A Talk with Keith Higginson, of Adam Sweet’s Mandolin Project

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Keith Higginson, 44, of Leominster, MA, is a member of the Monday night group mandolin class that is the basis for Adam Sweet’s Mandolin Project.  According to Keith, “I started playing it in my early thirties.  I have recently started to learn the mandola as well.  I never had any instruction before joining Adam’s group class a couple years ago.  I followed along through various instruction books on my own, and in the first few years played occasionally with my family.

“Since I was learning from books, I was learning the type of beginner music that you usually find in them, which is mostly old-time American and simple versions of bluegrass music.  This is more or less the kind of stuff my father played as well.  After a couple years, I began to find it very limiting.

“Playing in a mandolin orchestra really opened things up for me.  It’s been a deeper exploration musically, and has really improved my confidence and my basic skills along the way.  It’s so important to be able to play with other people.”


Adam Sweet’s Mandolin Project is always looking for new members.  If you play mandolin, or any other instrument in the mandolin family (mandola, mandocello), and can read music, you are welcome to join.  Please visit the Web site http://mandolinorchestra.org for more information.  If you are interested in taking lessons in mandolin, or any other instrument in the mandolin family, please contact Adam Sweet at 413-224-8600.



“Woody’s Rag;” Woody Guthrie on mandolin 

Photo credit: unknown 

Irish musician Andy Irvine was inspired to pick up the mandolin from following the life and music of Woody Guthrie.  While Irvine went on to pioneer the use of mandolin in traditional Irish music, there was little ever mentioned about Guthrie’s mandolin playing.  People may remember his guitar that read “This machine kills fascists,” but need to go deeper to know more about this complex individual than what is popularly known (even who he had for a landlord at one time).

On a Mandolin Café discussion forum, members observed Guthrie’s 100th birthday in 2012 by highlighting his mandolin playing.  Guthrie played mandolin, as well as guitar and harmonica, with The Almanac Singers, the left-wing folk singing group of the 1940’s that also had Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, later of The Weavers, as members.  Guthrie also composed an instrumental, “Woody’s Rag,” that is a folk and bluegrass mandolin classic.  Pete Seeger performed it on mandolin in a 1965 episode of the NET series “Rainbow Quest,” accompanied by Rambling Jack Elliot and Malvina Reynolds on guitars.

While Huntington’s* disease ate into his muscularity, it was rather an accidental burning of his arm during a campfire (gasoline used to start the fire caused an explosion) that finished Guthrie as an instrumentalist.  He continued to write lyrics when he could no longer play music.  By the late 1950’s, the disease took most of what was left of him, and Guthrie remained hospitalized (transferring to three different hospitals over the years) until his death in 1967.

(*In the previous blog posting about Andy Irvine, Woody Guthrie’s illness was misidentified as Hodgkin’s disease. )





The Springfield Mandolin Orchestra is always looking for new members.  If you play mandolin, or any other instrument in the mandolin family, and can read music, you are welcome to join.  Please visit the Web site http://mandolinorchestra.org for more information.

The Springfield Mandolin Orchestra is a 501(c) 3 non-profit dedicated to providing educational performances and events throughout the Metro Springfield area.

