Born in a Manger
Sam was born on the second day of January, 1932, near Joplin, Missouri. He was actually born in a barn (not a manger—that was the other guy). Lately, it’s been very classy to rebuild barns into somewhat rustic residences. In Sam’s case, it was hardly classy—the Great Depression was in full swing, and the barn was more of an emergency habitat.
He was taken to Texas a few weeks later, and retained no memories whatever of the barn, or of Missouri, for that matter.
Early Music Study
Sam’s life was always defined by music. Both parents were enthusiastic singers, and Sam began piano lessons at age nine, possibly being groomed for a place as family accompanist. In early high school, organ entered the picture, but he was always an indifferent keyboard player. His musical life began in earnest when he acquired a Clark Irish harp. Naturally, this fit the plans of his Irish father.
Being poor, college would have been out of the question had it not been for harp scholarships. First came Del Mar Junior College in Corpus Christi, where he encountered his first real teacher, LaVerne Hodges Peterson, who installed a solid technique. They both also subscribed to liberal political ideals, all of which cemented a friendship which endures to this day.
He later transferred to North Texas State College (now the University of North Texas) where he received a Bachelor of Music degree in 1956 with a major in harp performance.
Off to the Bright Lights
The harp teacher having resigned abruptly, he stayed on for one year as an interim harp teacher while the school looked for a permanent instructor. During that year he began a master’s degree, working with Dr. Helen Hewitt, a specialist in the music of the Renaissance, which inspired Sam’s fascination with early music. Later, he came to think that he should have stayed to finish the degree, but feeling a need to study more harp, he moved to New York City in 1957.
Needing a job, he went to work for Lyon & Healy, who maintained a showroom for their harps in New York. He was trained as a harp technician which he did both for Lyon & Healy and independently for the next 43 years.
His search for a harp teacher resulted in study with Laura Newell. Sam was impressed by her superb musicianship and technique, which was the cleanest he had ever encountered. Among other things, she stressed economy of motion, and carefully removed any extraneous gestures that Sam had acquired over the years. Another item was careful finger placement, eliminating any sibilants.
Again, both teacher and student shared the same political views, cementing a solid friendship that lasted until her death.
Recycling Old Transcriptions
In 1961 Lyon & Healy introduced a new lever harp, called the Troubadour harp developed by Samuel Pratt, who realized that the instrument’s success depended on the existence of more repertory. Pratt had heard many of Sam’s transcriptions that he had begun assembling back in his Irish harp days, and asked if he would publish them. The result was Medieval to Modern.
Pratt then asked Sam to assemble a method book for the new instrument, none having been done for lever harp since before the First World War. The result was Fun From the First. “I didn’t give it that title,” Sam says; “I had something more dignified in mind, something startlingly original like Method for the Harp, but since L&H was publishing it, they held the whip hand.”
The introduction of the Troubadour harp and the publication of Sam’s music was responsible, in part for the renaissance in harp playing that we see today. Where there was once little music for lever harp, there is now an abundance, and where there was only one maker of lever harps, there are now many.
The American Harp Journal
In 1967, at the request of the president of the American Harp Society, Lucien Thomson, Sam became the founding editor of the American Harp Journal, serving until 1971, afterwards contributing articles from time to time.
During all these activities, he continued to work as a harpist, mainly as a substitute in orchestras on Broadway, for Radio City Music Hall, plus a lot of single date playing, such as a U.S. tour with chamber orchestra.
Dispensing with the Alcohol
Naturally, his life saw occasional traumas. A major upheaval occurred in 1989 when his companion, Jesse (Jesús) Castellón died of cirrhosis. Realizing that he was heading for a similar end, Sam removed alcohol from his life and has spent significant time subsequently working to help others recover from alcoholism.
Unfortunately, he continued to smoke for some years, which resulted in emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). He expressed a desire to “kill the son-of-a-bitch who taught me to smoke, but tobacco killed him before I could get around to it.”
Trust Fund Baby
Another major change happened in 2000 when he received a trust fund from the estate of his close friend, Lucien Thomson. This enabled him to retire, and made time for the pursuit of other projects. For one thing, he had time to serve on the Board of Directors for the American Harp Society, then later on the board for the Historical Harp Society. He was appointed by the board of the AHS to serve as a liaison between the two organizations.
Also, he now has time to indulge in his passion for early Spanish music for the harp. This interest had been encouraged years before by Nicanor Zabaleta after Sam wrote an article for the Journal about the harp in Latin America. Long before retirement, he had begun organizing various conjuntos, for specific occasions, featuring Spanish music from the Medieval Period up to the end of the Colonial Period in the New World.
This involves much music for strictly diatonic harps. He defends this by a comparison to visual art, saying that “In the same way that a black and white drawing by da Vinci is no less great art than any of his painting in color, so a diatonic piece of music can be as valid as something chromatic. In fact, economy of means can add to its artistic value.”
Confucius, Democritus, et al
“I have no religion,” he says, “except music.” He feels that organized religion encourages intolerance and cruelty. His parents had warned him that he would have a few collisions with religious homophobia. Which he did. But in 1957 he discovered Confucianism, which has served him as a non-religious ethical system to this day.
He is also fond of Democritus, the “laughing philosopher,” who taught that cheerfulness is man’s proper state. To that end, Sam treasures witty language, or anything else that will produce a smile.
He feels that the harp has made his life beautiful, introducing him to many wonderful people. “There were some losers along the way,” he says, “but their memory is overwhelmed by that of the winners.”
“I have lived in New York at the best of times, musically” he says. “I feel sorry for young people who never got to hear Rosenkavalier with the formidable trio of Nilsson, Rysenek and Resnek, or Boheme with Bjorling or Butterfly with de los Angeles. Not to mention recitals by Zabaleta and Grandjany.”
Moreover, the subway only cost a dime.
Summing it up, he says that “Nobody promised me happiness, which is in any case a matter of the moment. But I have managed to achieve contentment, which should be enough for any man.”
Sam died August 27, 2019 in Brooklyn, NY.