Terry Hennessy:
Luthier of the Fariņa Legend

By John Blosser, West Palm Beach, Florida

This article first appeared in Dulcimer Players News Vol.25 No. 4, November 1999-January 2000. It appears here through kind permission of the author.

Pictured at right: Terry Hennessy with the Fariņa twins.

The music rang with a joyful, uncaged newness, an ancient primeval voice lifted to fresh, exotic realms in the dancing, free-flying hands of a wild Gypsy prince. The ringing dulcimer sound of Richard Fariņa perfectly suited the times into which it was born--the turbulent '60s, when every tradition, every belief and limit, were up for grabs. With a rebel's carefree flourish, Fariņa leapt beyond the noter and quill, the Appalachian and Celtic repertoires of the past, and embraced and embellished them, pointing the way to dulcimer's glittering future. In two crucial mid-60s albums recorded with his wife, Mimi (Celebrations for a Grey Day and Reflections in a Crystal Wind) the sound rang out, and would-be dulcimer players listened, and learned.

But before the sound, there was the dulcimer, and before the dulcimer, there was the luthier who made it--a man whose name has been too-long absent from dulcimer history, but who still creates wooden musical beauty today, in a Down-Under place called Kangaroo Valley.

Terry Hennessy's a bit of a rebel himself--a laughing luthier who can play trumpet tunes on an old army boot and coax music from a dulcimer made from a violin case and a bass fiddle made from a tea-chest. He created a huge dulcimer with three necks, like a courting dulcimer if you're in a menage ā trois, and an "Aspideste," a dulcimer/sitar made from two aspidestra pots, with a melody pair of strings, two drones and twelve sympathetic strings! Imagine "Old Joe Clark" played by Ravi Shankar!

But when his hands work wood, as they have since he was six years old in his native England, Terry Hennessy creates musical magic. He was a guitar-maker in London in 1960-61 when he first met Richard Fariņa, who had traveled there with his first wife, Carolyn Hester, and was playing her George Emerson dulcimer at the famed Troubador. "Richard once shoveled snow with it when we were lost in a snowdrift in Idaho," Carolyn remembers. "Emerson had never made any instrument before in his life--he made it as a surprise for me. I taught Richard all that I knew of playing, which I had picked up from Howie Mitchell."

"When Richard played the dulcimer I made, he wrapped his arms around it and wouldn't let it go," Hennessy remembered. "He fell in love with it instantly. I had made quite a few dulcimers by then. His was made from a mahogany plywood back and sapele mahogany sides, with the fretboard made of African walnut. The top was made from a rough Taiwanese spruce used for piano soundboards, and I stained it dark. In those days, everyone liked sunburst guitars and that sort of thing. I would never stain it like that today. It had a pick-guard made of plastic.

"I never dreamed that it would take off like it did in his hands. It's not the best instrument I ever made, but it turned out to be the most famous. Somewhere, there's a lesson in that."

Master luthier Jerry Rockwell said, " Fariņa's dulcimer was a great dulcimer with a wonderful sound, and Fariņa was a great player. Nobody plays the dulcimer like Fariņa, even today. It's not a matter of technique or 'chops,' either--it's a matter of total commitment to the instrument with every ounce of his life force. Finding Hennessy still alive, and still making dulcimers, is an incredible thrill. It is like touching infinity or immortality."

Neal Hellman, who wrote The Richard Fariņa Dulcimer Book, with tablature for twenty-four of Richard's songs, said, "Richard was a very prominent player who influenced a lot of the early players, including me. His style wasn't traditional; it was contemporary, and it took the dulcimer in an entirely new direction. For many people who didn't grow up with Appalachian music, that was the first dulcimer they ever heard.

"He was a really gifted player--a poet who used the dulcimer as a vehicle for his poetry--and a talented songwriter. 'Children of Darkness?' You can't get much better than that. It was a magical sound, and that dulcimer is the best-sounding recorded dulcimer ever."

[Carolyn Hester and Richard Fariņa divorced in 1963. In France, Richard met Mimi Baez, sister of Joan, who was studying dance in Paris. They soon married.] Mimi Fariņa has Richard's original Hennessy dulcimer, still wearing some of the banjo strings Richard put on it. "I performed with it a little bit in the years after he died and fooled around with it, but I never really accustomed myself to it," she said. "It slid around on my lap and I was too strongly into the guitar. But no one has recreated the sound that Richard had. He was quite a maniac on it, and his playing was very wild, like his spirit."