The Mandolin in Irish Music in the beginning: Andy Irvine and Sweeney’s Men 

Fretted stringed instruments were slowly introduced to traditional Irish music throughout the 20th century, the banjo in the 1920’s and the guitar in the 1930’s.  The mandolin, and about the same time the bouzouki, were introduced in the 1960’s, when traditional folk music of the British Isles became popular.  Irish fiddle tunes were easily adaptable to the mandolin as both instruments were tuned and strung the same.
Andy Irvine was one of the first musicians to incorporate the mandolin in traditional Irish music.  Born in 1942 in London, England to an Irish mother and Scottish father, Irvine was at first a child actor on stage, films and television (he had a scene in “Room at the Top” that was left on the cutting room floor).  At 16, he began studying classical guitar (he had a guitar given to him by Peter Sellers, with whom he worked on stage), then became interested in skiffle music and the music of Woody Guthrie.  Guthrie was still alive then, though barely, as he was in the hospital incapacitated by Hodgkin’s disease.  Irvine’s devotion to Guthrie’s music led him to adopt the instruments Guthrie played, including guitar, harmonica, and mandolin.
In 1966, Irvine teamed with Johnny Moynihan (who played Greek bouzouki) and Joe Dolan to form Sweeney’s Men.  The name was taken from the character of King Sweeney in Flann O’Brien’s comic novel “At Swim Two Birds.”  Sweeney, an anti-religious pagan, is cursed for “throwing a pushy cleric’s bell into the water.”  Sweeney’s Men initially toured with Irish showbands, and released a single with “Old Maid in the Garret” on the A side.  Joe Dolan left the group in 1967 to go to Israel to take part in the Six Day War, “arriving there on the seventh day.”  Dolan was replaced by Terry Woods, who played twelve-string guitar.  Their first eponymous album was released in 1968.  The album was all traditional music, including “Willy O’Winsbury,” “Reynard the Fox,” “The House Carpenter,” and “Tom Dooley,” the latter with all the explicit references the Kingston Trio left out in their version.  Irvine left Sweeney’s Men after the first album to go travelling with his girlfriend to the Balkans.  Sweeney’s Men, with just Moynihan and Woods, released a second album, this one featuring some original material by Woods along with traditional tunes.  Sweeney’s Men shortly after that disbanded.
Irvine continued to perform both as a soloist and with bands such as Planxty, the Silly Sisters (June Tabor and Maddy Prior), Patrick Street, Mozaik, and as a duo with Paul Brady.  In 2012 (as part of his 70th birthday concert tour) and 2015, Irvine reunited with Sweeney’s Men.  Irvine is currently booked through June 2017 to play Ireland and parts of Europe.
O’Toole, Leagues (2006).  “The Humours of Planxty.”  Ireland:  Hodder Headline
Dundalk Institute of Technology, “The role of the mandolin in Irish traditional music.”  www.dkit.ie

The Springfield Mandolin Orchestra is always looking for new members.  If you play mandolin, or any other instrument in the mandolin family, and can read music, you are welcome to join.  Please visit the Web site http://mandolinorchestra.org for more information.
The Springfield Mandolin Orchestra is a 501(c) 3 non-profit dedicated to providing educational performances and events throughout the Metro Springfield area.

C.W. Hutchins of Springfield, MA: Contractor for the Merrill Aluminum Mandolin 

What is the benefit of a stringed instrument made of aluminum?  It’s more durable than wood certainly (and saves trees!)  A mandolin bowl can contain as much as 64 strips of wood, stress-bent per custom of traditional mandolin making.  An aluminum bowl can be cast in one piece, saving time in manufacturing, and no doubt cost.  Aluminum was the late 19th century’s “wonder material” in industry.  First discovered in 1820, aluminum was considered rare and extremely expensive to extract from ore.  An American patent for a cheap method of extracting aluminum was granted in 1886.  That same year, instrument maker turned entrepreneur Neil Merrill began experimenting with making stringed instruments from aluminum.  His instruments were actually hybrid wood and aluminum, the necks and tops made of spruce wood, the bodies aluminum, and were welded together rather than glued.

Merrill formed The Aluminum Musical Instrument Company in 1894, first located in Philadelphia, PA, then moving to New York City.  It sold mandolins, guitars, banjos, and zithers made of aluminum.  Although not a New England-based mandolin company, Merrill contracted the bodies for mandolins and guitars from the Hutchins Manufacturing Company of Springfield, MA.

The Hutchins Manufacturing Company was formed in 1896.  Ten years before forming the company, Charles W. Hutchins, born in Greenfield, MA in 1860, made band instruments from aluminum, plus other non-musical items.  Hutchins was granted a Canadian patent in 1897 for an aluminum mandolin, and a U.S. patent for an aluminum tailpiece and guard.  

It was believed that Merrill, whose name graced the instruments sold from the Aluminum Musical Instrument Company, did not have his own factory but contracted manufacturing to others.  While Hutchins provided the bodies, the necks and heads were provided by the Barrows Music Company of Saginaw, MI, and Erland Anderberg of Mount Vernon, NY.  Merrill ran into trouble over non-payment of contract work.  He was first sued by Barrows in 1896, for non-payment on an 1895 contract to put heads and necks on 500 instruments.  In 1898, Anderberg entered attachment proceedings against the Aluminum Musical Company for similar complaints.  The Aluminum Musical Instrument Company was sold at auction that year to pay off debts.  Two years later, in 1900 a travelling piano salesman named Neil Merrill was sought by authorities for falsely advertising used pianos he was selling as new.  It is uncertain if it was the same Neil Merrill of aluminum instrument fame.

