The Vahdah Olcott-Bickford Collection

For those who may wonder where all this historical harp guitar information comes from, the answer is that, well, it naturally comes from a multitude of sources.  Each new discovery – an old article, a collector’s new find, a family member coming forward, new tidbits appearing on the Internet – becomes another piece of this great and wonderful puzzle.

Rarely can one find substantial resources all in one place, and certainly not right up the street!

But 7 miles and a 10-15 minute drive away from me is where a major archive resides at California State University Northridge: The International Guitar Research Archives.  It was founded in 1980 by Professor Ronald C. Purcell upon the donation of the Vahdah Olcott-Bickford Collection to CSUN.  (Interesting factoid: In 1970-1974 Dr. Purcell was the guitar professor of harp guitarist John Doan)

Few guitarists seem to know or remember Vahdah Olcott-Bickford today, but she was a central figure in the BMG world her entire life: a contributor to the journals, performer, composer, teacher and co-founder of Los Angeles’ American Guitar Society (still going strong today, 90 years later!).  I’ll return to her below.

In a boon to stringed instrument researchers, included in the vast archives of guitar-related material from Vahdah’s entire career are 95% runs of The Cadenza (1894-1924) and The Crescendo (1908-1934), the two most important “BMG” magazines.  These important periodicals not only captured the banjo, mandolin and guitar activities, music and personalities of the time, but provide researchers with important clues (sometimes the only clue) about certain instrument manufacturers of that time.

For example, this is where I first discovered the actual release date of the infamous first Gibson catalog, and – finally! – the full complement of Dyer harp guitar ads from 1901 to 1919.

That was in 2007, when Arian Sheets from South Dakota’s National Music Museum arranged for me to gain access to the IGRA to help her with her own Gibson research.  I spent the next several weeks photographing tens of thousands of pages of the BMG mags, as no library or other facility in the world currently has any plans to professionally digitize this important resource.   This is where the occasional new BMG material has come from for some of my articles, and of course forms the basis for my painstaking but essential “Dyers in the BMG” study.

In 2007, I had left over 80 issues remaining to shoot (long story), but finally went back this last May to finish.  In the intervening years, Ron Purcell had sadly passed away, but the current staff was equally helpful.   (A big Thank You to Julieta Garcia, David Sigler and the rest of the Special Collections staff!)

As I had previously skimmed these issues, I found no immediate new surprises.  One small discovery was this fascinating personal ad:

This Form 4 instrument has been on the site for some time, courtesy of Mugwumps’ Michael Holmes.  His note to me had cryptically mentioned “this was 1 of 2 made” −and this Cadenza issue was obviously his original source.  The brief accompanying text is thus not only interesting but historically important.

Eventually, we’ll turn my images into searchable-PDFs and I’ll take a closer look at all the new Cadenza material.  Meanwhile, returning to the archives: after I completed my initial (and rather tedious) Cadenza documenting task, I had a lot more fun pouring over the bulk of the Olcott holdings (skipping the immense collection of music and letters).

The collections staff had very kindly requisitioned this material for me in order to look for any new harp guitar ephemera.  Some of it was quite old and brittle and I was uncomfortable about examining it even with white gloves and forceps.  There were endless folders of magazine and newspaper clippings, including probably every article by or mentioning Vahdah herself (hey, I do the same thing; my pile’s just a lot smaller!).

I expected that Vahdah would have encountered the harp guitar throughout much of her career, even if she didn’t play or advocate it herself.  I already knew she had a Dyer player in her very own Los Angeles American Guitar Society group c.1923-1925:

Dr. Purcell had sent me this photo years ago and I found numerous copies and re-printings of it in the archives, including one with Vahdah’s handwritten list of members in her scrapbook.

But though I was hoping for rare HG material, there was extremely little of it.  I knew well of Vahdah’s frequent correspondence with Boris Perott (discussed in The Harp Guitar of Boris Perott), but wondered: Did she know the harp guitarists Maccaferri?  Mozzani?  Taraffo?  Perhaps not, though she undoubtedly knew of them.  For example:

Her scrapbook contained this newspaper clipping of Taraffo’s first U.S. appearance, along with the single Cadenza mention of him I’ve found.  That seems to be the extent of her knowledge or contact with him.

Buried in another folder I discovered this postcard of Luigi Mozzani.  It appears to be from the maestro himself, seemingly a cryptic professional “hello” or introduction.

There were a couple photos of this woman, perhaps a friend.  She plays an unknown make of guitar with a 7th floating string, and inscribed her photo “To dear V. Bickford with gratitude and very good wishes, Victoria Kingsley.”

Of the many photos, postcards and letters sent to Vahdah by colleagues, friends and admirers, extremely few included a harp guitar, an instrument the classical guitar proponent had little interest in.  Below is one H.C. Miller (sp?) from Ohio.

