Ralph Sweet: The Chiff & Fipple Interview
with Dale Wisely
I bought my first tinwhistle (a Clarke Original in D) at Bob Tedrow’s shop in Homewood, Alabama. I continue to pop into Bob’s shop to chat and listen to Bob explain to me how much I really want a concertina. On several of my visits to Bob’s shop, I kept spying this very attractive fife, which I was to learn was a replica of the famous Cloos fife. This instrument had a heart engraved on it. About this time, I was getting started with Chiff & Fipple and didn’t take me long to learn that this was a Ralph Sweet instrument. I bought it and it became the first member of the transverse flute family I had tried to play. (I now have added a few other transverse flutes which I have tried to play). Recently, Ralph Sweet gifted me with one of his wooden whistles which rounds out my collection nicely. It looks great and sounds great and, as an added sensory bonus, it smells great. I’ve wanted to interview Ralph for a while and only recently did Ralph and I have an opportunity to finally sit down for an interview in the lounge of a world-class hotel in Sydney, Australia. Oh, sorry, I was drifting there for a moment. Actually, this interview occurred via a horrifying blend of Internet- and U.S. Mail-based technologies.
Typically, the grueling Chiff & Fipple interview process begins with a little biographical sketch the interviewee sends me. This allows me to have a starting point for the interview. But, in Ralph’s case, the bio was so interesting that I want to present it here in Ralph’s own words. Ralph mailed it to me, by the way, because, in Ralph’s own words, “there is less chance of the Crystal People intercepting this highly privileged information so essential to our civilization.” Smart move, Mr. Sweet.
As a high school senior in 1946, in southeastern Connecticut, I took up two hobbies which would turn into lifelong pursuits: square dancing and fifing. Both have led to a love of Celtic music and flute making.
As soon as I learned to drive the family car, I attended nearby square dances, and later learned contra dancing, which are done to tunes of English, Scottish, and Irish origin, or American tunes in similar style. Within two years, I learned to teach and call both, sometimes accompanying myself on the piano.
The same year, 1946, I also joined an “ancient” fife & drum corps—meaning, of course, a traditional Colonial or Civil War group performing music (again of Celtic origin) of the era in the correct uniforms. At first I was a drummer, then learned the fife. Eventually, I taught fife; all five of my children have played fife or drum, or both.
While in college, I attempted to avoid the draft by joining the National Guard, but my unit was called up! I made use of my assignment to Georgia, Texas and several other states by square dancing wherever I could, and writing down the dances and calls. While our anti-aircraft unit protected Boston, MA from the North Korean bombers, I found I had lots of free time to study Irish Ceili dancing, English Country dance, Scottish, International Folk, and plenty of square and contra dancing—lots of Celtic music!
Returning to Connecticut, I used my engineering training in the aircraft industry, and bought a large historic barn, which I converted for square dancing—and I left a perfectly good engineering job to have loads of fun making a living calling dances in my own hall!
After two years, I had to find a job which would better support a wife and four kids, and took courses toward a science teaching career, which I followed for 29 years until I took early retirement.
Around 1973, with several other interested dancers, we formed a costumed colonial dance group to prepare for celebrating the upcoming Bicentennial (1976), and became interested once more in returning from Western dancing to the traditional squares and contras. My son was a crackerjack fifer, and I learned to accompany him on the accordion and call at the same time while playing the melody.
I discovered that this needed some adjustment, since drum corps fifes play in Bb, and most of the tunes were in “fiddle keys” of D, G, and A! So, I tinkered a bit and produced a fife in D from plastic tubing. After I made the second, the Arab nations cut off the oil supply, and since plastic is a petroleum product, I decided to turn to wood.
So I bought a factory-second Toolkraft lathe, a drill press, a belt sander, and tried turning wood. After finding that several of these attempts played pretty well, I found a fiddler, taught my daughter’s boyfriend to play piano chords, and the “Fifer’s Delight Band” was born! We played at contra dances for several years.
At the New England Folk Festival, our band performed. Walt played at all the jam sessions. People kept asking, “What is that funny instrument your son is playing? Can I buy one?” This took place in 1974, and I got the idea of really producing instruments. Thus was established the Sweetheart Flute Company.
Along about this time, my first wife probably decided she had enough of all these years of nonsense. Eventually I met a flutist who loved contra dancing, who became part of the company and became the mother of my fifth child. She contributed her knowledge of the classical flutes and Baroque period, and we researched together several historical flutes.
Thus began the processing of making fifes and flutes and later whistles, in many different keys and styles! For several years we produced a rather good rolled-and-soldered tin whistle in huge quantities, but the need for more shop time to be given to the more serious wood instruments resulted in the sale of that department to a man who thought (mistakenly) he could produce tin whistles really well.
Realizing that my very first flute or whistle wouldn’t likely be perfect, I’ve tried to follow a motto: I would make each instrument a little better than the one before. Now it’s come to be each batch of instruments—we’re always trying to improve the performance. The instruments now range from the one-piece $35 Renaissance fife to our beautiful six-key flute for $1295. Most of our business is by mail, and much is at wholesale to folk-oriented music stores.
We now have a fulltime shop foreman, Jerry Briere, and three part-timers in the shop. My wife Carol Greenfield is Office Manager and we are trying to set up a website. These days it is all we can do to keep up with the orders!
Dale Wisely of Chiff & Fipple: Ralph Sweet, that is a great story. That a story of a life that really has embraced music.
Ralph Sweet: Yes: It's a good thing I didn't try to make a living at music - I think I have a short attention span, because I never seem to stick with any one instrument long enough to get really good at it. Except for the Square and Contra dance calling, I suppose!
