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Rick Lee - 1941-2014

Rick Lee was a New York City born, Massachusetts-based old-time banjo and piano player, singer and songwriter with family roots in Appalachia and a great-grandmother from Scotland. He had been part of New England's traditional music scene since the early 1960s.

Rick grew up in Cedar Hill, Texas, near Dallas, where he first developed an interest in music over 60 years ago. His grandfather (who was from Tennessee) introduced him to the music of swing bands like the Light Crust Doughboys and the Texas Playboys as well as broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry from Nashville. Singer and banjo player Uncle Dave Macon was a particular favourite. In an interview published in Dirty Linen, Rick explained: “He (Uncle Dave Macon) was a big star of the Opry at that time. My grandfather would talk about how he was from the same part of Tennessee and that these were tunes he grew up with. He kept trying to cajole me into playing the banjo. Some years later he put my mother and aunt up to buying me one. I did learn to play, but he died before I got to play it for him.”

Rick’s grandmother and mother both played the piano. Rick only had a few lessons on the piano, but began to work it out for himself, being influenced by all the music that was around the house at that time.

His family moved back to the Northeast when he was a teenager and he ended up in Massachusetts, just as the 1960s folk revival was gathering force. He teamed up with a banjo playing friend and began working as a duo in coffeehouses and the like, and he became involved in the Pioneer Valley Folklore Society, an organisation that introduced Rick to lots more music.

He met his former wife, singer and dulcimer player Lorraine, in 1962 at a folk music festival and they began playing music together – their partnership lasted for over 20 years and they were a popular fixture in the Boston folk community, both for their own performances and for the way they generously helped visiting musicians like Cilla & Artie Trezise, Archie Fisher and Stan Rogers to get a foothold in the local scene.

Rick played subsequently with the tradition-focused quartet Solomon's Seal and more recently he played solo and with various old friends. He sang in a duo with Bob Zentz and as a trio, Scuttlebutt, with Bob Zentz and Rick Epping. He also performed in a trio with Bill Walach and Dave Howard, sometimes known as Too Much Facial Hair and in The Dreaded Banjo Orchestra at Sandy Sheehan’s old time music nights at Johnny D’s in Somerville, MA.

Rick was an imposing figure – once met, never forgotten – but after hearing the news of his passing, I have been surprised at how many people on this side of the Atlantic knew him. Rick’s connections with Scotland and Ireland go back a long way. He met Cilla and Artie Trezise when they were in America and they have fond memories of his hospitality and of sessions in his home in Natick. Artie later arranged a tour of Scotland for Rick and his wife Lorraine, a visit which led to him becoming a regular visitor to the UK and Ireland up until very recent times. Although he played music at every opportunity during his visits in recent years, he was able to travel regularly because he taught negotiating skills on a professional basis - he had a close relationship with a well-known management book, Getting To Yes. He used these opportunities to travel to continue his musical relationships over here.

Rick was a close friend of Iain Mackintosh and in 1996 he and Iain volunteered their support for a fledgling summer schools project. This led to him becoming a regular summer visitor to Scotland over a ten year period when he was a mainstay of the Living Tradition Summer Schools. Rick was a loyal friend of many musicians; he was interested in them as people and travelled widely throughout Scotland and Ireland to enjoy their company and music.

Rick was a master accompanist and his home was at the heart of a session. He was always keen to include people of various ability levels, especially in teaching situations. He made a lasting impact on a group of young people at the summer schools in Scotland. His concern to make sessions inclusive didn’t always endear himself to people who wanted a full on session, but Rick knew what he was doing. He adapted to circumstance and when among master musicians he was more than capable of holding his own.

Although Rick was a skilled musician, it was songs and singing that he was more passionate about. He picked unusual songs, often deep songs, alongside songs with a fair smattering of humour. He had a deep love of traditional ballads. He sang songs from America but wasn’t afraid to tackle some of the big songs from Scotland.

To paraphrase one of the songs Rick was fond of singing – Rick ‘sang for the song’. He’ll be missed.

Pete Heywood