Bill Spence - 1940 - 2019

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 15:27
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Known as a master of the hammered dulcimer, Bill Spence is often credited with the folk  instrument’s revival in the 1970s.

Bill Spence of Voorheesville, NY, passed away on 7th February 2019 at the age of 78, with his family at his side. Known as a master of the hammered dulcimer, Bill Spence is often credited with the folk  instrument’s revival in the 1970s. Bill’s musical and social achievements over very many years are simply astonishing. Not only was he a great musician, he also dedicated much of his life to encouraging and supporting other musicians. The following words quoted from Walt Michael, one of many musicians inspired by Bill to take up the hammered dulcimer, hint at some of the things which Bill achieved.

“Many people play formative roles in our lives as we move through time. If we have the good fortune to live a long time, the people who have had profound effect on us come into clear focus, shining brightly. What can be said of Bill? Traditional music visionary. Brilliant mind. Generous of spirit. Infectious great humour and love of the absurd. Community builder. Flawless and inspired musician and band leader, with great ears and impeccable taste. Brilliant recording engineer. Instrument builder who imagined what the hammered dulcimer could sound like at its best and then went on to build it and play it like no one else. And boy, oh boy, couldn't he sing a song. Loyal and loving husband. Proud and devoted father. Friend to so many. Friend to me.”

Bill was born in Iowa City in 1940. He graduated from the University of Iowa in 1962 with a BA in communications and served in the U.S. Army Security Agency from 1962 to 1965. From 1965 to 1998 Bill worked as an audio-visual and computer graphics specialist at the State University of New York at Albany. A banjo player since high school, he took up the hammered dulcimer in 1969, after hearing it at the Fox Hollow Festival in Petersburg, NY. In 1970 he formed Fennig’s All-Star String Band with local musicians. After a couple of changes in their initial line-up, the trio of Bill, fiddler George Wilson and piano player Toby Stover was firmly established.  George and Toby were his musical family for 44 years and as a band they must rank among the most stable and long-lasting relationships in any genre of music.

Bill and his wife, Kay “Andy” Spence, were married in 1962.  Between then and the early 1970s they were active in folk music circles.  Bill was on the board of directors of Pete Seeger’s Clearwater Project, working together to raise funds to build the Sloop Clearwater to address environmental concerns about the Hudson River. Around this time, Bill and Andy’s home near Albany NY was providing a warm welcome for touring musicians from England, Scotland and Ireland including The High Level Ranters, Louis Killen, Neil Wayne and Cilla Fisher and Artie Trezise. 

In 1973 Fennig’s All-Star String Band recorded an LP titled The Hammered Dulcimer. Shortly after its release on Front Hall Records, a medley of tunes from this album aired nationwide on PBS as the theme for Crockett’s Victory Garden. This recording has sold over 100,000 copies to date. Five more albums followed, inspiring hundreds of new hammered dulcimer enthusiasts and other instrumentalists.  Bill also served as audio engineer and producer for most of the albums released on Front Hall Records.

In 1977, Bill and his wife were among the founders of Old Songs, Inc., a non-profit organisation dedicated to preserving traditional music and dance. The core of their work was establishing Old Songs Festival, regarded by many as the best of the US festivals, but also developing a year-round programme of events and workshops.  A fixture of Old Songs, Bill could always be found running sound at concerts, or taking photos in his signature Hawaiian shirt and shiny hat.

Old Songs became a magnet for many folk musicians from over here and the links between Old Songs and touring musicians from the UK have remained strong to this day.  Bill’s early friendship with the High Level Ranters had an indirect but strong influence on the revival of the hammered dulcimer over here. Bill played dulcimer on Alistair Anderson’s solo LP, which was released on Front Hall, and for many people over here this would have been their first introduction to the instrument.

Bill communicated regularly via his Facebook page with musical memories, photographs, video clips and his infectious good humour. The page is still ‘live’ in his memory and is well worth a trawl through. It will be sure to bring a smile to your face. Bill was proud of his latest recording, a double CD featuring newly recorded music together with tracks made when recording the many Fennig’s LPs over the years.  Bill had a period of illness in the latter part of 2018, but was well enough to play for a dance in January of this year, in what proved to be the last outing of Fennig’s All Star String Band.

Bill is survived by his wife, Kay “Andy” Spence, his daughter Hannah Spence and her partner Neil Parsons, two nieces, and a nephew. He also leaves behind the entire Old Songs community and the current members of Fennig’s All-Star String Band. Bill was a friend to most, and will be remembered for his buoyant energy, infectious good humour, and for not taking life too seriously.

Pete Heywood