Author: Hendricks, Ralph

My Grandfather’s Fiddle

Tucked away in a closet for decades, wrapped up in old newspapers is a very special package. The fragile contents had seen many years of use but then eventually became a decorative item hanging on a wall for over three quarters of a century. This was my Grandfather’s fiddle.

He was a tall man of purpose who was born in 1900 and who saw hard times and simple pleasures we only ready about today. I envision his life a little like that of Huck Finn with all the adventure and challenges of that early century. It was a time and era gone by when life was simple by today’s standards. His family has passed a fiddle down to him when he was four years old. An old photo of him playing that fiddle was a favorite memory of mine but it has somehow been lost over the years.

He passed away quite a while back but that old fiddle still sits in my closet. It never had a case. One hundred and eleven years without a case has taken a toll. Those years were not kind to this instrument and by most accounts it cannot be restored. The bow however is in much better shape and is always somewhere nearby in our home and always in eye sight during a house jam. It reminds me of the lost opportunity I had. If only he had played his fiddle with me when I was young. What if he had still been playing when I was first learning bluegrass as a teenager?

I often hold that bow, my Grandfather’s bow and wonder what it must have been like in 1904 when he first held it. It was a time when a first class stamp cost just 2 cents and unemployment was 5.4%. The construction of a “Panama Canal” had just been started as a major opportunity for future world commerce. There was no World Series played that year. Technology pioneered the first flat disc phonograph that year. This was the year when the first “Teddy Bear” was produced. It was named after President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt. There were just 45 states in the U.S.A. at this time but don’t ask me to recite them or name the one’s that had not yet been added. I’ve leave that mystery to your own history challenge.

By the time he was five years old, Albert Einstein had proposed the “Theory of Relativity”. Modern train service in 1905 had advanced so far that they now had electric lights and you could travel 791 miles from New York to Chicago in just eighteen (that’s right, 18) hours….Wow. When my Grandfather turned eight years old Henry Ford developed the Model T automobile and sold it for $850. The world would never be the same. I wonder if that old fiddle every rode in one of those legendary vehicles.

At the age of ten while still out on the farm, my Grandfather got to see Halley’s Comet the first year it had ever been photographed. I wonder what he thought about as he looked up into the sky at night. I wonder if his family had friends over to play music under the stars, playing banjo, guitar, mandolin and bass beside that fiddle. Did his parents “make” him practice every day and then entertain company as mine had done fifty-seven years later when I was nine years old?

Odds are most folks like my Grandfathers’ family walked or took their horse cart to the local market but grew much of what they needed. Farm life was the rule not the exception and fruits, vegetables, chickens, eggs and whatever else you could produce was just outside your door. Entertainment was mostly “home grown” too and I’m sure that fiddle was a big part of any group gathering. The radio was a central part of family life back then and special presentations by 1925 included Nashville’s WSM Barn Dance, which later became known as the Grand Ole Opry. This show featured early bluegrass with names like the Possum Hunters, the Fruit Jar Drinkers, Clod Hoppers, Gully Jumpers and others.

As I’m holding that old bow tonight thinking about the past, I’d love to know what tunes and songs he played on that fiddle. Did he stomp his foot like I do to the old time favorites while people square danced in the barn or sat listening on the front porch?

The day is over now, it’s late. I carefully place that old fiddle back onto the parched newspaper and carefully fold each page being cautious to keep every crease the same. It would seem odd and unnatural to put it in a fiddle case now. I have a case but it came from a different time and that case and his fiddle were never intentionally meant for each other. Once the fiddle is wrapped up again I gently lay it back in its’ resting place in the closet until the next visit. The bow goes back on my fireplace mantle and balances there rocking up and down a few seconds before it settles in for the night. That bow and I have been together for a long time now. I think that bow could last another hundred years. Will one of my grandkids have it on their fireplace mantle someday? I think so. I think of fiddle tunes and of memories of my Grandfather as I doze off for the night.

Posted:  4/18/2011

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