Music on the hammered dulcimer has been part of my life from the very beginning. I am not aware of any other person who is a traditional hammered dulcimer player in the state of Illinois. I am the third generation player beginning with my paternal grandmother, Emma Van Fossen [1868-1944], who taught my dad, Ross Robinson [1900-1976], who in turn taught me. My daughter, Monica, is carrying on the tradition as well. Monica and her husband, Monte, live in Manistee, Michigan, and play many venues in the area.
The Robinson's have been known as musicians and entertainers throughout West Central Illinois for several generations. Schuyler county courthouse records in Rushville, Illinois mention the music performed by my ancestors.
I started playing music at the age of 6 years, learning the dobro, guitar, banjo, fiddle and mandolin. While in grade school, I performed at fairs and school programs. When I was 19 years, my dad had a stroke and had difficulty playing the dulcimer. At that time, I decided to become serious about playing, and he was able to get me started. The instrument I began playing was my grandmother's.
In my mid-twenties, I formed a band called the Full House which included Jim Whitehead, Duane Sorrells, and my wife Ann. A few years later, I joined the Illinois Country Opry in New Salem, Illinois and played with the group for three years.
In 1975, Duane Sorrells organized the Wagon Wheel Opry in Macomb, Illinois. I played piano, banjo, fiddle and dulcimer. Duane searched the area for local talent, and several youngsters got their start on the Opry. Duane kept a full crowd, and the Opry played for 25 years.
In additional to playing for the Wagon Wheel Opry once a month, I formed a band in 1980, which I named "Bill Robinson & Friends," and we are still going strong today.
In the 1960's, hammered dulcimers were rare and repairs difficult. My dad designed and built himself an instrument. I followed his path, and with the help of my friend, Roy Foley, we began building a dulcimer. Dick Waterbury, my first dulcimer student, took an interest in building and assisted me with many instruments.
After building 75 instruments, I became allergic to the wood. Fortunately, Ken Harris came on the scene. He called about taking dulcimer lessons. He learned very quickly and enjoyed playing, but the love of wood working pulled him into building dulcimers. We joined forces and have become H & R Dulcimers. Ken does beautiful, custom dulcimers, and I complete the instrument with strings and fine tuning. Each instrument is unique.