Richard 'Dick' Rodgers, 70; Folklorist and Musician

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 2, 2008

Richard L. "Dick" Rodgers, 70, a folklorist and musician who played a homemade hurdy-gurdy and was the first dues-paying member of the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, died May 6 of a heart attack while recuperating from surgery at Laurel Regional Hospital. He lived in Silver Spring.

Mr. Rodgers, enthusiastic and friendly, was a familiar figure at area folk festivals and at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. The BBC included footage of him playing his hurdy-gurdy -- a stringed instrument also known as a wheel fiddle -- at the Washington Folk Festival in a program on American folk music in 1980.

His hurdy-gurdy was not always in tune -- neither were his fiddle, his guitar, his bagpipes nor his voice, said a friend.

Mr. Rodgers once said of his playing, "You may have to go through 20 bad notes before you hit a good one, but it's worth it for that one sweet note."

In his early years in the Washington area, Mr. Rodgers was a regular at coffeehouses, including one he ran. He was a member of the Cathedral Avenue Cacophony, a local musical group, in the 1970s and 1980s.

In recent years, he was a regular each month at the Folklore Society's open sings and at chantey sings at the Royal Mile Pub in Wheaton.

Mr. Rodgers's sincere singing style and gravelly voice were perfect for old cowboy songs such as "The Gol-Durned Wheel" and "Blood on the Saddle" and for sea chanteys such as "Paddy West," said a friend, Katherine P. Mack. "For the kind of music he does, his voice is very effective."

Mr. Rodgers possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of traditional folk songs and the earliest participants in the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, friends said.

Despite his friendly demeanor, Mr. Rodgers wrote in a 1992 letter to Sing Out! magazine that he was happy to be considered a curmudgeon and chief grump in defense of "historical connection and perspective," as provided by musicians such as Jack Elliott, Jean Redpath and the Clancy Brothers, who performed "traditional songs in traditional versions."

Mr. Rodgers was a native of Youngstown, Ohio, and attended Ohio State University. He served in the Army as a lieutenant and was a tank instructor. After his military service, he moved to Washington in time for the folk music revival in the 1960s.

From 1964 to 1967, he edited Washington Folk Strums, a newsletter he created to obtain press passes to concerts by noteworthy folk musicians. He always had wonderful backstage stories to tell, Mack said.

The Washington Folk Strums also got Mr. Rodgers his Martin guitar from a local music company in exchange for a full-page ad on the back cover of each issue.

Mr. Rodgers became the first official member of the Folklore Society when it was formed in 1964. Since that time, he served the group as a board member, committee chairman and informal recruiter.

In the early 1980s, he worked for Century 21 Real Estate but lost his job during a severe real estate slump. He then did whatever he could to make a living: providing transportation to the disabled, working as a temporary census worker or substitute teaching for Montgomery County schools.

At the time of his death, he was working at Dan's Fan City in Laurel.

Folk music was his true vocation, Mack said. "That's what he put all his energies into, and lived on a shoestring."

He has no known survivors.

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