INTERVIEW WITH PAM SETSER
Carrying on a Rich Tradition
Many years ago, in the early 1980s, I received a package with a record and a letter from a Jean Simmons from Mountain View, Arkansas. She had purchased my mountain dulcimer instruction book, Lapidus on Dulcimer, and enjoyed it. She wanted to send me her record and say hello. I wasn’t that familiar with traditional dulcimer music but was mesmerized by the richness of her voice and the depth of feeling in her songs. Over 36 years later I would meet her daughter, Pam Setser, while teaching dulcimer in Mountain View, AR at the Ozark Folk Center’s July Dulcimer Jubilee. Pam is a powerful music force unto herself, with a deep earthy sense of rhythm, rich voice and an immense repertoire of traditional music that she plays on dulcimer, guitar, autoharp, and spoons. She performed with her mother, Jean Simmons, from the age 5 until her mother’s death in 2005. I’m very pleased to introduce her to you.
JL: Maybe you could start by just telling me how you were introduced to music and the dulcimer.
PS: We moved to Mountain View when I was 2. My dad played a little bit of guitar and my mom played piano and autoharp. At the age of 5, I started singing with my parents as The Simmons Family at the Courthouse Square in Mountain View.
When my mom heard a dulcimer she fell in love with it. A carpenter made her first dulcimer and it was very crude looking. The frets were made from pieces of a metal coat hanger and it had really high action.
Mr. Lynn McSpadden opened up The Dulcimer Shoppe in Mountain View in 1972. My mom bought a McSpadden and it was like moving up to a Cadillac.
When I was 9 she started teaching me the dulcimer. At first we got a normal right handed dulcimer but I had difficulty because I’m left handed. So Lynn strung it up left handed for me. So I was about 9 when I actually started playing the mountain dulcimer.
For many years, my mom and I taught dulcimer workshops and performed at the Ozark Folk Center. (For an in depth understanding of a bit of history of the Ozark Folk Center see the interview by Brooks Blevins of Lynn McSpadden.)
At 16, I was fortunate that the mountain dulcimer got my mom and me on the TV show HeeHaw. I came home from school and my dad said: “You need to get your bags packed because you and your mom are going to be on HeeHaw. We packed right up and headed to Nashville. We went through hair and makeup and they gave us those HeeHaw overalls. It was quite an experience.
Earlier than HeeHaw, when I was 9, we played autoharps and dulcimers at the big folk festival at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. I’m the youngest of 4 children. We didn’t have a lot of money to go on vacations. We were loved, had great food, but our family vacations were to go camping for several days. So music gave me a lot of opportunity to see other places.
JL: Did all six of you perform?
PS: No. Mainly my mom, dad and me. We all sang in church choirs but the performing part was never something they desired. I’ve loved it since I was little. We sang as The Simmons Family until I was 21.
At the same time, I got an opportunity to be the lead female singer in a show in Hot Springs, AR at the Mid-America Amphitheater. We did shows six nights a week and I played my mountain dulcimer. After that, I came back to Mountain View and joined a group my mom had formed called the Leatherwoods.
In my early to mid-30s, we got the opportunity to go to the Swanannoa Gathering in North Carolina and teach dulcimer workshops. We met Jean Ritchie, which was a really big thing especially for my mother. Music has taken me a lot of places. Without music, I probably wouldn’t have been able to travel and meet so many different people.
My dad was the first general manager of the Ozark Folk Center. We entertained traveling musicians from all over. My mom would cook them a true southern meal, and we would have big picken’ parties. We played music and square danced. I’ve been very blessed with great memories growing up with all of that.
JL: The folks reading this may not know the breadth of what the Ozark Folk Center did. It made Mountain View a center for traditional music and crafts with a huge concert hall and hands on workshops in so many of the handcrafts of the area.
PS: I have played at the Folk Center since it opened, in 1973. I grew up and knew all of these people: Almeda Riddle, Aunt Ollie Gilbert, Book Miller Shannon. All those unique old timers are gone now. I was fortunate to meet all those people.
Mom was pretty much self-taught on the dulcimer, and then she taught me. Of course we both play a very traditional style.
JL: Where did the Simmons Family repertoire come from?
PS: Songs that mom had grown up knowing and we would look up old folk songs and learn those. This friend of ours, Albert Sands, he brought us a beautiful song called Bright Morning Stars. People would sing a song and say: “you should sing this.”
The reason my parents moved to Mountain View was for my dad to run an auto parts store there. Aunt Ollie Gilbert actually lived just across from that store. There were days I would spend all day with her. She would tell me stories and teach me songs.
(Both a local and national celebrity, Ollie Eva Woody Gilbert, known popularly as Aunt Ollie, performed with Jimmy Driftwood, Woody Guthrie, from The Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
JL: And where did she learn those songs?