Since you covered your background so well, let’s talk about whistles. Now, I’ve learned something exciting: “Out there” there appear to be many metal whistles made by Ralph Sweet! I had no idea. During what years would those have been made? What keys were they in?
My metal whistles were a sort of close copy of the Clarke, in D. At that time, Clarke was only interested in making them in C. This was in 1977-1985, I think. They were plain tin plated steel - tin can material! They are now being more or less mass-produced by Cooperman Fife & Drum Co, and you will see them at most historical outlets (like Williamsburg VA) in the country.
So they were tapered and not cylindrical? And while we are on that subject, where do you come down on that classic debate?
Yes, they had a tapered body, like the Clarke. This helps boost the pitch of the 2nd register to bring it in tune. Now I don't think this is necessary when you have such a thin-walled body, as do most metal whistles today. However, with thick wood bodies, like recorders, I think it is required. I know that the thicker the wall of the body, the flatter the 2nd octave will be, unless the bore is tapered.
It’s hard not to notice the influence of recorders on your whistles. In addition to the use of wood, this is probably the most distinctive feature of your whistles. You’ve traveled a good bit. Have you had a chance to visit many instrument makers’ shops?
Yes - I started doing windways like those cheap bamboo whistles made in England, like the early O'Riordan whistles, but found I couldn’t get consistency. Then in 1981, my wife and I and our 1-year-old daughter visited Germany (my son was stationed there) and the Mollenhauer and Moeck factories, the Koolsma factory in Holland and the Dolmetsch factory in England. I got a lot of ideas for doing windways there! Here, I’ve visited the Von Huene workshop, Brookline, Mass (the most respected recorder maker in the US, if not the world), the Prescott Shop in Hanover NH, the Abell workshop when He was in Concord, Mass., and I would like to say that they were all very welcoming and answered any questions and showed me anything I wanted to see! Chris Abell even says "there are no secrets in the flute industry!!"
Do you have a favorite wood for whistles? I note you have been making African Blackwood whistles for awhile now.
Favorite Wood? Of the North American Hardwoods, Maple. For some reason, everyone seems to want cherry- it is pretty, but nowhere near as strong as maple for cutting the windway - it tends to chip out. Not Good. And of course Maple is porous, the other North American woods are worse, but this is solved by soaking in diluted tung oil twice. Moeck does it with paraffin wax. Of the rosewoods, I waver between Bolivian Rosewood (Morado) and Honduras Rosewood. The honduras is harder, the Morado is easier to work with, neither is considered an endangered species. The honduras is almost as hard as blackwood - Blackwood is certainly my favorite for fifes, flutes, and may become my favorite for whistles as I get used to working with it!
Tell us about John Killourhy.
About 10 years ago, (I don't know how he got my
name) John sent me a whistle he had bought in London in the
1930's. He loved the way it played, but it appeared that the body had
gotten slammed in a car door. I made a replacement for the
crushed part and was amazed at how well it played!! I measured everything
I could on it (it had a tapered bore, the head was some
composition, I think bakelite) and sent it back to him. He was
delighted. Later, it came back for additional repair and I returned it
again. Eventually he sent it to me to keep. It was about 30
cents sharp in the 2nd register, but VERY sweet-toned, and amazingly
strong in the low notes. I just had to make one like that!! In
fact for all that time I have been trying to duplicate it without success.
Of course, I wanted to correct the sharpness of the 2nd octave, so I
tried a less severe taper, and every time I made another set of
samples there was something I didn't like about the way they
played, so I now only do cylindrical bores. But I haven't given
up! I've never met Mr. Killourhy but we have corresponded over
the years, and several flutists and whistlers I know have been to Ireland
and met him. I hope to do that myself some day!
You collect true flageolets. Can you describe these instruments to our readers?
This was the result of the evolution of whistle
design, popular in the late 1700's, and were made into the 1920's, I
think. They are easily recognized as having a body like a whistle
with none to 6 keys, a sort of empty air chamber above the
body, and a "beak" or mouthpiece much like a pipe-stem of
bone or ivory. The idea of the air chamber was that you would put
in a piece of sponge which was supposed to filter out condensation and modify
the tone from being too strident. I have two of them now
- one with 4, one with 6 keys. (any buyers?) All the ones I
have ever seen are in Eb, and have such a weak tone that they are
just not exciting at all! As to the keys, I do have two whistles
which look like my blackwood whistles, one with 4, one with 6 keys,
which play a lot more like real whistles. I suspect they date from
the 1930's, and one at least was made in Germany. I love them - they
are my inspiration for
the idea of keys on whistles!
What portion of your business is devoted to whistles, as opposed to your other instruments?
What portion of my business is whistles? They are
our best selling
item, that's for sure! And there are an incredible amount of different operations involved for such a small instrument! I know that in 1998 we made about 1300 instruments total, of which I think about 490 were D whistles, and maybe 100 were C whistles.
Have you been tempted to develop low whistles?
Low whistles: Yes, I've been tempted, many times over the years! And my inspiration for this is a flute with 8 keys made by Firth Pond with a normal flute body (for the 1840's or so) with a recorder-type head, with a pipe-stem sort of mouthpiece which comes out of the side of the top, so as you played it, it would look like you were maybe playing it as a normal flute. I haven't really got it playing right yet; I’ve tried some recorder head joints on my flute bodies; but I just don't have the time to develop it. We're already straight out all day every day just keeping up with the stuff we already make. But I keep thinking of the tapered-body whistles, whistles in different keys, Bb, A, G, etc, of wood. And eventually a low D one!
Ralph Sweet’s contact information:
U.S. Mail: 32 South Maple St; Enfield, CT USA 06082
Dale Wisely is the founder and former CEO of Chiff & Fipple: The Poststructural Tinwhistle Internet Experience, where he now serves as Pastry Chef.