Memories of Jim Couza
Jim was born on April 27th 1945 in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He moved over here to the UK in 1982 and was soon making a name for himself on the folk club circuit. Although his vast repertoire contained many songs where he accompanied himself on guitar, and sometimes banjo, I think it's safe to say he was more widely known for his virtuosity on the hammered dulcimer. Let's face it, it would be hard to forget such a giant of a man walking into a room, taking out what looked like a huge cheese slicer, and then making it produce such a rich melodic sound. Whether he was thrashing out a tune at blistering speed, or weaving a delicate accompaniment behind a haunting song, the sound of Jim's Montague dulcimer soon became instantly recognisable. Without a shadow of doubt, Jim's playing was one of the major inspirations behind the revival of interest in the hammer dulcimer.
I first met Jim at a hammer dulcimer gathering down in the New Forest in 1993. This was one of the early meets of the newly reformed, Nonsuch Dulcimer Club, and Jim Couza was running a couple of workshops there. My other half, Jenny Smith , had recently taken up the instrument and I just sat in, playing a bit of guitar here and there. It was quite fascinating to watch 'The Maestro' at work. Jim first went around the class, asking them to play something, so that he could assess the level at which to aim the tuition.......You could almost smell the fear!!! Jim had a booming voice to match his size, and some of those mere mortals certainly felt more than a little intimidated. But, after a few minutes, it quickly became clear that when Jim bellowed at you, it was not out of cruelty, it was just his sheer passion for the music, and his enthusiasm for getting you to play it well. After a couple of sessions, even the most timid of players was making progress and it was easy to see just how good a teacher Jim was.
Jim had an incredible knowledge of folk music history and playing styles, particularly American old-timey, and Irish tunes. He was the only person I know who could bend the strings on a hammer dulcimer.......I've seen, and heard him do it on several occasions, and even now, when I see him doing it on the video clips, I still wince, half expecting the strings to break, or at least for the delrin bridge caps to fly off.
There are a few of Jim's recorded tracks on our jukebox, an early TV interview from Pebblemill Studios on Youtube, plus several video clips from the Nonsuch Annual Weekends. Below are pictures of Jim in various guises...If you have some pictures of him, please send them to me and I'll add them in. We lost Jim on August 2nd 2009.............Enjoy the memories..................
Jim's dulcimer, made by Fred Montague
These 2 pictures were taken at the dulcimer get-together at Glebe House, Probus, Truro in Cornwall (1988/9)
We came across this picture while travelling by hover craft across to France. It was in the 'in'flight' magazine, which was all in French. We coudn't find any reference to what it was all about, and there wasn't any mention of Jim, but there's no mistaking that face and figure!
Big Jim on one of his regular medieval themed events in 1994
These 2 were taken at a dulcimer do at our house. We were all playing Golden Slippers on Jenny's dulce - The players are Victoria Herencsar, Jim, Sally Whytehead, Jenny Smith & me
Me, Jenny & Jim having an impromptu session in the dining room at Moorgate, Hope
Here's Jim trying out a Mattwood Dulcimer (Made by me & Fred Woodley). The lady looking on enviously is Maddie MacNeil. This was taken at Launde Abbey, Leicestershire in 2001
This was taken at Launde Abbey, in 2004
Maclaine Colston & Jim - taken at Alison House, Cromford, Derbyshire in 1993
This next batch are all from events at Moorgate, Hope in Derbyshire, and Launde Abbey in Leicestershire
Jim taking a nap?????
A couple of Jim's publicity photos
More Memories of Jim
I have so many memories of Jim. He was a big man, with a big personality and a huge intellect. He was an awesome musician and performer but underneath that often intimidating exterior was a heart of gold. I feel privileged to have called him my friend.
I met Jim a few times and he was truly larger than life and a fantastic exponent of the HD. He was at the General Ludd Folk Club once and he played all night with his dulcimer balanced on his knee, singing away and knocking the beer back. He had to send out for fish and chips! When he asked for any requests I asked if he could remember 'Take 5' which was on one of his CD's (Music for the HD - I bought it at the Ebbw Vale Garden Festival in 1992 which was a year before I got my first dulcimer). It was a long time since he'd played it but with the help of a resident guitar player who knew it he went on to give a blistering rendition that turned a few folkies to Jazz on the spot!