In 1903, Hutchins Manufacturing Company merged with the Fletcher Aluminum Company as the Fletcher Novelty Aluminum Company for making specialty signs and advertising.  Hutchins was officially dissolved as a company in 1907.  Charles Hutchins died in Springfield in 1926.



http://www.mugwumps.com (extract from an unpublished book, “Encyclopedia of American Instrument Makers” by Michael I. Holmes, copyright 1997)


The Springfield Mandolin Orchestra is always looking for new members.  If you play mandolin, or any other instrument in the mandolin family, and can read music, you are welcome to join.  Please visit the Web site http://mandolinorchestra.org for more information.

The Springfield Mandolin Orchestra is a 501(c) 3 non-profit dedicated to providing educational performances and events throughout the Metro Springfield area.

Rigel Mandolins 

Photo credit: http://www.jazzmando.com

It is the Vermont maple that makes the Rigel mandolin what it is.  Not just the material, but the building technique developed by Cambridge, Vermont-born Pete Langdell.  A woodshop machinist by day and bluegrass musician by night, Langdell patented a method of carving the back and sides of an instrument out of a large hunk of Vermont maple.  The traditional form of mandolin making has been the bending and stressing of wood to create the sides of the instrument, and piecing those with the backs, fronts, and necks.  This often left the instrument, over time, cracked and brittle.  Langdell’s carving method not only saved time in assembly, but also created a tone that is brilliant and a strength guaranteed to last.  Chris Thiele and Jimmy Gaudreau of the Country Gentlemen are among the well-known players of Rigel mandolins.

Langdell first started instrument building (in this case rebuilding) at the age of five, when he took a ukulele his uncle gave him and restrung it as a mandolin.  In high school, he took woodshop machinery classes and got a job working at a machine shop.  His skills as a machinist aided him in his fascination with building stringed instruments.  After graduating high school, Langdell tried to balance his day job and being a touring musician with bluegrass bands.  The need to make a steady living won out, so he stopped touring professionally and remained with the machine shop.  He continued to keep his hand in music by experimenting with mandolin building and playing occasional local gigs.  By the late 1980’s, Langdell developed his first prototype of the Rigel mandolin (the name taken from a star in the Orion constellation) and brought it to bluegrass festivals to demonstrate.  Langdell began building his mandolins on a regular basis in 1990, out of a garage workshop next to his home in Jeffersonville, Vermont, working part time at the machine shop.  He received assistance from his wife Margo in marketing his mandolins, building a Web site in 1995.  By 1997, when demand for Rigel mandolins grew, Langdell formed a partnership with Peter Mix.  Rigel Instruments became incorporated in 1999, and they moved their facilities to a larger shop in Hyde Park, Vermont, with a staff of five employees.

Photo credit: http://www.jazzmando.com 

Not only did Rigel turn out its own uniquely designed mandolins, mandolas, guitars, and basses, they produced custom works inspired by classic instruments of the past.  The Vega cylinder-back mandolin and mandola are among the custom designs, since Vega discontinued the cylinder-backs in 1925.  Will Melton, of the Springfield Mandolin Orchestra, plays a custom Rigel cylinder-back mandola that he purchased from the previous owner who commissioned it.  Langdell also repaired and restored vintage instruments in his shop.
The strength, beauty, and desirability of a Rigel instrument pretty much became the downfall of Rigel as a corporation.  Producing well over 200 instruments a year, the economy in the early 2000’s made it impossible to purchase high-end musical instruments, and demand for them slowed.  The incorporated status dissolved in 2006, and Langdell went back to being a one-man shop, making custom instruments with the Rigel name and repairing/restoring instruments.  The demise of Rigel was heartbreaking for mandolinists, not to mention Langdell.  After three years, though, Rigel was revived when Langdell licensed the name to Gold Tone to produce the standard lines of Rigel mandolins.


Pete Langdell bio
http://www.vermontguides.com, May 2002