce the decals that were applied to the originals! Here’s what I started with…

The body of the instrument was badly cracked and had become unglued in a number of areas. The keyboard mechanism had, at some time during its long life, been submerged in water. That caused a lot of rust that had made much of the mechanism inoperable. Moths and mice had taken their toll on the felt parts of the action (but the glue remnants were still there to let me know where the felt had been). Many strings were broken, but I was fortunate enough to find a source of custom-made strings. And here's the result of 2 years' work....
This restoration led to a few others in subsequent years, although I have no desire to see the innards of any more Dolceolas (other than the one I’m restoring for myself).

Twenty years after its last production, a preacher by the name of Washington Phillips made a series of recordings of gospel music. It was incorrectly reported that he accompanied himself on the Dolceola. These wonderful songs have been preserved on at least one CD, "I Was Born to Preach the Gospel," released by Yazoo Records as Yazoo 2003. For many years, music scholars believed that Phillips had indeed been playing the Dolceola. Andy Cohen taught himself to replicate those performances on the Dolceola before it was determined that they had probably been performed on a couple of large zithers played simultaneously! Andy’s accomplishment is even more remarkable, recognizing that he successfully replicated this complex music.

A couple weeks ago, Andy contacted me to let me know he was going to be performing with the Dolceola at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Mary Ann and I couldn’t attend the show, but I found this video this week on YouTube:

After the concert, we did have the pleasure of an overnight visit from Andy. Isn’t it wonderful how lives become intertwined and the resulting connections and friendships enrichen us?


Anonymous said...

good site!

frankrause said...

This looks great! How does the mechanism work? Is it plucked or hammered? I'm trying to build one, and looking to figure out how the mechanism was put together.

Bob said...

It's hammered with a piano-like action. Check out Greg Miner's web site. I think it's Minermusic.com. He did a very nice restoration of one with good photos. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Found your site while searching for Dolceola, Toledo symphony Co. to learn about the instrument. My sister-in-law has one that is good shape with the exception of a few broken strings. She is planning to donate the instrument to the National Music Museum in South Dakota. I can't imagine the patience it must have taken to restore the instrument you displayed in the pictures. Thank you for your site. Ken