I first saw Jim at Farnham Folk Day in 1983 at ‘The Ultimate Hammered-Dulcimer Workshop’ with Billy Bennington, Reg Reeder, Sue Harris and Chris Coe. Jim hadn’t been in England all that long, and I’d only had my dulcimer for about six months. The Gallery where the workshop was held was crammed with people – possibly a couple of hundred, so it was quite difficult to form an impression of Jim – for once he didn’t stand out! He and the other players were closely surrounded and each player talked about their involvement with the dulcimer and demonstrated their individual playing style. It was at the Oakwood Greenhouse Hammer Dulcimer Weekend in 1986 where Jim was the special guest that I first experienced his well-informed teaching, his forceful personality, his generous nature and his range as a player. However not until the first Nonsuch weekend at Cromford in 1992 did I feel that I was getting to know him better. His support for the Nonsuch club was right there from the beginning, and it was because of his leadership at the Glebe House weekends in Cornwall that the idea of the club was first suggested; he became President of the club in 1994 in recognition of his very special contribution and inspiration. He will be very much missed by all who came into his orbit.
I first met Couza as a fellow performer at the Four Seasons shows 1991, where he wasn't too pleased to see another dulcimer player, and it took me all summer to get on speaking terms with him. We've been firm friends ever since, he used to pop in for a rest and recoop if he was on tour and we were at home. The kids thought he was Santa Claus on his day off!
He never took his dulcimer out at my house, but he was a great yarn spinner, on an evening, over a beer or three, and always taught me some new trick on the guitar.
There is a whole chunk of my life I'd never have experienced and people I'd never have met, had I not met Jim - it's strange when you look back over the links and realise what a profound influence he had in my life, as one competitive dulcimer player to another. I started playing classical stuff just to piss him off, and he'd get one up on me by casually mentioning that he'd done a recording session with Bjork! I think we came to a truce in the end by agreeing that he was, indeed the finer player, but I was better looking.
He'd ring up out of the blue for a chat occasionally, and always sent a Christmas card with updates on where he was in his life.
Underneath that swagger and larger than life character was a heart of gold, and a true artist. Rest in Peace, my friend
A Fond Farewell to Jim (Saturday 22nd August 2009)
The funeral service was held at the small Methodist chapel in Whitchurch, just around the corner from Jim and Karen's delightful cottage, followed by a burial in the village churchyard. People had travelled from far and wide to give Jim the rousing send-off he wanted, and so rightly deserved. Although, obviously a solemn occasion, the service was just right, and included several humorous anecdotes about Jim, as well as the unmistakeable and enchanting sounds of him playing and singing. I'm sure he would have been well chuffed, and perhaps more than a little surprised at how many friends were there, joining his family in paying their respects to the great man. He certainly would have been in his element at the get-together to celebrate his life, held at the cottage after the service. Many people had brought their instruments with them, and sessions were soon breaking out all around the garden. I thought it particularly fitting when Mac went into the cottage and came back with Jim's Montague dulcimer. It sounded somehow right to hear it being played by him. Many thanks must go to Karen and the family for their wonderful hospitality, including a really good barbecue. There was certainly an abundance of food and drink to keep us all going. It was a nice, sunny day and the music sessions went on until late in the afternoon. I'm not at all sure what happens when it comes your time to go, but Jim, if you were looking in, I hope we did you proud.
Here are some of the pictures taken. I know there were lots of other people taking photos, so if you have some, and would like to see them on here, please get in touch.
On behalf of the Make and Play group
On behalf of the CWA
Jim's brother-in-law, John Foulger kindly sent us this photo of the wreath he made & the tribute from Fred Montague, who made Jim's dulcimer.
Below is the wreath John made on behalf of all Nonsuch Dulcimer Club Members.
More Memories of Jim Couza
It was with sadness I heard the news of Jim’s passing in early August. I have many pleasant memories of hearing him play the hammered dulcimer and sing at different venues and folk festivals. The memory of the first time I heard him play and sing at the Robin Hood Folk Club in Beeston is very vivid. It would have been in the early 80s and I was so impressed by both the sound of the dulcimer and Jim’s beautiful voice, that after the second experience of hearing him, I visited the workshop of Martyn Banks and bought a hammered dulcimer myself. Having been part of the early formation of the Nonsuch Dulcimer Club and the meetings at Glebe House in Cornwall , I believe the club and the appreciation of the instrument would never have developed without the help and inspiration of Jim. I have much sympathy for those close to him, and hope they find solace in the thought that through Jim’s deep faith and his devotion to music, God willing, he will still be playing heavenly music in a place of peace. Janette Hughes
I didn’t know him well, but I have huge respect for him as a wonderful musician, courageous man and spiritual being. The first of these qualities is apparent to all who witnessed his talented performances. The second was demonstrated by the way he dealt with the physical problems which confronted him, and yet still played on! in every sense of the word. The third quality was revealed to Pauline and I when we spent some time with him before he played at Topsham Folk Club, several years ago. He went on to deliver a masterful performance with one leg in the air! and sing some very powerful spiritual songs. Although he is no longer with us in body, his spirit lives on. The reason most of us play the dulcimer can be traced back to the fact that, in some way, Jim was at the root of the inspiration to do so. He brought the dulcimer back to life in Britain . Ian Hay
Oh no, not another one.
