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There's Just Something About an Old Fiddle
The Touch of the Masters Hand
My First Fiddle
My dad worked in the cotton mill on third shift and sometimes would drive one of his co-workers home after their shift ended at 7 am. We lived in the mill village in a house rented from the mill owners that were built to house employees. Many of the workers like my dad walked to work. They walked to our house from the mill so dad could get his truck drive her home. She was a relative, Mrs Georgia Ballard who had married my dad's first cousin.That morning will live in my memory forever. I was not in school yet but had gotten up early so daddy allowed me with him on the trip to drive her home. Georgia and Lloyd Ballard lived in a small house on Mount Olivet where most all my daddy's relatives lived and where he had grown up with his 13 siblings on a nearby mountain farm.
We arrived at their home on Mount Olivet to find Lloyd and some of his children had already made breakfast. Eggs, biscuits and a huge pan of gravy. Dad and I were invited to come inside to visit and they ask us to share breakfast with them. I was sure happy daddy accepted their generous offer and I will never forget sitting down at that table to that plate of biscuits and gravy, my all time favorite breakfast. I still enjoy biscuits and gravy with a good strong cup of coffee. The adults talked while they ate mostly about the work at the mill and internal strife about an impending labor union and other topics but I was too busy stuffing my face enjoying every bite but too young to know or care about the conversation.
After eating such a wonderful breakfast, it was time for us to go back home. Lloyd had gotten up from the table and gone into another room but quickly came back carrying an old fiddle. "Here boy, I want you to have this old fiddle." I suppose he thought I might enjoy having it as a toy. It could have been a Stradivarius for all I knew and I was so excited. The fiddle was not playable and had no strings, case or bow. It didn't matter and when I got home, I showed it to my mama and told her, I got myself a "whiddle."
We went to town soon after that to get me some new shoes and the store,I think it was J C Penny's on Main Street, had one of those contraptions whereby they could look through the top to see one's feet when they were trying on a pair shoes to check the fit. It was sorta like an X ray machine and I have never seen another. My shoes were purchased and I reached into my overalls pocket pulling out all my world wealth, a few nickels and pennies expectantly holding them out for the salesman to see. I ask him if they sold "whiddle strings", I needed some for my whiddle. My mama looked at the salesman standing there as he put my new shoes in a store bag. My question caused him to have a quizzical look on his mustachioed face, kinda like the look you might get when somebody accidentally breaks wind. My mama laughed and put her hands on my shoulders quickly telling me they don't sell fiddle strings in department stores.
Not long after my sister was playing with my old fiddle and dropped my fiddle off the porch of our house in the village. I don't know if she dropped it on purpose or not but it broke into several pieces which I think eventually found their way to the wood heater. I was devastated and cried my eyes out. It would be many years later before I acquired another fiddle.
Something About Old Fiddles
My love for fiddles was rekindled when my aunt gave me an old fiddle. The fiddle had been my uncles fiddle and was known as the blond fiddle. My uncle had been given the fiddle by an individual who lived in Charleston, South Carolina. He would ride the bus to Charleston each year to their second home here in the mountains in their personal car. They were up in years and didn't want to drive the long distance to Flat Rock where many other Charlestonian residents had found the Western North Carolina climate more comfortable than the hot humid summer weather of Charleston. The man originally from New York had played the violin or fiddle in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
I was ecstatic to have this instrument which was in need of some work. The back originally had been glued together with an animal base glue and had separated along the back bouts. I tried to get several to repair the fiddle without any luck and was told point blank the instrument was beyond repair. Like most fiddles this one had little paper label inside with information on the maker and year made. This one was a Harvey Ball, made in Nashua, New Hampshire and I have forgotten the actual date but I think was 1874 or maybe just a little later. Mr Ball was a clockmaker by trade and built 50 fiddles over his lifetime. I did a little research on Mr Ball's fiddles and found one had been sold at Christie's Auctions for about $1300.
It would be a couple of years before I found a luthier to make the repairs. We had a shaped note singing school at our church and the teacher of the school was from Blountville, Tennessee. We invited him to supper one night during the school. When he learned my son and I played stringed instruments, he invited us to come over to Blountville and spend a weekend at his home and he would take us to the weekly heritage jam held each Friday night.