PS: I would say just from it being passed down and growing up. It was so neat because she had a roll of adding machine tape and all of her songs were written on that. We would play shows at different places and sometimes we would ride with Jimmy and Cleda Driftwood and sometimes Aunt Ollie would just ride with us. I can remember being in the back seat and getting her roll of adding machine tape and picking a song and saying: “Sing this one for me, Aunt Ollie.” and there she’d go. She was a library of words. She knew so many songs.
JL: You and your mother also knew quite a few songs and recorded quite a few albums.
PS: We recorded The Simmons Family, Ozark Mountain Dulcimer, Stone County Dulcimer, Portrait of Life and Wandering Through the Rackensack which was our first album. We went to Memphis to record it. I remember the engineer’s name was Rodney Peppenhorse. We recorded all day. I was just 9, a little girl, and had never been through this before. We were finished and putting everything away and Rodney played it back. All of a sudden it came to a blank spot. Something had happened and it didn’t record this song and of course it was my song: East Virginia. I cried. I was so tired and we had to set up and re-record it. I can remember tears comin’ down while I was recording that song.
It was so wonderful to grow up and being able to sing harmonies and play duets on the dulcimer with my mother. And it was really kind of neat looking because I was left handed and she was right handed so we could sit and the heads of our dulcimers would face each other.
JL: Are there recordings of the two of you playing duets?
PS: Yes. That would be on Stone County Mountain Dulcimer and Ozark Mountain Dulcimer.
Mom worked for McSpadden for many years and I actually worked there too as my summer job when I was in High School. And that was when the dulcimer was really coming on the scene. I can remember us selling twelve dulcimers in a day.
When Bill Clinton was president, mom and I were asked to Washington DC to play for a luncheon for Hilary Clinton, Tipper Gore and all ladies. Later we played at a dinner for all the senators and their wives.
Anytime I seem to play the dulcimer, people are drawn to it. It has such a unique sweet sound. I’m sure you hear the same.
JL: You know I live in Los Angeles and hardly anybody here knows what the instrument is. I was at a folk music party the other night people were saying: “Well what is that?” It catches their attention.
PS: It does. Our dulcimer instrumental albums and CDs always sold the best. A dulcimer is great to have playing as background. So soothing and it’s just got a sweet sound.
PS: Did anything come along and really change your traditional style much? Or did you start hearing different kinds of music and you incorporated it into your repertoire?
PS: I would say that when I first started I was playing mainly on the melody string. Then I learned to make chords and to fingerpick which branched me out to do more different types of songs. Recently I worked out a Kenny Loggins tune Watching the River Run on the dulcimer. It works great. If I find a song that I think would work, I just try to pick it out on the dulcimer. I play by ear. I don’t read music.
PS: I did play in the high school band for a couple of years.
JL: On the dulcimer?
PS: No, you’ll never believe it. I played the trombone. We never had a band. It was brand new. I can remember we were taken a break or something. The band director walks up to me and says:“Simmons, I’m going to put you on the trombone”. As he walked off I said to my friends: “What is that?” “What is a trombone?” I’d not been around those type horns! I did learn to read to play that. But I left it and I don’t remember. I took piano lessons when I was young and I also played the spoons.
Mom and I got to play dulcimer and spoons on the Jay Leno show. And another neat thing is that I’ve written music for the dulcimer. Crooked Ridge is a tune I’ve written for the dulcimer. That tune gets played at large jams at dulcimer events and a few bands have recordings of it on Youtube. We lived on a road called Crooked Ridge. So when I was writing this dulcimer tune I named it Crooked Ridge.
There’s been a couple of different people have written words to it but I don’t know it’s just always been an instrumental to me. I would like to write some more tunes for the dulcimer. I actually had one started called Autumn Breeze and I didn’t record it. I’ve learned a lesson that if you start writing something you need to record it. I wrote Autumn Breeze not long after I wrote Crooked Ridge. It’s been probably 30 years. And I laugh ‘cause it was called Autumn Breeze and it just breezed right on out of my mind. I can’t remember anything about it.
I started playing the spoons when I was a teenager but I didn’t really start playing guitar until I was about 23.
JL: Who taught you spoons?
PS: I saw someone play and then I just kinda taught myself. I practiced to all kinds of music. It’s a novelty. It sounds real neat and it adds a great rhythm. People are drawn to it. They’ll say “You’re that girl plays the spoons!” They may not know my name but they remember hearing me play the spoons.
JL: And it’s not very expensive either.
PS: No, it’s not. It’s never out of tune. Never break a string. And if you get hungry, you do have a utensil.
You’re always prepared if you go to a potluck.
You know I love to sing, I love to perform, and I have met so many friends because of music. I used to have this sign on my desk that a lady had given to me that said: “Music is good for the soul”. You know we all have ups and downs in our lives but whenever I play music, whatever that is, it takes a back seat.
