My introduction to the Dolceola began one day late in 1999, when I received an out-of-the-blue telephone call from blues musician and producer T Bone Burnett. Having heard of my small but comprehensive collection of plucked string instruments, he was calling to ask if I had a certain instrument to rent for a recording project Ė an instrument I had never heard of, called a Dolceola. Burnett described a type of zither with a keyboard attachment which played the strings. I asked him if it was like a Marxophone (a common instrument, and one I had), where the strings are struck by hammers, but he explained that, no, it was equipped with actual piano keys which somehow plucked the strings like a harpsichord. As I subsequently learned, the keys are actually miniaturized piano keys that strike the strings, then dampening or letting them ring just like a true piano. Burnettís technical error was understandable, as the sound produced by the diminutive Dolceola is quite delicate, and does, in fact, more resemble a harpsichord than a piano in timbre. Regardless, however the mechanism was fashioned, I immediately knew that without this mysterious instrument, the Miner Museum of Vintage, Exotic & Just Plain Unusual Musical Instruments would be incomplete!
Searching for information on the Internet, I immediately discovered a small, dedicated cult of Dolceola enthusiasts, led by Dolceolist Andy Cohen. At the site of Dolceola custodian Bob Mead, I learned that, A) there were only about two dozen instruments known to exist (no wonder I hadnít heard of it!), and B) a little-known gospel musician named Washington Phillips had used the instrument exclusively, his rare recordings preserved and re-issued on a CD (I Was Born To Preach the Gospel) on the Yazoo label (believed to be the only historical recordings known of the instrument). At the time, this latter "fact" appeared to be universally accepted by Dolceola owners and blues and gospel musicologists alike - and as so many others before me, I likewise accepted it on faith.
My next step was to get myself on Andy Cohenís burgeoning "want list" for a Dolceola - which as he pointed out, was an extremely slow-moving list due to the extraordinary scarcity of the instrument. I resigned myself to the fact that I might never obtain one of the instruments for myself - that is, until the advent of eBay online auctions. As of this writing, Iíve seen at least five Dolceolas listed and sold on the internet site Ė though most were in various states of disrepair. I obtained the second one in September, 2001, and with advice from Bob Mead, set about restoring it. After disassembling, cleaning, repairing broken keys, re-felting and fitting with new tension springs, it played fairly well. I was somewhat put off by the amount of noise (a substantial "click") created by the wooden hammers striking the metal strings. I attributed this to its age and my imperfect restoration of the components, and especially to the old dead strings. Once I replaced the few missing strings, I noticed a substantial improvement Ė the "click" was still present, but the volume and clarity of the new strings greatly masked it (nonetheless, I do remember wondering at the time why I hadnít noticed any similar noise on Phillips' instrument)
Cut to January, 2003, when a colleague brought to my attention a recent article by Austin Statesman music critic Michael Corcoran. In it, Corcoran convincingly demonstrates the likelihood that Phillips did not, in fact, play the Dolceola (this article and topic are addressed elsewhere on my Dolceola Pages). Surprised as anyone, I threw myself into the fray. The discussion was, and continues to be, somewhat lively - and ultimately led me down two paths. One was unraveling the mystery of the actual instrument Phillips did play (my conclusion: a type of fretless zither, most likely a Phonoharp model or two). The second was a deeper exploration of the Dolceola - a unique and fascinating instrument, even without the mystique of the Phillips connection (and ironically, I discovered an interesting and even lesser known Dolceola connection with Leadbelly and a session in the forties). Both of the previous topics are explored in the Dolceola Pages, along with Links to most of the other material available.
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