Fariņa's dulcimer traces its roots back to the earliest Kentucky dulcimers, made by James Edward "Uncle Ed" Thomas, said by Ralph Lee Smith to have made the hourglass-pattern dulcimers around 1870. "The origins of the hourglass pattern reach back into the mists," Smith said.

The first dulcimer Hennessy ever saw was a Thomas dulcimer, brought to him for repair in the 1950s by Stan Watkins, whose work on the first sound motion picture, Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer, made him the first cinematic sound engineer. "It was a very crude affair," Hennessy said, "with metal staples for frets, but it gave me ideas."

Over the years, Hennessy would make more than eighty dulcimers. "I don't consider myself a dulcimer-maker, though," Hennessy said. "At one time, I was one of three creative guitar-makers in England, and I thought I had the other two beat. If I had stayed at that, I might be England's top guitar-maker today, but I would still be making guitars. Whatever you're doing, if that 's what you're doing for a whole lifetime, you're missing a magnificent opportunity for living."

"Still, Hennessy keeps turning out guitars--and dulcimers. "I'm a sculptor, but I know what timbers sound like. The essence is that we are all part trees; it's part of our programming, and I understand wood."

Thanks to Mimi Fariņa, who provided photos of Richard's dulcimer and measurements, long forgotten by Hennessy, Fariņa's dulcimer lives again, more than thirty years after the original was created. Hennessy has made two near-reproductions--one going to the author of this story, and one to Jerry Rockwell--and plans to make no more of them.

"I make dulcimers differently today," he said. " Fariņa's dulcimer has a smaller body than the ones I make now, but there's something special about the sound of this design. The first time you play it, you jump back and go, "Whoa!"

Hennessy, who has never met Mimi Fariņa, recently spoke with her for the first time. He tentatively plans to create one more very special dulcimer--an "ultimate" dulcimer, he says, as yet undesigned--which may be auctioned on the Internet. Money raised would go to Bread and Roses, a Bay-area organization Mimi founded in 1974 which annually produces four hundred free, live performances for people in hospitals, nursing homes, homeless shelters, AIDS treatment centers and prisons. "It has been a rare treat to speak with her," Hennessy said. "She's a very beautiful person--inside, where it counts.

"Before his death [on April 30, 1966, in a tragic motorcycle accident in California], Richard wrote to me asking for another dulcimer, with a wider fretboard, like these two [the dulcimers built for John and Jerry] have. He also wanted it amplified. That was unheard of at the time. This was before Bob Dylan went electric. Anyway, that dulcimer was never made. I still don't install pickups--it's not my line of business. I know my limitations."

Hennessy lost touch with Fariņa when he moved to Australia in 1966 and, in fact, never heard Reflections in a Crystal Wind until this year! "He was an amazing player--a wonderful talent, with a great sense of humor and zest for life. The last time I saw him was in Paris, where he was a-busking in the street. I learned of his death in Australia in a newspaper. It was so very sad. A great talent passed; who knows what he would have achieved if he had more years to work at it?

The two new dulcimers have rosewood bodies, a back of laminated rosewood and coachwood and a top of Englemann spruce, with a fretboard of iron-hard Australian River She Oak. The headpiece and tailpiece are from Honduras mahogany and the pickguard is of macassar ebony.

"I like laminations," Hennessy said. "You don't get splits. Sound travels longways through the grain better than sideways, so with a lamination, you are sending the sound both ways through the core. With the modern glues, delamination is not a problem. I use melamine glues, not rubber, because rubber absorbs the sound. I don't have any secrets. I'll teach anyone who asks.

"When I make an instrument, I go at it backwards. I invent the sound first, and then make the instrument fit the sound. It's a very Zen thing, tied into the shapes of sound, and the sound of shapes. It's very hard to explain, but it's not hit or miss.

"For example, there's only one basic sound if you bang a pencil against your tooth, but you can play the William Tell Overture on your teeth by changing the shape of your mouth to shape the sounds. Most people build a house first and then decide what wallpaper to use. I know all the details of an instrument from the beginning. I know what I'm going for."