Jim was tagged as being ‘the giant of the hammered dulcimer’ – an obvious cliché for a large man.
I first met him in the mid 80s I think, and we forged a professional relationship which led to recording his meisterwork, Jubilee in 1989. I later recorded Out of the Shadowland and his biggest seller – Welcome to the Fair. This was done because he needed something to sell at the Medieval fairs that he did (when he dressed up in doublet and hose as a minstrel). What started out as a throwaway item (and was recorded all in one day), went on to become a massive seller, to Jim's surprise and joy!
During all that time, we became firm friends and I found him to be a 'giant of a man'. There were legion stories about Jim Couza - mostly centring around his somewhat brash American demeanour - but I found him to be a kind, gentle and compassionate human being underneath the exterior. And when I had troubles of my own, he was one of the few true friends who stepped up to the mark.
I last saw him in person a year ago at Warwick Folk Festival, where he had a whale of a time getting back to the playing he loved. I last spoke to him earlier this year, when he was in very buoyant mood, and was talking about doing more gigs, and even starting a new album project. This from a man who had had both legs amputated and untold health problems. But he never lost his sense of humour and joy of living. I remember us joking after the first amputation - he had taken up going to the gym to try and keep fit, and was doing 10 miles a day on his exercise bike. All the old jokes about the one legged cyclist came out. After the second amputation, I asked him what he was going to do. He said, "Oh, they've fixed me up with a rowing machine, so I don't need the Goddam legs for that!"
I've never known a person remain so positive under such adversity, and he will always be a true inspiration to me.
I had no idea that things had taken a turn for the worse, and was shocked to read that he had passed on.
I will truly miss him, and my thoughts go out to Karen. Graham Bradshaw
Jim is the reason that I am playing the dulcimer. I was in a pub in Godalming many years ago when a lady came as part of a band with a dulcimer and sadly I didn't manage to speak to her afterwards, I then waited eight years until I came across the instrument again. This was when I met Jim; he was playing the dulcimer as part of an old music hall themed show at a craft show near Thorpe Park . I immediately pounced on him afterwards full of questions. He was so enthusiastic and invited me to come and meet Victoria Herencsar playing her cimbalom; I met Sally, Nick and Denise, Geoff and many others from Nonsuch, who were very welcoming and friendly. I fell in love with the sound of the dulcimer, borrowed a new one from the club which I ended up buying, and the rest is history as they say. I went to all of Jim's workshops when he was teaching at Launde and found him truly inspirational, I especially enjoyed his classical pieces as I came from that musical background myself. He showed such passion for the instrument it was infectious. I have all his CD's and listen to them with great pleasure, and pride to have known him. A highlight for me will always be playing Pachelbel's Canon with him in the chapel for the early morning service at Launde; a great honour that he asked me, and a privilege. A big loss to the musical and particularly the dulcimer world. Rest in peace Jim.
A little reminiscence about Jim....
