Phil Passen

Phil Passen

 Chicago, Illinois, USA

My music is based in the soulful roots of Bluegrass and country. The hammered dulcimer drives the rhythm on upbeat Appalachian fiddle tunes and sings sweetly on slower Celtic-inspired melodies. I sing old-time and traditional and contemporary folk songs about the lives and loves of ordinary people.


Few musicians play the hammered dulcimer. Fewer still sing while accompanying themselves on this fascinating instrument, whose name means “beautiful song.” Phil Passen does both.

Phil plays and sings primarily old-time American and traditional Irish music. Can such upbeat dance music be called soothing? With rhythmic playing on fast tunes and sensitive playing on slow numbers, Phil’s music often elicits that word — “soothing.” And though it may seem contradictory, listeners also dub the music “happy” and “bouncy” as they tap their feet to the beat. The songs he sings include familiar American folk songs such as You Are My Sunshine and The Sloop John B; old-time songs such as Sail Away Ladies and Coo Coo Bird; and contemporary folk songs such as Kilkelly, Ireland and Hot Buttered Rum.

Phil played for 500 people at Borders State Street store in Chicago for Maeve Binchy’s only U.S. autographing. He frequently performs for the Chicago Department of Aviation’s tourist programs at O’Hare Airport, where travelers often thank him for providing pleasure on a stressful day, and at the Green City Market. He also played in the World Symphony Orchestra’s performance of The Lord of the Rings Symphony at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater.

Phil regularly performs at area libraries, and is included in the Best of the Best by the Library Administrators and Coordinators of Northern Illinois. Library patrons and staff alike react with delight and enthusiasm to the mix of music and information in Phil’s programs. Audiences are fascinated by the uncommon, trapezoidal- shaped hammered dulcimer. After Phil’s performances, members of the audience, young and old, musicians and non-musicians, come up to take a closer look at the dulcimer and try their hand at it.

Phil’s newest CD, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp: Music of the Civil War on Hammered Dulcimer is a fascinating solo recording of music commemorating the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. The hammered dulcimer was popular in the United States during the Civil War, and music of that era seems right at home played on this unique instrument. Many tunes and songs in this program are still familiar today, such as The Girl I Left Behind Me; When Johnny Comes Marching Home; Home, Sweet, Home; The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys are Marching. Others, such as Lorena; Lincoln and Liberty; The Battle Cry of Freedom, The Marching Song of the First Arkansas Regiment; Shiloh Hill; and John Brown's Dream are less familiar but just as beautiful, rousing, and inspiring.

Phil's second CD, with guitarist Tom Conway, is Cold Frosty Morning: Christmas and Winter Holiday Music. Beautiful melodies such as Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring and What Child Is This; old favorites such as My Dreidl, Jingle Bell Rock and Here Comes Santa Claus; and contemporary songs such as Winter Solstice and Hot Buttered Rum are featured on thisdiverse and exciting recording.

Swinging on a Gate: Traditional American and Celtic Music, Phil’s first CD, was a “most popular” choice on The all-instrumental CD, with Phil on hammered dulcimer and Tom Conway on guitar, features old-time American dance and fiddle tunes and Celtic music. Tunes include Twin Sisters, Bonaparte’s Retreat, Miss MacLeod’s Reel, and John Ryan’s Polka.

Phil was born in Toledo, Ohio; grew up in Monroe, Michigan and Toledo; and graduated from high school in Ashtabula, Ohio. He attended Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, before participating as a full-time activist in the antiwar and civil rights movement of the 1960’s and 70’s.

After Phil and his wife, writer Barbara Gregorich, settled in the Chicago area in the early seventies, they joined the Old Town School of Folk Music, and Phil began to itch to play an instrument. He really wanted to play the drums, but the set he had in mind didn't fit into a nine hundred square foot apartment.

Although Phil heard the hammered dulcimer for the first time on John McCutcheon recordings in the late seventies, he didn’t immediately make the connection between hammering strings and hammering drum heads. Finally, at a John McCutcheon concert at the Old Town School in 1994, the light dawned. Inspired anew as John played the dulcimer, Phil thought: “I can do that.” And now he does.


Tramp, Tramp, Tramp: Music of the Civil War on Hammered Dulcimer — LP

Swinging on a Gate: Traditional American and Celtic Music on Hammered Dulcimer and Guitar — LP

Cold Frosty Morning: Christmas and Winter Holiday Music on hammered Dulcimer and Guitar — LP

Set List

Typical set is 50 minutes.

Set 1
Cold Frosty Morning/Liberty/Blackberry Blossom
Altamont/Going Down to Cairo
Red Rocking Chair
Soldiers Joy/Brushy Run/John Brown’s Dream
Ashokan Farewell
Fine Times at Our House
Wagoners Lad
Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine/Bonaparte’s Retreat
Arkansas Traveler/Turkey in the Straw
Going to the West
Midnight on the Water
Grub Springs
Sail Away Ladies
Nixon’s Farewell

Set 2
Big Scioty/Chinquapin Hunting
Cluck Old Hen/Clinch Mountain Breakdown
Walls of Red Wing
Breakin' Up Christmas/Cherokee Shuffle
The Coo Coo
Shove That Pig'sfoot A Little Farther Into The Fire/Sugar Hill
Tell Me How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?
Ashokan Farewell
Sloop John B
Katydid/Billy In The Lowground
The Blackest Crow
Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss/Wink The Other Eye
Storms Are On The Ocean
Twin Sisters/John Ryan's Polka