Somebody must dust it daily, I thought. It gleamed at me, rich and brown and alive. I bowed my head and paid it the homage it was due. And I thanked the Creator who so lovingly thought of music and gave it to man as a part of that sustaining force that bread alone cannot provide. And I thought of the man who used that very fiddle to coax hope from despair, peace from anxiety, and fulfillment from deprivation. This unassuming instrument had played the soundtrack of life for a stalwart family of American pioneers, and it was resting before me, wanting only trained fingers to tune its strings and rosin its accompanying bow.
"I see it now, though I didn't then -- we never could have gotten through it all without Pa's fiddle," Laura recalled for her daughter, Rose's, essay, "Grandpa's Fiddle." And, as anyone who has ever read the "Little House" series by Laura Ingalls Wilder knows, Charles Ingalls's fiddle was the seventh member of the family. On page after page, Laura in her old age remembered for us the songs of long ago, when a fiddle could echo out over the silent prairie and not find another human ear to hear its cry. In fact, the tunes of Pa's fiddle mirrored the circumstances of the family. From the solemn hymns of Sunday worship to the rousing and comic folk songs of a young America; from the Scottish ballads he played for his wife to proud patriotic ditties; it was only when Pa's fiddle was silent that any hardship became too much to bear -- and then, with a spirit of rebellion, Pa would swoop the fiddle back into action to lift the spirits of his family with defiant anthems flung against the impassive and terrible forces of nature.
I wonder if my love of the fiddle were born in those nights spent reading in the forbidden glow of a flashlight the stories of the Ingalls family's trials and triumphs of a hundred years before. Just the sweep of the bow across the strings awakens my heart to furious beating and sets my spine tingling in anticipation of good things to come. Whether it's the music of Spencer Capier*, Andrea Lewis or the Charlie Daniels Band, the fiddle satisfies my soul in a way that no other instrument can match. It's too bad that I'm such a klutz with stringed instruments -- there's nothing on earth I'd rather play than the fiddle.
Charlie Daniels has a song called, "Talk to Me, Fiddle," that is on my exercise playlist. I actually ought not to have put it there, as it always brings tears to my eyes, which leads me to slack the pace of my workout. But, it comes right after "Orange Blossom Special" (which makes me step double-time) on his Greatest Hits album, and I'm always in the mood to hear it, blubbering and all. Basically, the lyrics reflect on the life of the fiddle he's playing; all the hands that his instrument has passed through -- from a Jewish immigrant in a New York tenement house to a Cajun living on the Bayou to a gambler who lost it to a Black man who taught it to play the blues, and so on. And while he sings that song into my headphones and plays the fiddle to the different types of music that it learned and lived, I think of seeing Pa's fiddle in Mansfield, MO back in 2002. How wonderful it is to think that, in the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, that fiddle really does get the chance to talk to us from out of the mists of time. How proud it must be for Laura to have said, years later, ""Whatever religion, romance, and patriotism I have, I owe largely to the violin and Pa playing in the twilight."
*Spencer's site will claim that he plays the violin -- technically true. But, having heard him jam endless times with Carolyn Arends and rock out on Jennifer Knapp's album, Kansas, I can assure you that he swings that violin fiddle-wise without blinking an eye.