Sunday, March 27, 2011

True Fiddle

In 1914, a man with the wonderful name of Augustus W. True, signed his name and date, and “Yarmouth, Me.” into an incomplete instrument. It was placed into a small box. Perhaps the war had something to do with Mr. True’s abandonment of the instrument. The details are unclear, but my mom’s grandfather Benjamin received the box, where it stayed with he, then my grandmother. In 1943, my grandfather lost his brother Arthur to a sniper assault while relaxing in Italy. During the second war, my grandparents met. My grandfather’s people have been musicians for generations. The incomplete fiddle finally made it’s way from New Hampshire to Morgan county, Kentucky. There, my great grandfather Claude completed the instrument and played it until his death in 1966.

The late 1960’s were an interesting time. The True fiddle made it’s way back to grandpa in New Hampshire. Yet another war. My father made his way to New Hampshire, stationed at the same air base as my grandfather before, and met my mom. Soon, my brother Ben made his way to the world. The years wore on and the economic juggernaut wore our family down. Perhaps in retaliation, (though I think it was age and the New Hampshire winters) the grandparents left New Hampshire for California. Just like the Led Zeppelin song. At 20 years old, I finally got to know my grandparents. I played a lot with grandpa. He had records and stories, and books of photographs of Morgan county that were published by Lynn B. Nickell. A great number of these photographs were taken by my great grandfather Claude. Only one wooden tripod, now with Wayne at the Pansy School, remains of this amazing personal legacy.

Grandpa always spoke of this father with a warmth and honor. He said nice things about Claude. It was unusual to hear the Kentuckian pronounce ‘father’ like a New Englander. In 1993, he was playing a 1906 Martin bowl back, tater-bug mandolin. It was given to him by contest French-Canadian fiddler Joe Robichaud from Maine. When grandpa died in 2003, it was given to me. I became a mandolin player.

I felt that I carried the last remaining ember of the family musical legacy. It seemed that with the way things were going in the world and in our family, I would be the last. Writing today, in 2011, dear nephew has shown me otherwise.

Back to 2004. With some unexpected help from Ms. Richards’ father, and her own generous heart, I picked an excellent mandolin in 2004. I was also helped by the good folks at Gryphon Stringed Instruments who gave an $800 credit for a terrible instrument they did not sell me. It was made by Saga, and they felt that it was an embarrassment to their own distribution of these cheap instruments. The mandolin I play had a $4,200 price tag, but in the end, it was more like $2,400. If not for that instrument, my life would be very different.

The Augustus W. True violin found a home with me in Reno in 2006, but was soon resting in the town I where I was born until the summer of 2010. As soon as I arrived on the coast in late 2009, a friend Steve put me in touch with the uncle of my childhood best friend Robert. Small world.

Mr. Stansell and I had a good musical connection, and his tasteful fiddling impressed me. I endeavored to take this inspiration to my own fiddle aspiration at long last. I put some other parts on the fiddle (those parts are a long unnecessary story). At the father’s day bluegrass festival, I met a wonderful fiddler named Sam. She said that Mr. True’s fiddle “sounded like it was coming from far away.” I tried. Fiddling takes soul. It takes time. In a world where time is eroded from all sides, planning to learn an instrument that will take decades for proficiency is regarded with confusion.

But not by Mr. Stansell, who in two days last week, crafted a new nut, and modified the bridge. The Augustus W. True fiddle sounds amazing. A real fiddle. It is odd and idiosyncratic. The rough-shod repairs affect it’s tone. The long story of this fiddle seems to have just begun.

The first tunes ought to be Ashland Breakdown, and Sally Goodin, but we shall see. Thanks to the Richard Greene homespun DVD I’ve owned since 2004, I have wonderful help. Coupled with a love for R. Crumb’s visual art, Little Rabbit, brought to the world by the Crockett Mountaineers, and propagated by Richard and Robert separately, and is now a often played duet piece for Cliff and I.

It was a beautifully dramatic sunset drive to catch one of the best films ever made.

Photographer Kenji Kawano captures Tom Fannie (Naakaii Dine' é Clan) and Cody Dayish, father and son, Shiprock New Mexico


  1. I love those instant photos!

  2. Interesting story as I was researching Augustus W True and information on his fiddle's. I found one today while traveling through Nashville Tn. I will continue to do more. Look to bea very well made violin. Thanks Dale


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