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Chris Caswell, harpist, dies at 60

Saturday, January 26th, 2013 | Posted by | 3 responses

Chris Caswell, Celtic harpist and harp maker, who died of cancer at age 60 Monday at his Oakland home, left behind a legion of fans, admiring colleagues and grateful students.

Celtic harp maker Chris Caswell adds a sharping lever to a string in his Berkeley studio in 2010. (John Burgess / PD)

He also leaves the many friends he made during his 15 years of living and working in the Russian River area.

“He was noble and courageous and optimistic, even in the suffering of his last days,” said Caswell’s wife, Roxanne.

Last month, Caswell played a farewell concert to a packed house at the Occidental Center for the Arts.

“The Occidental concert is legendary at this point,” Roxanne Caswell said. “It was obvious he was sick, but the moment he started playing, his vitality and love of life came to the forefront.”

Caswell grew up in Saratoga and graduated from Saratoga High School. He discovered the Celtic harp during a six-month stay in Scotland after high school.

After three years of studying music composition at San Francisco State University, Caswell started making harps in the early 1970s with Bay Area craftsman Jay Witcher.

Caswell also launched a performing career in the early ’70s with Robin Williamson, who had achieved fame with the Incredible String Band, and Williamson’s Merry Band.

Caswell later formed the duo Caswell Carnahan, with musician Danny Carnahan of Albany in Alameda County, touring and performing from 1978 to 1983, and recording two albums on the Kicking Mule label.

But it was harp-making that most shaped Caswell’s life. In 1975, Caswell met Terry Hallowes, who also was making harps with Jay Witcher. They married the next year, and four years later, moved to Guerneville to continue making harps. The couple divorced in 1997.

The Celtic harp was a rare and ancient instrument that had veered precariously close to extinction over the centuries.

“You could count on one hand the people making Celtic harps in America when Chris started,” Carnahan said.

While living in Sonoma County, Caswell also worked with Sebastopol music promoter Cloud Moss to start the Sebastopol Celtic Music Festival and KRCB radio series “Eclectic Café.”

“Chris was a fun guy,” Moss said. “He was able to entertain while teaching. He would teach people how to drum on pizza boxes.”

Caswell taught music every summer at the Lark in the Morning Music Camp in Mendocino, from its beginning in the early 1980s until last year. In 2003, while teaching there, Caswell met his second wife, Roxanne.

They married the next year and moved to Oakland, and Caswell set up shop again as a harp-maker in Berkeley, continuing to build a reputation that went far beyond the Bay Area, both as a craftsman and musician.

“To me, Chris’ most marvelous contribution was in rooting into and revealing the deep spiritual, mythic underpinnings of the Celtic harp and its music,” said Celtic harpist and storyteller Patrick Ball of Sebastopol.

In addition to his wife, Caswell is survived by three children from his first marriage, Joe Caswell of Santa Rosa, Dondi Caswell of Chandler, Ariz., and Devin Caswell of Emeryville; his parents, Dwight and Helen Caswell of Occidental; his sister, Mary Caswell Walsh of Vallejo; his brothers, Phillip Caswell of Occidental, John Caswell of Turlock, and Dwight Caswell Jr. of Astoria, Ore.; two grandchildren; and eight nieces and nephews.

A public tribute concert, “A Night for Chris,” will be held at 8 p.m. Feb. 4 at the Freight & Salvage nightclub in Berkeley.

— Dan Taylor

3 Comments for “Chris Caswell, harpist, dies at 60”

  1. My eyes are wet with the rain from the music of the skies falling down because of the sounds of a gentle harp I have heard coming from a man I had seen & heard at Lark Camp. His name was Chris.
    I did not know of his fame and the mark he had made on his larger community. I only heard the music and saw him with his eyes so bright on his students. Then I met his beautiful wife Roxanne as well. What a gift to have known them both. He will sadly be missed.

  2. I heard his farewell concert in Occidental. He rallied and although was scheduled for 2 hours, played for 3 with just a short break at one point.

  3. Oh no! I just saw this! I met Chris something like 25 years ago when we were both performing with the Scots group at Northern Faire. He was an amazing, amazing musician, and a gentle loving soul. A part of him will live on forever in his music, his instruments, and our memories. Rest in Peace, Chris.

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