R.I.P. Dorothy Carter 1935-2003

by angeliska on June 9, 2003

Today I found out that a dear friend of mine, Dorothy, died around seven this morning. She was 68 years old. She had an aneurysm. I had just walked past her new house, and had been thinking of her and missing her.
I dearly wish I’d stopped by and said hello.

Dorothy was one of the most amazing people I have ever met – there was truly no one else like her! She was this tiny, birdlike old woman who was always so spritely and filled with effervescent joie de vivre. I think of her dressed in green velvet with black lace-up high-heeled granny shoes. She lived on the third floor of a warehouse where she had her studio, filled with her marvelous musical instruments, giant zithers, hammer dulcimers and hurdy-gurdys. She would hold soirees there, and impromptu concerts and performances where guests would play music and drink red wine into the night with a bizarre oddment of bohemian characters. Dorothy was more nimble at her at age than I am at mine, and dwelled quite blithely in her drafty atelier that had no shower or kitchen, no heating or air-conditioning – in fact, I’m pretty certain that no one was really supposed to be allowed to live there, but maybe the landlords turned a blind eye. She was pretty damn charming. I remember her traversing the many flights of stairs (which were quite formidable, mind you) to let guests in and out all night… I’d be out of breath (at 23, and a smoker!) and she’d be a flight ahead of my trip-tropping on her little goat hooves.

The first time I ever heard of Dorothy, my friend Haley Lou Haden was telling me about this strange old lady who played weird medieval instruments and how cool she was. She’d made friends with her, and had been going over to visit. I remember being so intrigued by this story, and immediately wanted to meet her. Something sparked in me at hearing her name, and wouldn’t let me alone until I figured out what it was… I had just gotten the Mediaeval Baebes album Salva Nos, and was listening to it obsessively. I had always been a fan of Katharine Blake’s other band, Miranda Sex Garden, and so when she formed an all female group singing songs in Middle English, I was completely captivated. I immediately set about learning the songs, and was burning with a desire to somehow join the Baebes and sing this amazing music with them! This was the first time I really felt moved to play music, and to really learn how to use my voice. A fire was lit under my ass by these ancient melodies, and the powerful revelation of women singing together. An inspiration whispered in my ear to grab the album’s liner notes and… Sure enough, there was Dorothy Carter listed as playing autoharp, hurdy-gurdy, and dulcimer. Turns out she was one of the founding members!

When we met, I told her of my passion for the music of the Baebes, and she encouraged me to find a way to follow that dream. In a matter of days, I went from suddenly being struck with a seemingly impossible longing, to potentially having such a possibility within my grasp. She made it seem so doable, and in reality, it could have been. If I had picked up and gotten myself to the UK, she made it sound as if there could be a spot for me in the line up. I was flabbergasted at the very idea, but Dorothy nonchalantly filled me in on the comings and goings of former Baebes and felt sure that Katharine would approve of my enthusiasm. I was a wee young thing at the time, with no money for a plane ticket, and no experience with music other than growing up around it since childhood, so I decided I had better start working with the Master herself, and asked her to be my teacher.

Around Halloween that year, the Creative Arts Center in New Orleans offered Dorothy a concert of her own to curate, which she asked me to sing in. We sang A Lyke Wake Dirge and I Ain’t Got Nobody, two songs that still always remind me of her. Well, everyone else did – but after weeks of rehearsals, I had gotten a terrible cold and my voice was wrecked. I could barely speak, and was paralyzed with stage fright, but determined to not let my mentor down. My voice was a pitiful croak, and the fear made my throat close up, so I had to dash offstage mid-show to a deserted stairwell where I had an intense coughing fit until I threw up. My first concert! An old pro, Dorothy had seen it all, and was unfazed. She encouraged me to get right back in the saddle and keep at singing.

She was the musical mentor I had always dreamed of finding. I was beyond thrilled and humbled when she gave me an Irish harp to learn to play, but I had no idea what to do with it really, and it went out of tune quickly in the New Orleans humidity. She took it back to tune it for me, but passed away before I managed to go get it, and I didn’t want to bother her children about it after her death. I truly regret not spending more time with her. There was so much I had wanted to learn from her, so many more evenings I wish I could spend in her company. Now she has gone. I am missing the twinkle in her eyes, watching her riding down the street on her old bicycle, and her hauntingly lovely voice…

From her Wikipedia entry:

“Dorothy Carter (1935 – June 7, 2003) was an American musician.
She was born in New York, New York in 1935 and died in New Orleans, Louisiana in 2003. Carter performed contemporary, folk, traditional and medieval music with a large collection of stringed instruments such as the hammered dulcimer, zither,psaltery and hurdy-gurdy. She was a founding member of Mediæval Bæbes. She began studying classical piano at age 6; she studied at Bard College in New York, the London Royal Academy and Guildhall School of Music in France.
She is survived by a son and daughter, Justin Carter of Los Angeles, California and Celeste Carter of Picayune, Mississippi and a grandson, Damien Helgason.”

