Uncle Mike gave Rose a child-sized fiddle for the holidays. I suppose he thought it was a violin. To be fair it does look something like a violin, but you would not think so to hear Rose play it. She likes to imitate Rabbit serenading the bees in The Piglet Movie. The bees swarm out of their hive, forelegs covering their ears and stingers posied, if that gives you any idea. She grabs the bow in her fist and rubs the hairs back and forth across the strings in a scrubbing, tooth-brushing motion. The sound is unmistakeably the complaint of a fiddle.
My own fiddle hangs like a hunting trophy on the living room wall alongside the equally-neglected banjo and guitars. But for Rose’s sake I brought down my fiddle and began to scrape along, or raccler as the French say. For a couple of weeks now, she and I make up games in the evenings, imitating train sounds and trying to hold the bow in different ways
My fiddle was a parting gift from friends in Madison. When I left to join the Peace Corps in 1994, I threw a party at which I gave away all my possessions that I did not want to carry with me or put in storage. Graciously missing the point, my friends surprised me at the end with a new fiddle. I lugged it all over the West African country of Benin, sending AirMail requests for strings, and trying out waltzes and contra dance tunes whenever I felt homesick.
But once I returned home, and once the droll rhythm of American life reestablished itself, my fiddle and I saw less and less of each other. As with any friend with whom one shares a short but intense experience – getting lost in the woods, hitchhiking in Europe, learning to play a Quebecois reel – we made an effort to keep in touch afterwards. We had a brief affair when I lived in Alaska, but the effort was doomed. Despite our unbreakable emotional bond, we found we had less and less in common. I was married to my guitar.
So it was surprising that when Rose induced me to play my old tunes again, some primal kinesthetic memory took over. I was hardly aware of what I was doing. After a few odd starts, once my brain could stop being such a control freak, my hands took over and found the bow patterns again. It was like riding a bicycle after years of walking and driving. Once you have learned it, you can never erase the neuro-motor trails from your nervous system.
There is something in the rhythm of the Southern Appalachian fiddle tunes that produces a lovely warm ringing sound. The bow rocks back and forth in patterns of riffs and the fiddle strings provide just the right amount of friction, a push-me-pull-you game that nevers rests and never balances but miraculously always stays upright. When all the motions come together, there’s a sense of effortlessly sustained motion.
I am not a very talented player, not in the least, but it is enough that I can please myself and my family. I know half a dozen tunes without thinking and can raccler a few dozen more. I have heard them thousands of times, playing rhythm guitar for other fiddlers, so that something of the tune remains etched in my brain. Not the notes per se, but the particular way a particular fiddler phrases them. I’m not sure I can explain it beyond saying that it’s more about listening and playing attention and noticing the details than actually playing.
I started up “Sandy Boys” the other night, a version I learned from Beverly Smith at a fiddle camp in Alaska. Samuel came running from the other room yelling “Fiddle mucus!” Yet another compliment from my child who cannot properly say the word “music.” He began to dance on the living room carpet, a stately pavane, skipping in slow motion. Rose happily scratched along nearby and we had a grand old time.