The Black Fiddle

Shown above is the one material thing that remains of my Great-Grandmother, a mixed indigenous woman from Minnesota. All of my life I have seen this black violin, as kids we used to play with it. It was hers, her son inherited it when she passed. Eventually it ended up with me sometime in the nineties.

Just for the heck of it, a picture of her, Grandpa, and the family dog in the early thirties.

I wonder how often she played this fiddle. What kind of music she played. How she came into its possession. Now, I do know a few things about this violin, but not from any family memories.

No, I learned some of its story when I took it to be professionally repaired around 1997 or so.

First, it is a 3/4 violin. Grandma was a small woman, so that makes a certain amount of sense. Second, the fiddle is from the 1870’s or 80’s, and the wood and brass case is older than the violin itself. Finally, it is a good quality violin with real ebony and purfling, although it is certainly not a Stradivarius as a glued paper tag by the sound post purports.

The fellow who taught me how to play, an old wizened gentleman named Clarence, chuckled when he saw the tag. He had an enormous collection of fiddles, and he set up Grandma’s when it left the shop. He said “Yeah, a lot of those old fiddles had those stupid tags. But it doesn’t affect how they play.” After he tinkered with the black fiddle, he put it under his chin and played it like you wouldn’t believe.

Boy, could Clarence play. He was an old-fashioned real Appalachian fiddler, there was no sheet of music anywhere around.

Satisfied, he set Grandma’s fiddle aside. He spoke.

“I see why she kept this fiddle.” He paused. “It has a sweet sound.”

I later learned from Clarence that that was high praise. His personal fiddle dated from the Civil War era, wow, was it nice.

Clarence passed on twenty years ago, I think I was overseas. I do wonder what happened to his ancient violin. I guess I’ll never know.

But obviously, I still have Grandma’s fiddle. I hadn’t played it in I don’t know, fifteen or so years. My daughter expressed an interest in playing, so it got me thinking about my couple of violins.

The music died in Afghanistan, I couldn’t bear to play for a decade.

But for my daughter?

Yeah, I could at least set the fiddle up, I still remembered how to do that. I decided to loan her my violin, a nice 4/4 I bought at an antique store overseas around 1998 or so. It dates from the early twentieth century, and Clarence told me it was an old orchestra violin with “a decent sound.”

But he liked the black fiddle better.

Of course, it was a 3/4, and I needed a full size violin, so I mostly played the 4/4 when I felt like playing.

Clarence taught me how to play as he knew it, no sheet music, everything done by ear.

Kind of tough these days when your ears got blown out by an RPG.

Plus, hell, I just couldn’t stand it anymore.

So maybe it’s a good sign that I picked up the fiddles and tuned them. But boy, have I forgotten a lot. I even forgot the names of the strings and I had to google them when I tuned the old girls.

I did my 4/4 first. Then I did the 3/4.

A 150 year old fiddle, and it holds a tune and plays so sweet. Shady Grove, one of my favorites, played in a sad minor key.

But no way can I play Ashokan Farewell anymore. However, I am happy that the black fiddle can still do the thing.

Thanks, Grandma.

3 thoughts on “The Black Fiddle

  1. Very nice! I know what you mean abut playing by ear – I play guitar and bass (well I haven’t for a good 18 months or more…) and never learned to read music. And old instruments are very cool, especially if they have history attached.


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