With an array of stringed instruments, Karen Hirshon shares her musical gifts

March 11, 2020 — When musician Karen Smith Hirshon ’73 takes the stage, the possibilities abound.

The versatile Grinnell alumna plays over a half-dozen stringed instruments: fiddle, guitar, mandolin, banjo, ukulele, bass, and hammered dulcimer. The variety allows Hirshon and her Simple Gifts bandmates to travel a broad spectrum of traditional world and folk music, moving from Irish jigs to Gypsy melodies to Klezmer tunes, including some originals.

Simple Gifts – formed of Hirshon and Linda Littleton – keeps busy, playing at least a dozen instruments total and entertaining audiences at colleges and universities, churches, libraries, schools, and senior centers. Based in the hills of central Pennsylvania, the group can reach a number of cities within a day’s drive and has a sound appealing to lots of venues.

“We fit a nice niche between folk and classical because our music is highly arranged,” Hirshon says.

The group’s goals extend beyond performance; members strive to get others, especially younger generations, playing instruments. For example, Hirshon says they teach elementary school students to play the ukulele, help high school students arrange compositions, and do musical work with the elderly and people with severe disabilities.

In the band Simple Gifts, Karen Smith Hirshon '73 (right) preforms with Linda Littleton.
In the band Simple Gifts, Karen Smith Hirshon '73 (right) performs with Linda Littleton.

Hirshon’s own musical skills can be traced back to her family and her time at Grinnell College.

Hirshon grew up in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, in a family that emphasized church music. Her mother was part of a denomination that did not allow instruments, creating a heavy emphasis on vocals. Because of this, Hirshon says her mother was very good at harmonizing and improvising.

Growing up, Hirshon taught herself ukulele and then guitar. American folk singers like Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, and Odetta opened up new avenues.

“I realized, okay, you don’t have to sound like a church singer or an opera person,” Hirshon says.

By high school, she had formed a band with several other girls and performed regularly at a coffee shop, often covering folk tunes and spirituals. Hirshon took her guitar to Grinnell, where she met several musicians who would prove pivotal to her musical development.

Freshman year, she befriended two other students, guitarist Celia Wyckoff ’72, now a bluegrass bass player in Asheville, North Carolina, and Michael Drayton ‘72, an old-time fiddler and violinist in Santa Rosa, California.

Hirshon and friends were heavily influenced by Pearl Sivetts, a campus plumber and incredible ragtime fiddle player.

While most students at the time were into pop music like The Beatles, Hirshon and friends gravitated to country music and prison songs. She said the group would hitchhike to the University of Iowa to meet with folklorist and musicologist Harry Oster and artist and banjo expert Art Rosenbaum, and to the annual University of Chicago Folk Festival.

Hirshon said Grinnell offered not just proximity to important musicians, but fostered an open mindset.

“Grinnell really did expose us to the whole concept of just follow your curiosities,” she says. “It definitely left us with a feeling of how to teach yourself and how to continue to learn.”

Hirshon designed her own specialty “Traditional Music in American Culture” within the field of American Studies, combining history and anthropology with music.

Grinnell also helped connect Hirshon with her future husband, Stephen C. Hirshon ‘72, an art history major. As Grinnell students they met through mutual friends in New York.

After graduation, the Hirshons moved to State College, Pennsylvania, where Karen joined a bluegrass band and Stephen Hirshon earned a doctorate in art history from Penn State University. Stephen then taught at Penn State, but mostly at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.

Karen founded and toured nationally with the bluegrass band Whetstone Run during the 1970s, when there were not many women in bluegrass. She also helped found the old-time act Rustical Quality String Band, which still plays occasional gigs.

She mostly took a break from playing music to raise her son and daughter, but when she returned to music by joining Simple Gifts, Hirshon says she came back with a newfound boldness and freedom.

“I was no longer going to apologize for my musical mistakes,” she says. “I am where I am and that’s the new starting point.”

The members of Simple Gifts also have founded and provide artistic direction for two annual music camps: Folk College and Greenwood Furnace Folk Gathering, both in Pennsylvania.

Aside from playing music, Hirshon has worked in the college book industry for about 40 years, as both a buyer and manager. But she seems surprised and delighted to be so immersed in the musical world.

“I had no idea I would be playing music as much as I am,” she says.

—by Laura McKnight

For your information:

Karen Hirshon designed her own academic specialty in the early 1970s, a tradition that continues today with individually advised teaching and learning.

Learn more about Simple Gifts on the group’s website.

To read more alumni news, check out our news archive.