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In Memoriam: Robbie Robinson

In Memoriam: Robbie Robinson

Passed on June 7, 1993

Originally published in American Lutherie #35, 1993 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume Three, 2004

Roland Robinson died June 7, 1993, in a traffic accident near his home and shop in Mt. Laguna, California. He founded the International Society of Folk Harpers and Craftsmen one day with these words: “I decree that there shall be a folk harp society, and that the Folk Harp Journal shall be it’s voice.” That was how it happened. Details followed.

Rob was my friend, my mentor, my “second father,” my next-door neighbor. He influenced my work and my life with his hard-working, dedicated example. Rob was a renaissance man, a poet, a mover of ideas, a facilitator and educator, a warm human being.

One news article aptly described him as an “irascible curmudgeon.” He was as likely to give you a lecture on proper use of time for production as he was to expound on his knowledge and experiences for hours on end. He constantly searched for understanding of our world. He delved deeply into history and concerned himself with daily news of world events. He wrote his customers many personal messages, sent along with their filled orders. He encouraged us all. He was a prime mover in the resurgence of the folk harp. He shared, never taking “ownership” of ideas or inventions. His genius was always turned outward to better his (and our) world.

— Betty Truitt

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Photo by Dale Korsmo

I founded Dusty Strings in the late 1970s, crafting hammered dulcimers. I became fascinated by folk harps in the early ’80s and devoured back issues of the Folk Harp Journal, which I ordered from Robinson’s Harp Shop. I became aware that in addition to building harps, Robbie also supplied those mysterious bits of steel, brass, and nylon that go into making harps.

Robbie was bigger than life to me, a storehouse of knowledge of a little-understood craft. He could have guarded that knowledge for personal gain. God only knows how hard he worked for it, but he was a man of vision and knew that he could not supply harps to all that would like to own one. He had experienced first hand what the harp had done for his life and Phyllis’, and wanted to share that feeling with the world.

I had an insatiable hunger for inspiration, so I timidly called to see if I might possibly stop by for a quick visit while on a trip to California. When he graciously agreed to see me I was thrilled. I had talked to Robbie Robinson on the phone and I was going to visit him! I felt like a pilgrim on a journey to Mecca.

Robbie and Phyllis welcomed me into their home and shared the inner workings of Robinson’s Harp Shop. He showed me how tuning pins and sharping levers are made, critiqued my harp, and complimented several of my design features. Day faded into evening and I found myself at their dinner table. I excitedly accepted an offer to stay overnight and really was in harp heaven as I lay on the living room couch. I tried to sleep, but my head was spinning with all I had learned.

The next day was business as usual: up at 6:30, a quick breakfast, then downstairs to the shop. There were pegs to be made, strings to be wound, supplies to order. Phyllis had the arduous, though exciting, task of opening the stacks of mail that came each day. And Robbie, with all he had going, took time to show me how to wind strings. He ordered me to try my hand at it so I wouldn’t forget how, and invited me to take lots of pictures so I could construct my own winding machine.

As I drove away from Mount Laguna, I had to pull off the road somewhere down the mountain. The late afternoon sun was casting long shadows behind the pines, and the colors of the mountains, trees, and countryside were magnificent. I was so excited I thought I might burst.

To you, Robbie, I was just another of the many who sought out your influence and knowledge. You graciously opened your door to many, I’m certain. But it was as if I had been taken briefly under your wing and offered the greatest gifts of all: knowledge, and encouragement to go on.

The sun grew into an enormous fireball as it reached for the horizon, changing the colors of the landscape and sky from yellows, to oranges, to pinks, to lavenders, to purples. As the sun slipped away I continued down the mountain with your voice ringing in my ears, “You can do it Ray. The world needs more harp makers.”

Robbie, that visit with you and Phyllis, and other visits since, are times I will never forget. Times that helped shape a career and a business that will contribute to your goal of making the world a better place to live by enriching people’s lives with harp music. You are a great man, Robbie, and though we all will sincerely miss you, you will always be with us in our hearts. You will have a special place in mine for the remainder of my days.

— Ray Mooers