I remember one time at the Folk Tradition song club in Bristol , probably late 80s or early 90s, when Jim called in, as he did from time to time at various local folk clubs. He was on a diet and was rightly proud of having lost a fair bit of weight. In the interval I was surprised to see him eating crisps, and I (wrongly) told him their calorific value was 40 calories per crisp – a piece of misinformation I had absorbed. He immediately told me, in that authoritative way of his, that I was wrong and what the real calorie total was. I can’t remember what the real figure was, but it was substantially lower than I had said. Definitely J Couza 1 – J Shaw nil! John Shaw
I remember meeting Jim at my first visit to Launde Abbey and nervously went to one of his classes with my Hackbrett which I thought was a Dulcimer and could not play anything at all. I realised him shouting at me to hit those strings hard was really friendly and he told me to get a proper Dulcimer! Which I duly did, best thing I ever did, thanks Jim! Good memories having only met him once. Bruce Parry
I had only been playing a club dulcimer for 6 months or so when, having heard a few clippets of his music and liking the style, I decided to Ring Jim Couza to ask for some guidance. Hearing he was to be playing at the Warwick folk festival where I was demonstrating corn dollies we agreed to meet. “I’m the one with no legs,” said Jim, so I was confused when a man in a wheelchair wheeled up with legs – until he rapped them with his knuckles to prove his identity. I loved the performance he gave and hung around afterwards. I got out my new dulcimer and he had a quick play, pronounced it good and sturdy enough to bend notes on! We arranged for me to visit him for a lesson. I got lost as I did every time I visited, but found the house with instructions to look for the vehicle for carrying wheelchairs and a ramp up to the door. The Jim I knew already had no legs, he was not the fancy dressed performer with a dulci round his neck that I later found he had been. He was confined to wheels, manoeuvring about the house with a great deal of effort from himself and clearly a lot of love and support from family and those closest to him. As soon as we started I knew I was in trouble. The tunes sounded too complex and as someone who was used to reading music I was shocked to realise Jim would be teaching me by ear. He played a section and I failed to replicate it. “No – listen” he said quite forcefully. I failed again “no – listen” and again. “No ......LISTEN” sounding quite frustrated. I pulled a face at him and he laughed a huge laugh and called out the notes for me. The difficult tunes were soon explained to be easily learnt. I’d like to think we got on well. I was a keen student and Jim a keen teacher. Each visit was packed with songs he wanted to sing me, tunes he wanted to teach me and records I ought to listen to. He had a wealth of information and experience and a passion and urgency to share it. I would try to learn all he had suggested before going back for another lesson. At first he would tell me of his sporting medals, show me the tomatoes he was growing and about job hunting. Later visits were frustrations of immobility, inconvenience and nurse visits, but he was always enthusiastic, kind and generous. Patient even when I turned up late (lost again!) I am left with tunes we had only half learnt, the songs Jim thought I should sing and the nagging feeling I ought to be practicing my rolls more! More than anything I am left with happy memories of a great man I was lucky to share time with. Only a handful of lessons but inspiration to last a long, long time. Mandy Davies
I grew up in New Jersey , and I grew up musically in a crowd there called the Folk Project, where Jim performed several times in the late '70s and early '80s.
Jim was one of the first hammered dulcimer players I ever heard, and certainly the first to stretch it far beyond the "usual" fiddle tunes that we hear from most players in this country. Some of the pieces that made an impression on me:
He had arranged a Bach keyboard "Prelude in C" for the hammered dulcimer, but since he played it in the more dulcimer-friendly key of D, he introduced it as Bach's "Prelude in C / D."
A very stirring rendition of the Bob Beers song, "Seasons of Peace" -- a song which, surprisingly, I haven't heard anybody do in three decades since. His arrangement began with a quiet tremolo that intensified, and then broke out into arpeggiated chords.
A song called "The Children of Sanchez," that he said he had learned from a TV documentary.
I'd swear he performed a rendition of Charles Mingus's "Good-bye Pork Pie Hat," with a jazzy instrumental break. First time I ever heard jazz on a hammered dulcimer.
Jim's girth was as impressive as his repertoire. A couple of times, he performed at the Folk Project's coffeehouse, The Minstrel Show (nowadays, The Minstrel) with similarly plus-sized Philadelphia-area guitarist Dan Ruvin. They drove up in a VW Beetle and jokingly referred to themselves as the Volkswagen Brothers.
Jim had an old guitar -- one of those with a small body and pinched waist. The top of the guitar had a crack in it that you probably could fit your little fingertip into, but it sounded good. Multi-instrumentalist and instrument builder Bob McNally (who is fairly short and relatively slim) had brought his guitar-style acoustic bass to the Folk Project Festival, and there were suggestions that somebody take a photo of the two of them with their instruments, to be captioned, "What's wrong with this picture?" (As far as I know, such a photo was never taken. Bob, by the way, is the developer of the Backpacker Guitar and the Strumstick.)
Jim's size and strong voice made for one of the most humorous repertoire choices, ever, when he performed the Wee Wee Song: "When I was just a wee wee tot / They took me off my wee wee cot / And put me on my wee wee pot / To see if I would wee or not...." (I have no idea who wrote that little gem.)
The Folk Project Festival is a small festival, with a lot of musicians in the crowd. At one point, while Jim was performing a medley of fiddle tunes on stage, somebody took out a guitar and started strumming along at the side of the hall. Apparently, Jim wasn't looking for accompaniment; while playing Drowsy Maggie, he modulated three times in rapid succession. The guitarist took the hint.
I'm accustomed to telling people that upstate New York musician Nick Krukovsky showed me that anything is possible on the hammered dulcimer. (Nick was playing Sousa and Joplin while everybody else was playing jigs and reels.) But, in fact, I saw Jim Couza two years earlier. Sam Edelston