Welcome to Zitherland

In Search of Ruth Welcome

I still remember the day a few years ago when I received a 12”x12”x2” box in the mail containing my recent eBay win: a lot of six Ruth Welcome records. They were in great shape — the covers barely worn and the vinyl near mint. I pored over the covers, each one featuring a zither in some kind of situation: a witch holding a zither and hovering over a smoky cauldron (Zither Magic!), a zither near the feet of a stagecoach driver (Zither Goes West), a close up of a zither with a formally dressed couple dancing in the background (Zither in 3/4 Time). And I remember putting my first Ruth Welcome record on my turntable. Amazing. The melodies slid all over the room, in and out of my ears, and ran along the floor before going back into the record needle to be poured out again. I had never heard a zither before that I was aware of, and I was hooked.

Even though I clearly remember my beginnings with these records, I cannot for the life of me remember where I first heard of Ruth Welcome. I looked through several resources where I may have read about her or seen her record covers, such as the Incredibly Strange Music books. There was no mention of her in any of them. I have no idea what originally prompted me to search for Ruth Welcome records on eBay. All I know is that she keeps popping up in my life. Since acquiring my first six Welcome records, I have come across several others, in thrift stores (obvious), yard sales (obvious), and in a box of records that appeared in my apartment building’s laundry room labeled “take me” (not obvious). I get very excited about Ruth Welcome. When I see one of her records while rummaging through piles of records at a thrift store or yard sale, my heart jumps. If it is an album I do not have, my pulse and breathing quicken until I can go home and play it. Actually, this happens even if it’s an album I do already have — I even took the already-owned Zither in 3/4 Time record from the “take me” box.

So now, after a few years of admiring Miss Welcome’s playing, I ask myself, “Who was she?”

It’s really not an easy question to answer. In my many searches high and low for more information, I haven’t come across much. A Google search for Ruth Welcome reveals only an obituary, one record review, and dozens of websites selling her records. A half-day spent researching at the main branch of the Chicago Public Library yielded only one book that even mentioned her name. A few posts on Yahoo! groups for odd music yielded one response, which contained a list of semi-helpful links I had already been to. Even an e-mail I sent to Capitol Records asking for more information about Ruth Welcome bounced back to me because it could not be delivered.

So here are the known facts, based on her obituary and a few biographic details on the back of her records: Ruth Anneliese Welcome was born in 1919 in Germany. As a small child, she learned to play the zither while living in Germany and Switzerland. She moved to the United States when she was eight. Even though she received formal music training at Julliard in violin and piano, her music career was made by her zither playing. During World War II, she entertained in military hospitals, which eventually led to her professional debut in New York City in 1953. She brought her zither sounds to smart supper clubs in New York, and was a standard attraction at Manhattan’s Hampshire House for five years. She toured extensively in the United States and Canada and recorded exclusively for Capitol Records, eighteen albums in all. Upon retirement in May 1975, she moved from Connecticut to Sun City, remaining there until her death on March 6, 2005. Her colorful zither sounds were created on a custom-made Meinel instrument, which is the zither counterpart to a Stradivarius. She was the only female professional zither player in North America. (And maybe still is? Then again, I didn’t go to Lollapalooza this year, so I don’t know what the kids are listening to on the off-off-off main stage.)

Well, maybe we do know enough about Miss Welcome. But what happened to her? Apparently, she was once quite popular. She recorded eighteen albums for a big label, and had such a friendly last name. She appeared on the Lawrence Welk show and supposedly had millions of fans in the 1950s. But today, she is virtually unknown. Not that this surprises me; it’s hard to imagine that zither music ever had or will ever again have household names attached to it. On the Capitol Records website, the roster of artists from the 1950s and 1960s doesn’t include Ruth Welcome, but does include several other musicians who recorded far fewer than eighteen albums. She didn’t make the revival train with the other lounge/exotica acts from her day. How come she didn’t become as ‘well known’ as other players of lesser-known instruments — the theremin of Clara Rockwell, the harmonicas of the Harmonicats, or the super-voice of Yma Sumac? Is it because none of her eighteen vinyl records have been issued on CD? We can only guess.

