UCSC lecturer releases new CD showcasing music of Thomas Jefferson

William Coulter

When most people think about the life of Thomas Jefferson, the subject of music rarely comes up.

So it might come as a bit of a surprise to learn that our third president was an accomplished--and self-taught--classical violinist, who also had an unusual interest in traditional folk tunes.

Jefferson’s Fiddle, a new CD release by UC Santa Cruz music lecturer and guitarist William Coulter on the Gourd Music label, is the result of a unique collaboration with his partner, UCSC Library reference specialist Laura McClanathan.

The inspiration for the project came from McClanathan’s research with Thomas Jefferson scholar and interpreter Clay Jenkinson, who appeared in the 1997 Ken Burns documentary film, Thomas Jefferson.

As McClanathan writes in the CD’s liner notes:

“When we found that Jefferson owned and loved some of the traditional Irish and Scottish tunes that we know so well today, the spark was ignited. So we called upon our longtime friend and musical collaborator Deby Benton Grosjean to provide the folk baroque fiddle artistry we needed. The end result is this recording that presents modern arrangements and readings of classical repertoire to showcase Jefferson’s extensive music library.”

Coulter describes the CD as both Celtic and classical, with lively dance tunes, haunting airs, an Italian minuet, and lyrical harp and violin, adding that a lot of the tunes are song melodies.

“We picked tunes from his collection and mostly made our own arrangements of traditional ones,” said Coulter. “The CD also includes fairly straightforward versions of classical tunes, such as the piece by Corelli.”

“Deby’s style of playing embodies the core of the project, being a classically trained musician who was drawn to playing traditional music, especially Scottish,” added Coulter. “She had a similar musical world view to Jefferson--a classically trained musician who loved Americana as well.”

Coulter began teaching at UC Santa Cruz in 1995, after earning a master’s degree from the campus in ethnomusicology with an emphasis on traditional Irish music, language, and song.

In 2004, he was awarded a Grammy for his contribution to The Pink Guitar, a collection of solo guitar arrangements of the music of Henry Mancini.

Coulter will celebrate the CD release of Jefferson’s Fiddle with a November 6 concert to be held at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in downtown Santa Cruz.

The event will feature Coulter on guitar, Deby Benton Grosjean (violin), Barry Phillips (cello), Shelley Phillips (harp, winds), Lars Johannesson (flute), and Neal Hellman (dulcimer).

The new CD, as well as tickets to the November 6 show, can be found at Gourd Music: or by calling (831) 425-4939.