The Story of the Family Fiddle
It’s a fiddle. I can’t call it a violin because it has rattlesnake tails inside of it. Any self-respecting violin would not be found near a rattlesnake, but a fiddle would. (Betcha fiddles have more fun though.)
Growing up, I heard glowing tales of how Pappy, as my mom’s grandfather was called, had a priceless Stradivarius violin. I had fleetingly wondered how an expensive violin found its way to a farming family in rural northern Arkansas, but did not question it. After all, it was well-known that my great grandfather had been a talented musician who “could play anything that had strings.” Sadly, this is not a genetic trait passed onto me—I have to be satisfied just to be a great appreciator of music.
The story, which I’ve heard in various bits and pieces, was that he got the instrument from a Sears and Roebuck catalog back in the day. (Can you see why I questioned it being a Stradivarius?) I’m thinking it had to be in the 1920s sometime, because it had to be before the Depression, but after my grandfather was born in 1915. In today’s world we’d find it in the marked down section because it had some sort of cosmetic flaw or something was broken on it, and Pappy was able to fix it. I’m not exactly sure how that worked with catalog orders back then, so I wonder if there’s some mixing up of stories there. Or maybe he actually got it from a store in town and not a catalog.
In any event, he used his excellent carpentry skills to make it just like new. In addition to being able to play any instrument, Pappy could build anything, too. When I was a kid I remember there was a porch swing he made from a boxcar that had been broken up in a train derailment. In talking to my mom’s cousin, Ruth, it sounds like the swing I thought it was wasn’t the same one, so I’m not sure whatever happened to it.
Somewhere along the line, rattlesnake tails were added to the violin. My grandpa always said it had been done because doing so supposedly gave the instrument a better tone. Out of curiosity I looked it up to see if that was a prevalent thought, and it turns out that some people do believe it makes the sound sweeter. Other reasons for putting in the tails were for good luck, and my favorite, it kept rodents like mice from making a home inside of the violin. I like to think it made for a lucky, great- sounding instrument.
Ruth said that back in the day in a rural area such as Rector, Arkansas, people would go to each other’s houses and play music on Saturday night. Another of Mom’s cousins, Steve, who is related through my grandmother’s side of the family, said that Grandpa and Grandma’s fathers would play the violins while others in their group played guitar. When I look closely at the neck of the violin, I can easily see the worn places where Pappy’s fingers held down the strings. I can picture in mind these get-togethers of neighbors, singing and having fun together on a Saturday night and it makes me smile.
At my parent’s house somewhere, there’s another of Pappy’s instruments—a banjo he got in a bar fight. This story goes that the “country boys” were in the bar playing music, when some “city boys” decided they were going to show the country boys how things were done and a fight broke out. It ended when one of Pappy’s friends, the banjo player, broke his banjo over one of the city boy’s heads, nearly killing him. His friend took off after that, and apparently Pappy helped him get out of town on a train before he was lynched, promising him that he’d fix his banjo and give it back to him when he returned. He never came back for the banjo.
Ruth told me that by the time she knew him, Pappy’s playing days were behind him. He hurt his elbow hopping off a freight train and could no longer play. In her memories, as well as photos of him he had a bent arm that he held close to his body. I find it a strange coincidence that my mom also holds her arm in next to her body—her doing so as the result of a stroke, not from jumping off a train.
About a month ago, my parents came over to give me Pappy’s violin. My mom was so excited to share it with me. I wanted to learn all that I could about it. As I suspected, although labeled a “Stradivarius”, it was not a violin worth much in monetary value. The Stradivarius name was used by everybody, and from what I can tell it was more of a student version of the instrument. Not that it matters to me—I wouldn’t sell it. The sentimental value of a family heirloom that was once treasured so much means more to me than what it would sell for.
I’m planning to take it to a gentleman who builds and restores string instruments. But only if he promises not to smooth out those spots where the finish is worn from where Pappy’s fingers once pressed the strings. Oh, and I’m keeping the rattlesnake tails too. After all, no self-respecting fiddle would be without them.