As a child, Dick Sheridan ’56 would thumb through the catalogs of the day — Sears and Montgomery Ward — idolizing pictures of guitars. He’d savor the sound of chords he’d hear that accompanied the folk songs he loved and convince himself (and his parents) that a guitar was exactly what he needed.
So, naturally, one Christmas morning the 10-year-old looked suspiciously at the small package underneath the tree, only to have his fears confirmed: His gift was most certainly not a guitar but a diminutive string substitute called a ukulele. After some frustrating episodes with the tiny uke, it was relegated to a closet shelf until the following summer when, out of boredom, he took the instrument down, gave it another go and was hooked.
When asked why his parents didn’t buy him a guitar, Sheridan concluded it was probably a matter of finances. It was wartime, budgets were tight and ukes were much less expensive than guitars. “Besides,” he adds, “I don’t think they knew the difference between a ukulele and a guitar.”
Today, at age 85, Sheridan is regarded as one of America’s principal champions of ukulele music and has published close to 30 songbooks since 2011, including those for four- and five-string banjo, mandolin, guitar and music theory.
Grouped according to theme, his songbooks cover a range of musical territory, from songs of the Civil War, World War I, Stephen Foster and American Roots, to Irish and Jewish music, the classics, waltzes, hymns and spirituals, nautical songs and Yuletide favorites.
“Like many of us, my interests are eclectic,” he says. “A fleeting thought of one of them may trigger an idea. Then it becomes fun to set it to music.”
Sheridan felt a strong urge to create something tangible, and as a former copywriter, he was naturally drawn to songbook writing through his love of the written word and music.
“I’m constantly drawn to putting songs on paper,” he adds. “It’s fascinating to see something come alive. There’s a joy in arranging a song — picking a key, setting a tempo, adding the right chords, then laying it out in printable form. I’ve always been very much aware of the rhythm of words and how they blend together: the phrasing of them, their grouping. In the back of my mind, I’m probably always setting them to music.”
Sheridan also acknowledges that there was a part of him that wanted to record beloved old songs for posterity, to keep them current. “Many of those songs are rich in my life, and I was anxious to get them on paper. I suppose there was a subliminal thought that if I didn’t do it, they would kind of fade out.”
Members of the St. James Society, the College’s Dixieland band, in 1956, left to right: Bob Powers ’56 (piano), John Gainor ’59 (trumpet), Sheridan (banjo), Joey Rhea ’58 (clarinet) and Phil Ryan ’57 (trombone).
Growing up in Long Island, New York, Sheridan’s childhood home was filled with music. His mother played the piano for several hours most days — Chopin, Schumann, Brahms — and his father, also an amateur piano player, would tackle the popular songs of the day, while Sheridan remained faithful to his true love: folk music. When he set off for his first year at Holy Cross, he brought the music with him, packing his guitar and a baritone ukulele. He was soon recruited for football pep rallies.
“As fight songs and ‘Alma Mater’ were sung, I provided the accompaniment, and the campus rang with school spirit and enthusiasm,” Sheridan remembers. (In 2013, he published the songbook “College Fight Songs and Alma Maters for Ukulele.”) Soon, other classmates were found who could play the uke. Late-night and weekend dorm sessions became popular, and no party was complete without at least one uke player in attendance.
Some of his most vivid memories from his days on The Hill are centered around music: singing with the Glee Club, caroling in the dorms just before Christmas break, hymn singing for daily Mass in the choir loft at St. Joseph Memorial Chapel and playing banjo with the campus Dixieland band, the St. James Society, “Purveyors of Jazz!”
His initial attraction to Holy Cross was not academic, but rather its winning basketball and football teams. And there also was the draw of its Jesuit tradition.
“My Holy Cross experience prepared me for life and my vocational pursuits by establishing a disciplined work ethic, sound moral values and a firm foundation of faith,” he says, reflecting on his years as an education major and Marine Corps ROTC member. “But, also, it sparked an intellectual curiosity in me — a love of learning. To this day, I enjoy research and find immense satisfaction in my work.”
Today, Sheridan rises before the sun, and after an hour of morning devotions, makes his way to his upstairs studio where he spends most of the day immersed in his work — a state of being where “time just evaporates.”
He currently has four books in various stages of preparation or production: original songs for the guitar, a book on special tuning for the ukulele, a songbook for Catholic children and a collection of old-time radio musical themes and jingles.
In addition to songbook writing, he is also the band leader and banjo player for Soda Ash Six, a Syracuse, New York-based traditional jazz band founded almost 60 years ago. He continues to privately teach instrumental music and instructs several mini-courses at the local community college.
The key to a rich life, he says, is knowing yourself, your interests and your God-given talents — and pursuing them. “Try to develop your interests into a career and a life,” he advises. “Don’t be swayed by the lure of power or prestige. Don’t be afraid of being unconventional. To thine own self be true!”
Written by Daniella Vollinger for the Winter 2021 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
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