Ethel Lucretia Olcott (Bickford Revere) was born on October 17, 1885 in Norwalk, Ohio, twenty miles south of Lake Erie. At the age of two she moved with her parents to Socorro, New Mexico. When she was three, the family moved to Los Angeles, California.
Olcott-Bickford began the study of guitar at the age of eight with a woman whom she described as having violet eyes and blonde hair. When nine years old, she met George Lindsey (1855-1943), a vendor of guitars and accessories, who was looking for a carriage house to rent for his springwagon and horse. A conversation over the fence ensued and eventually little Lucretia played the guitar for him. A student-teacher friendship developed, which lasted until George Lindsey died in 1943. Mr. Lindsey was responsible for her meeting with Manuel Ferrer (1828-1904). Upon hearing her play, Ferrer invited her in 1903 to stay with his family in Berkeley, California, to receive tutoring every day. This episode in her life lasted for only a year but was a memorable one, as Ferrer was one of the most distinguished resident guitarists in America, having established a world-wide reputation through concerts and publications.
Olcott-Bickford, now eighteen, returned to her parents' home in Los Angeles, where she published her first opus, "Theme for Variations on 'Nel cor piu non mi sento,''' a duo aria from L'Amor contrastato, better known as La Molinara, by Paisello, with Carl Fischer in 1905. She eventually went to New York in 1914, where she became involved in the musical and intellectual life and times of the period.
In New York she became known through her concerts and teaching of the guitar. She lived for a time with the famous Vanderbilt family at Biltmore, and tutored both Mrs. Vanderbilt and her daughter, Cornelia. At this time she also became involved with astrology, from which she derived her new name, Vahdah. She was Evangeline Adams's only assistant for nine years, until 1922. During this period she performed the Giuliani Concerto No. 3, op. 20 for terz guitar and orchestra. She also met Myron Bickford, organist, conductor, composer-musician and instrumentalist par excellence, and whom she married in 1915. In 1923 Vahdah and Zarh (Myron's astrological name) moved to Los Angeles and established residence at 2031 Holly Hill Terrace, after a brief stay on West Adams near downtown Los Angeles. In Zarh's words:
Vahdah Olcott-Bickford's arrival in Los Angeles marked the beginning of activities which led to the formation of what was first called the "Los Angeles Guitar Society." This was the first guitar society to appear in the United States. Inspired by the presence of such a well-known guitarist, teacher and writer as Vahdah Olcott-Bickford, Mr. J. A. Larralde, a local guitar enthusiast, invited -- one day in September, 1923 -- a group of guitarists, teachers, students, etc., to come together at his office in the Los Angeles Stock Exchange Building to meet this new, vital personality. This gathering of 30 or 35 people, intended as an informal social function, evolved finally as the inauguration meeting of the Society. Vahdah Olcott Bickford quickly vetoed the rather arbitrary plans -- first presented -- of meeting weekly, playing and talking shop by saying she wouldn't be interested in such an aimless group. Her ambitious dynamism fired them all with the desire to take part in her plans for a definite educational program to promote interest in the classic guitar. She wanted to actively sponsor concerts, encourage composers to enrich the literature of the guitar and urge the sale of such literature in all music publications. The group unanimously and immediately appointed her Musical Director of the Society. Other officials elected on that occasion were George C. Lindsey (one of Vahdah's childhood teachers) as President and Zarh Bickford as Vice-President. In an effort to widen the scope of interest in the classic guitar, the name of the Society was changed to the "American Guitar Society" at Vahdah Bickford's suggestion. To help their promotion, Vahdah donated the proceeds from several of her concerts to establish a "Publication Fund" for the purpose of publishing superior works for the guitar. (Guitar Review, No. 23, June, 1959)
Olcott-Bickford's contributions to the guitar have been acknowledged since 1901. Many of her articles were published in Cadenza, Crescendo, Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar, Die Guitarre (Munich), Guitar News (London), and many other magazines and journals. She was written about in The Guitar and Mandolin (Philip Bone, 1914), where she was given credit for her "enthusiasm, encouragement and practical assistance" in the first edition of this work. Along with William Foden and George Krick, she is noted in Die Guitarre und ihre Meister (1926, 4th ed.) by Fritz Buek as the first woman guitarist to give a performance in Town Hall, and to play Giuliani's Third Concerto in New York (c.1915). A. P. Sharpe, editor of Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar, in his Story of the Spanish Guitar (London: Clifford Essex Music, 1954) mentions her two-volume Guitar Method at about the time Julian Bream stated that he had already "devoured them" in order to further his own serious study of the guitar. Many other articles and books indicate Olcott-Bickford's contribution to elevating classic guitar to an instrument of serious study. Her work in North America's is equivalent to that which Andrés Segovia did for more than fifty years. However, her work was recognized in the United States thirty years earlier.
Among musicians, she was known as a musician's musician. She developed a reputation from the 1930s through the 1950s as one of the few classic guitarists who could sight-read anything placed before her. She promoted ensemble music for guitarists by always placing her students in duos, trios and quartets with other guitarists and other instrumentalists. She pointed out the charm of the chamber music experience. She made sure that her students were exposed to music other than guitar compositions by means of transcriptions. This demonstrates her concern for broadening the students' knowledge of musical literature.
Vahdah, the Grand Lady of the Guitar, produced more than 160 opera (works), much of it published by Oliver Ditson and Carl Fischer. Her transcriptions and facsimile editions were published solely through the American Guitar Society (AGS). The majority of her publications are now out of print, while many, still in manuscript form, remain unpublished, numbering nearly 500 works. Her spirit, however, always filled with song, enthusiasm and encouragement, lives on through those students and friends who were fortunate to have known one of the pioneers of the American classic guitar.