JL: Are you very connected to the Ozark Folk Center?
PS: Well I am on the Committee of 100 which is a support group for the Ozark Folk Center. I’m the treasurer of that and chair of the committees for music and crafts. We help fund the Music Roots Program in the schools and I still perform there probably about 3 times a month. I was recently voted Musician of the Year for 2016. I was floored! It was quite an honor. In the early years when my dad was the first general manager, we traveled quite a bit playing to promote the Folk Center. It’s always been near and dear to my heart. I want it to do well and have tried to help in any way I could.
JL: It’s a very special place. There’s nothing like that anywhere else I’ve gone. It’s amazing.
PS: When it was first opened, we had shows six nights a week. And in those early years you cannot imagine the crowds that were here for the Folk Festival here in Mountain View the third weekend in April. And I can remember we always had those big pickin’ parties at our house. Some would listen, some would 2-step, some would waltz and we’d play ‘til the wee hours of the morning. I can remember waking up when I was a little girl, and my mom would cook a big breakfast. And there would still be a few there. Lots of great memories. People would come and we didn’t know who they were! We never had any trouble but they would say: “We asked in town, where would be a good place to hear some music? “ And they’s say: “Go out to the Simmons house, I’m sure they’re playing music. And they’d come.
JL: Were people playing music on the Courthouse Square then?
PS: Yes but this would be after it.
There’s a lot of young people playing at the Folk Center now. And it just does my heart good because I can remember thinking: “Who’s going to carry this on?” The Music Roots Program has really helped. It’s in the schools and there are two or three different entities that help support it. The instructors are paid to go into the schools and instruments are provided. It gives kids an opportunity to learn and if they like it then they can purchase their own instrument. It gives so many kids an opportunity that they would never have had. There’s been little groups formed out of it that perform at the Folk Center. It’s just a very great program. The young kids are really talented. I’ve seen them play whenever I come to Mountain View. They are definitely carrying on the musical traditions and maybe adding some new traditions!
JL: I think the dulcimer you were playing when I met you was your mother’s? But that wasn’t her very first McSpadden, was it?
PS: No it was not. My brother has mom’s first dulcimer. Mom left me this one. And this was a special dulcimer made for her. And I tell you for several years after she died, I just could not bring myself to play it. Then one year I said: “You know… you need to play it”. And so I took it over to The Dulcimer Shoppe and they strung it up left handed for me. I play it a lot now. It’s really special to play her instrument.
JL: That must have been a huge loss for you when she passed.
PS: It was. At first I would sit down to play the dulcimer and think: “I don’t know if I can do this”. During that I would hear my mother saying: “Yes, you do this.”
She was a strong influence. At the age of 7 or 8 she was cooking and helping take of her twin sisters. In those days, parents were out in the field. My grandpa worked in lumber. She married my dad at 16. By the time she was 26 she had four children. She didn’t graduate from high school but was self-educated.
When computers came out, my mom went and got a computer. She took her little computer class and soon she was emailing to Hong Kong! She was determined. She didn’t know anything but hard work. She was a true lady, You didn’t hear her talk bad about people. She loved you no matter what. Didn’t matter if you were rich, poor, whatever. She’d treat you the same. And that’s how she raised us. But yeah it was very hard when she passed.
Even though I’m so blessed to have all these recordings, I couldn’t listen to them for a while. The first time I listened to her, I was cleaning house and I thought: “I’m going to put this CD on and listen.” And I cried and cried and I was cleaning and crying listening to mom. But after that, it kind of broke the ice. It became a comfort. Now it’s a comfort that I can put on a CD and think: “There’s mom.” I would just tell myself “Don’t be sad, don’t feel sorry for yourself. Look at what a great mom you had. And what a relationship to play music with her and share all these things that most daughters never get to do.” And honestly that helped me through so much of that. I would think: “You know, you’ve got all these wonderful memories and all these wonderful things you’ve done with her. I have people tell me all the time: “Your mom, she was one of a kind.” And of course I always say: “Yeah if I could be half of what she was I’d feel like I’d done good.”
Pam Setser can be reached at on her Facebook page
Some of the Simmons Family recordings can be found on Amazon.com
A true creative maverick in the mountain dulcimer world, Joellen Lapidus both embraces the deep rich traditions of the Appalachian Mountain Dulcimer, and creates new traditions. One of the pioneers of an equally rich California Mountain Dulcimer tradition, her rhythmic playing style and elegant shapes and inlaid dulcimers have influenced generations of players and builders. Joellen teaches at McCabes Guitar Shop and dulcimer festivals from coast to coast. (this last sentence is optional, depending on how much room you have.) www.lapidusmusic.com