”Most farmers have a love for music. They know that the land they farm and the life it sustains, has its own rhythm and exquisite melodies.” — The Dictionary for New Farmers, 1st edition.
My great-grandfather, who was a farmer, bought the fiddle sometime in the late 1800s. It came to his doorstep in the hands of a “windjammer”, a circus musician who was down on his luck and needed to sell the fiddle for perhaps a meal, lodging or a ticket out of town. I can only imagine the windjammer’s sadness at passing on such a fine instrument.
In his hands, I am certain that this fiddle had played for countless audiences of both children and adults as they thrilled to the circus’ own blend of human, animal, and musical extravaganzas. It is interesting to think that perhaps the roots of the American musicals began in these large and lofty circus tents that offered “the greatest shows on earth.”
The fiddle most certainly had a fine and full sound in its youth, enabling it to rise above the laughter and excitement in the circus tent. I am sure that the fiddle “woke” early as it passed from the hands of its maker to the windjammer. How could it not, when it was played almost every evening in places with such raucous sound, excitement, and laughter?
This all left its mark on the instrument as did the touch of the windjammer. The oil from his skin merged with the darkly stained wood to enrich its sound and timbre. The pressure from his hands, along with the few small scratches that occurred from a hard life on the road, dulled its shiny varnish. These marks of life only caused the instrument to sing even more boldly. Selling it was perhaps the hardest thing the windjammer had ever done.
Where my great-grandfather learned to play, I may never know. But play he did. The fiddle found a new home in the fertile fields and rolling hills of southern Indiana. It began a new life of playing the county fairs and frequent celebrations that happened in farming communities everywhere in the early 1900s, though sadly, less frequently today. The fiddle’s voice became more silky and a richer and a softer sound developed, akin to a mourning dove’s cry in the twilight of evening.
My great-grandfather took very good care of the fiddle. He, too, left his mark on the instrument, a worn spot on the neck, a mark on the scroll, and the oil from his calloused farm hands soaked deep into the neck where he cradled it while playing. But fiddles, like the soil, if lovingly cared for, can last much longer than their temporary guardians.
Somewhere around World War I, my grandfather took possession of the fiddle. It sailed with him while he was in the Navy. The salt air impregnated itself into the very fiber of the violin. I am certain it played for shipboard companions and filled some of those long lonely nights on the seas with the sounds of a southern Indiana moonlit celebration.
When my grandfather came back from the war, the fiddle was retired to its case and seldom played. Why my grandfather left it to sleep quietly as the years passed, I will never know. It rested until it came into the hands of my Aunt Carolyn.
In her hands, the fiddle took on new life as it began to play orchestral pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky. The voice of the instrument became full-throated as it played as never before in concert with so many other stringed instruments. The sweet frequencies of cellos, violas, and string basses subtly changed the structure of the wood of the violin itself, loosening it, expanding it, so that it could be played in perfect melodious harmony with all the other instruments in the orchestra.
With my aunt, the violin traveled even more widely. It played for audiences in the city concert halls of Indiana and traveled to far western Wyoming. It spent its final years in my aunt’s hands, circling back once again to the timeless folk music of joyful gatherings. There, the violin sang on the prairies and in the mountains beneath the blue Wyoming sky.
My aunt’s loving hands have now passed the violin on to me. So I, too, like my family before me, have the privilege of playing this wonderful instrument. Often, I will take this old violin out to play on our farmhouse porch during a quiet summer’s evening and reflect on the lives that have forever changed it.
As I play, I am struck by the connection I have with this instrument, just as I have with this farm I now live on. My wife and I have become guardians of this 100-acre piece of Earth and we will leave our mark on it. Our arms have tilled the soil, our sweat has fallen to this earth, and the oil from our hands have impacted all we have touched.
Like it or not, we have become a part of this farm’s legacy as have all the owners before us. Hopefully, like my violin, the farm has become better for it. We will all leave our mark on this Earth, whether we realize it or not. We can enrich it or destroy it. We can become a vital part of this symphony that nature has given us or we can end it.
It is up to us.
Jeff Crisler wrote this column to be published in The Circleville Herald. The views of this column may not necessarily reflect that of the newspaper.