Hennessy builds instruments using a zero fret because, he said, "You don't want an open string to sound differently than a fretted string. But with an open string, the sound is going through bone or ivory or plastic of the bridge and nut, instead of the metal of the frets." The dulcimers have moveable bridges and measure roughly 36-1/2" long by 7-1/2" wide at the wide bout and 5-1/2" wide at the narrow bout.

"I always take my time. I'm working to a standard, not a deadline. If you get just one part wrong--the shape, materials or workmanship--it's all for nothing. An instrument is compatible timbers put together with microscopic precision. You can't afford any dead spots at all; the whole thing has got to ring. If any part of the dulcimer is not vibrating in sympathy, it is damping the volume.

"Usually, on a dulcimer, the back and sides are relatively dead areas, but they don't have to be--every single part should ring."

Fariņa first saw a dulcimer in the hands of Jean Ritchie in the early 60s in New York, as she relates in her book, Dulcimer People. She showed him a little about strumming. From there, he learned from Paul Clayton, A.W. Jeffries, and others.

Even today, musician Calum MacColl, son of folksingers Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl, performs on his mother's Hennessy dulcimer, made in the same area as Fariņa's. "It's got a beautiful tone," he said. "I bought a pair of electric dulcimers from a guy in Steeleye Span to use on the road, but I soon jacked them in and went back to the Hennessy. You'll probably be horrified to hear that I've had it bugged! I've also had the tailpiece and bridge replaced, as the string posts finally tore themselves from the wood. Apart from that, it's 100 per cent original!"

Above all, Hennessy is a gregarious man, with a sharp wit and great humor. Of his three-necked dulcimer, he said, "It's like Henry Ford, who said, after he built a car, the first thing he had to do is learn to drive it. I haven't quite figured out how to play this thing yet.

I'm considering some different shapes for new dulcimers. One would be like the sculpture of a lady, carrying something on her head, with the neck sticking right through it. Another is shaped like a Turkish coffeepot. Yet another," he joked, "I call a self-portrait, because it's shaped like a lyre!"

Once, on television, he pulled out his violin case, threw the violin aside and proceeded to play the case. He currently plays the jug in the Nevva-Binta-Memphis Mudsteppers in Australia. "It doesn't weigh on me that I never got any credit for making Fariņa's dulcimer," Hennessy said. "I'm not a survivor--I'm a liver. I have a massive dedication to living.

"The big difference is that at the end of a week, the survivor says, 'That's another week and I've made it.' The liver says, 'That's another week and I've done nothing and I'm furious about it!'"

--John Blosser

Fariņa's dulcimer.
click to enlarge

Fariņa's dulcimer with the
coffin-shaped case.

Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger with her Hennessy dulcimer.

Hunting the Elusive Luthier
The hunt began six months ago, when Jerry Rockwell asked on Sweet Music Digest if anyone knew who made Fariņa's dulcimer, if he was still alive, and whatever happened to the instrument. John Blosser, a Florida journalist by trade and dulcimerist by preference, enjoys a good hunt--not for animals, but for people and information. "'Venor Ergo Sum,' or, 'I Hunt, Therefore, I Am,' is both a tattoo and a way of life for me," Blosser says. He took on the task. It was a long and fascinating hunt on three continents, gaining help from Mimi Fariņa, folksinger Peggy Seeger and her son, Calum MacColl, British jazz guitarist Diz Dizley and guitarist Martin Carthy and others, before he identified and tracked down Hennessy in Kangaroo Valley, Australia, alive and still happily luthier-ing, and asked him to create two dulcimers based on the Fariņa instrument. Hennessy agreed, and the rest, as they say, is history.

John Blosser can be reached at Coyoteb1@AOL.com
Jerry Rockwell can be reached at Jerry@jcrmusic.com or visit his website at www.jcrmusic.com

Mimi bequeathed Richard's dulcimer to the Smithsonian Institute in the spring of 2001, a few months before she died. Unfortunately, the Smithsonian has limited space for musical instruments, and they have told me that they have no plans to display Richard Fariņa's historic dulcimer at this time. --Douglas Cooke, November 2001.