So, for all of you that haven’t heard Ruth Welcome I’ve created a descriptive collage of what she sounds like, based on what’s printed on the back of her record covers (Zither Goes Hollywood, Sentimental Zither, The Concert Zither, At a Sidewalk Café, Zither Magic!, Zither in 3/4 Time, Continental Zither, Romantic Zither, Zither South of the Border, Zither Goes West, and Welcome to Zitherland):

The incomparable Ruth Welcome brings a spellbinding glow that promises many hours of enchanted listening. In tones that are hauntingly beautiful, the talented fingers of Ruth Welcome play shimmering melodies that speak the language of love when touched by the magic of the zither. Her superlative playing is pure and diamond-clear, her arrangements filled with romantic warmth and delightful surprises, highlighting the zither’s plaintive sound that projects an aura of misty memory with every note. Miss Welcome’s candlelight-and-wine melodies are as fresh and new as the flowers on the table, as bewitching a musical brew as ever concocted to delight the ear, a passport to listening pleasure. Whatever she chooses to play, something happens as the melodic tones of her zither start to ring: The skyscrapers of Manhattan begin to dissolve ... a martini becomes a glass of cognac ... and the Danube cannot be too far away, for suddenly, the room has been transformed into a romantic boulevard scene. Surely Ruth Welcome’s zither must be strung with heartstrings. For what other artist has the power to set dreams to music as she does? The zither melodies yield to the artist’s touch and each become a masterpiece of sentimental expression, which, at times, blends harmoniously with the sounds of another dreamy instrument of romance, the electric studio organ.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Sure, it sounds like the author(s) of the record covers used a thesaurus that only contained optimistic, delightfully charming, exquisitely beautiful words, but don’t forget the listening experience you can achieve with Capitol’s new Full Dimensional Stereo (also available in regular monophonic for those of you who haven’t upgraded your equipment yet). I had to include the bit about the dreaminess of the electric studio organ, since I have never thought of the electric studio organ in this way before.

Actually, I’ve tried to think of un-flowery, technical ways to describe what her zither playing really does sound like. No matter what I try to write, nothing comes closer than this description on the web from Sorian’s Occasional Review of the album Zither Magic! on October 16, 2002: “a sound that meshes psychedelia, Hawaiian slack key guitar, and Middle Eastern oud music.” And that’s exactly what it sounds like.

Now comes the point where I answer the question you had before you even started reading this: what is a zither exactly? Generically, a zither is an instrument in which strings are stretched across a sounding board. For example, the autoharp is a kind of zither. Ruth Welcome played what is called a concert zither. This instrument has four to five melody strings that are stretched across a fretted board, like a guitar. There are several open strings above the fret board, which are used for bass and accompaniment. Consider the coordination it takes to play a zither: the left hand presses the strings on the frets for the melody and the thumb of the right hand plucks these melody strings, while the fingers of the right hand pluck the open strings for the accompaniment. You see why there are few professional zither players in the world.

In 1950, the zither came into the popular world. Anton Karas’ “The Third Man Theme” stayed in the top 40 charts for over three months. The melody of this tune was played by nothing other than the zither. Karas lived in Vienna, playing his zither in taverns to earn a living. Director Carol Reed overheard him one night and persuaded him to compose and record a soundtrack for his film The Third Man. “The Third Man Theme” became instantly popular, and was Karas’ one-hit-wonder. Ruth Welcome even made a recording of his tune. How could she not? The world was in a zither craze!

Or were they? Anton Karas and his one hit are all over the Internet. Ruth Welcome and her eighteen albums are not, despite the “tremendous popularity” of her recordings. The notes on Zither South of the Border claim that the success of her recordings is “ample evidence that literally millions have fallen under the delightful spell of Ruth Welcome and her zither enchantment.” Have they? Did this “delightful spell” swear them into secrecy?

The only way is to ask. I myself tried to ask the world and received no response. In conclusion, we can only ask Miss Welcome what she thinks. In the only quote from Ruth Welcome in existence anywhere(!), from the album At a Sidewalk Café, she says warmly, “I loved making this album.”