I love this recent tribute from our mutual friend Danielle De Picciotto:
In 1996 I opened my own Gallery in Berlin Mitte which would last for three years. I decided the first exhibition would be of my own work so that i could concentrate on other artists after, so I created an exhibition called “Heroines” in which I depicted my personal heroines from the past (collages), present (photo objects) and future (video). At that time it was still very difficult to find any books about influential women and I wanted to make clear how many there are and have been every where. The photo object below is the one I did of Dorothy Carter, one of the most inspirational women I have ever met. I lived together with her for two years when she was around 64 years old. She was an incredible musician specializing in unusual medieval instruments. She introduced me to the hurdy gurdy which I play today, the dulcimer and many others. In her youth she lived in a commune, worked on a Mississippi steam boat as a ships boy, raised two kids and ran away to a Mexican cloister with an anarchistic priest. When i lived together with her she was part of the English band “Medieval Babes” with whom she toured and when she was at home she would listen to BBC Radio, write her memories or go busking in Italy if bored ! At one point she moved back home to New Orleans and sadly died a couple of years later. Her main credo was to be free and wild – never accepting any restrictions which did not make sense to her – totally dedicated to her music which was magical. I will never stop missing her and this portrait which I always have close to me is a constant inspiration of what is possible.

Danielle dedicated a chapter of her Berlin memoir, The Beauty of Transgression, to Dorothy and her incredible life. I’m in that chapter too (!), as I met Danielle and her husband Alexander Hacke of Einstürzende Neubauten when they came through town. We met by chance, and bonded over our shared love for Dorothy. It’s a gift she gave us, because we’ve been friends ever since! I wish I could share the entire chapter here, because it’s just so full of gems – such a moving testament to a truly inspiring life! For now, I’ll just share this great quote from Dorothy that eventually came true:

When I’m old, I’m gonna get myself a little house back in New Orleans! It’s warmer there than it is here and I can parade on Mardi Gras and throw my bra into the crowd, but until then, I’m going to stay in Berlin.

Waillee, Waillee – Dorothy Carter

Troubadour by Dorothy Carter
1. Troubadour Song (French Medieval)
2. Binnorie (Scottish Melody)
3. Troubadour Songs on the Psaltery
I think this quote captures her well:

Many of the songs are sung unaccompanied or with percussion, but lurking at the back is the endearing figure of Dorothy Carter, who wields the assorted strange and wonderful devices with complete confidence and the expertise of years of practice. For a couple of numbers, she also provides the vocals, and gives you a sense that behind the image of your beloved, but somewhat eccentric aunt, is somebody with wicked sense of fun, somebody you can imagine singing rumbustious songs while tankards are banged on the table.” – Ian Walden

So Spricht Das Leben (So Sayeth Life)
So sayeth life, the world is mine
The flowers that bloom and the song of the birds
I am the daylight and the sunshine
So spricht das Leben, the world is mine
So sayeth death, the world is mine
Your daylight is but vein display
Stars and moon sink in eternal night
So spricht das Tod, the world is mine
So sayeth life, the world is mine
You make great tombs of marble and stone
But love, you cannot entomb
So spricht das Leben, the world is mine
So sayeth death, the world is mine
I have prepared a graveyard
And created pestilence and war
So spricht das Tod, the world is mine
So sayeth life, the world is mine
Every grave is a plot of land
Into which my eternal seeds do fall
So spricht das Leben, the world is mine


Thank you for writing this Angeliska!

by Morgan on October 4, 2016 at 10:27 am. Reply #

I knew Dorothy very well when she lived in Cambridge. I used to go and visit her in her odd little house on Cherry Street. Justin and Celeste were very young at the time.

Dorothy encouraged me in my music, and her artistry and fey imagination has been a steady source of inspiration ever since those late-70s days.

I got the news of her death from our mutual friend Lee Post, and almost immediately began composing “Elegies and Recollections” in her memory.


by Warren Senders on March 7, 2020 at 12:48 am. Reply #

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