Oh, I did manage to put to rest a nagging Dyer clue.  I had word of an ad in S. S. Stewart ‘s Banjo, Guitar and Mandolin Journal, and by good fortune, the staff was able to locate a box of ultra-brittle issues never digitized (other important Stewart Journals are here).  There I finally discovered the missing ad, which as I had surmised was a duplicate of the Cadenza ad already archived.  It appeared in the Jan, 1902 Stewart issue (a month after the first Cadenza appearance) and again in the July issue (and probably in between).  As it re-uses the exact same crude engraved image and text, there’s no additional help in deciphering its nagging “Knutsen- or Larson-built?” question.

But the prize was this: a signed photo by 13-year-old Julian Bream with the “mystery Maccaferri” harp guitar!  The photo was from the same session as the other images I’ve already posted, but showed a bit more of the guitar.  You can easily make out the sound baffle inside the soundhole.  I’ll be adding this to my special Maccaferri harp guitar study.

Once I was sure I’d pretty well exhausted my harp guitar search, I went back to spend a little more time in the guitar world of Vahdah.  Naturally, I had come across her many times during my many years of BMG research, but her activities were never part of any studies of mine.  I think the thing that always impressed upon me most was her and her husband’s involvement in astrology − so much so that the mainstream musical couple once married permanently changed their names (Ethel Lucretia and Myron) to Vahdah and Zarh.  True artists!

The guitar world, I expect, has even less awareness of her than I, even though for many decades she was considered “the foremost concert guitarist in the United States”, especially remarkable then for a woman.  One can find her and her mandolinist husband Zarh Bickford in Google searches, but very few.  The IGRA continues to do an amazing if thankless job of digitizing and posting her private letters and other material here.   A short bio appears on the website of the American Guitar Society, still in existence since Vahdah co- founded it over 90 years ago.   Similarly, there seems to be only slight interest today in her husband’s mandolin activities; one brief thread can be seen on the Mandolin Cafe.

Vahdah is perhaps most remembered today for her part in the Martin guitar story and you will find her and her instrument(s) in the various Martin books.  The whole concept of these early American classical players − the “serious guitarists” of the BMG movement – performing and composing their now-forgotten pieces solely on Martin and similar gut-strung guitars is hard to envision in today’s post-Segovia, post-Torres-model guitar world.  For more on this little know but critical period in American guitar history, see Jeffrey Noonan’s book, The Guitar in America, the only dedicated account of this era to date.

Looking through these personal scrapbooks and folders containing not only ephemera, but many dozens of photographs of Vahdah, her family and friends (including many “guitar personalities”), I felt the same sensation as when Jaci and I stumble upon an old family photo album at an antique shop and chance to peruse it.  One feels like a trespasser, with a melancholic fascination yet poignant appreciation and inexplicable connection to this stranger’s life.  I was additionally saddened by the realization that here was a carefully and beautifully preserved record of a life and career, a treasure trove of unpublished material that could fill a book – but a book that no one may have any interest in publishing and perhaps few in reading.  Beyond the few sources mentioned above, the world and accomplishments of Vahdah and her husband Zarh have long faded from popularity and view.

With the kind permission of the IGRA, I’d like to share just a few glimpses with you:

17-18-year-old guitar prodigy Ethel Lucretia Olcott in 1903 with I believe Martin’s new slot-head Style 00-42? (10 years later she would have her own plainer VO-B model)

The burgeoning soloist, slightly later

Meanwhile, her future husband Myron Bickford had gained recognition for his multi-instrumental talents (note his Howe-Orme “mandolinetto”)

Circa 1907 (note the early Gibson mandola and mandocello) Myron (on second mandolin) performed in a quartet with the mandolin virtuoso Valentine Abt and others.

The couple married in New York in 1915.  Both passionate students of astrology, they permanently changed their names to the myterious Vahdah and Zarh, which did not seem to alter their reputations any.  In theatrical costume shortly after, they appear to have briefly switched instruments.

Vahdah in Burbank in June, 1928

Of the several scrapbooks, one was a gift from their friend “Bud” Royce, with whom they stayed for a summer…

The couple gave lessons and entertained and had a marvelous time from the looks of it.

The couple was still famous enough that their vacation made the newspaper.

And as Bud says goodbye to the Bickfords, so do we…

Vahdah passed away in 1980, 19 years after Zarh.
45 years of making beautiful music together…we should all be so lucky.

Permission for the use of the photos on this page was granted by the IGRA.

  1. sean woolley Says:

    Another fantastic blog.
    Just so much in it… The Stewart Journal link is great.
    Hours of stuff just in there for those nights when you can’t sleep.
    Thankyou!!!

  2. Joe Morgan Says:

    Interesting stuff, Gregg. I remember seeing her name a couple of times in the old Martin book by Mike Longworth and always wondered if there was more to the story. Thanks for filling in some of the blanks.

  3. sean woolley Says:

    If you Google “Victoria Kingsley guitar” you can read her obituary.
    Sounds like quite a lady too.
    Found elsewhere that she owned Hauser and Bouchet guitars… shame that there isn’t any more.

  4. Gregg Miner Says:

    Very interesting career, indeed, Sean – thanks for the lead: http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/ENGLAND-OBITS/2007-10/1193745705

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