We soon were able to accept his invitation he took us to the jam held in the historic district of Blountville. It was amazing. Musicians from the Tri-City area of Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol came each Friday to play music. I had never seen so many vintage instruments and so many talented musicians who played bluegrass and gospel music. We felt so blessed to be there and to get to play some music with several of them that night.
We soon met one of the founders of the jam, Mr Ralph Blizzard a musician who had been instrumental in the forming of the Swannanoa Gathering at Warren Wilson College and was well known for his unusual style of fiddle bowing called the Appalachian longbow. We soon meandered around the complex stopping to listen to various groups that had formed their own informal bands. They each were very good and could very well have pursued their musical interests to a higher level.
Eventually, we made our way to the lower level of the old courthouse where a group was playing gospel songs. We pulled up a couple of chairs and I played my guitar and Gary played mandolin. In this group the fiddler, a white haired older man had taken note of our son Gary's blindness and would tap his leg when he wanted him to play a mandolin break. That man's name we later learned was Jack Branch from Bristol, Virginia. Jack had been a stone mason but a fall from scaffolding and a back injury had forced him to learn a new trade. At 54 years of age, he began an apprenticeship with Albert Hash of White Mountain, Tennessee and learned how to build fiddles. Later,he would travel to New York to learn how to build double basses.
The next day our friend from Blountville ask me and my son if we would like to ride over to Jack's house and see his fiddle shop. Our wives were going shopping so we didn't hesitate to accept his offer. It would be only a 30 minute drive and my excitement began to build. Driving down a narrow road only 20 miles from Hilton's Virginia and meant for horse and wagons between two steep hills with a creek running down through the valley we soon pulled into their driveway. The house was a rustic wood structure and beside it was a small building which was Jack's fiddle shop.
A toot of the horn brought Jack out of his house. He welcomed us and soon opened the door of his fiddle shop. For me it was like a kid in a candy store. Hanging all around the shop were fiddles which he had built in various stages of completion. I took note of newspaper articles that were on the walls of documentaries which had been done on Jack in local papers and television stations. The smell of wood, glue and varnish filled the air. I knew why I had always loved fiddles. Creating them is not only master woodworking but an art form.
We talked and he show us how he would use his tools to form backs, tops, necks, sides from old woods. He said 100 year old Maple is the best! He could tap on a piece of wood and discern if it would produce a good tone. Jack also did repairs on violins and restrung bows and I told him about my Harvey Ball and how noone would touch it and how they had said it wasn't worth fixing. His exact comment was "Bull Shit." Bring it over and I will fix it.
Since our singing school was of two week duration, I sent my Ball fiddle to Jack by our friend from Blountville. In only a few days, Jack called me and told me my fiddle was ready to pick up and it was a great old fiddle with a warm tone.
Ralph Blizzard and the Swannanoa Gathering
Getting a New Fiddle
We drove over on the weekend following Jack Branch's call telling me my Harvey Ball was ready to be picked up. It would be a long road trip and I missed a couple of turns before we finally arrived at Jack's house. When we pulled into the driveway, he came out and said he was about to send out search party. "Y'all come on in, supper's ready." Jack and his wife, Nannie had outdone themselves in expectation of our arrival and had fixed us a huge meal. Jack also cured hams and his skills were as good as his ability to build a fiddle with perfect tone.
We ate and he showed me my fiddle. It looked brand new and sounded great. I did not know how to play the fiddle at the time but I knew I was sure going to try and learn. I ask Jack about his fiddles, how much they were. The tags in his fiddle shop were too small for my nearsighted eyes to see. He looked at me and said, if you see one you like, I will sell it to you for $1500. I knew handcrafted instruments often command premium prices. Since I really didn't know that much about fiddles, I decided on one. It was a Tiger Maple perfectly stripped book fitted back with a Canadian Spruce top.
He told me if I liked that fiddle he had another in the house that I might like better. When he retrieved that fiddle, I agreed and decided to purchase. He agreed to sell it to me and allow me to make payments. Driving back home I thought to myself, "Lordy what have I just done?" I got more fiddle than I will ever learn to play. The die was cast and I set out to learn how to play fiddle.
I bought a self teaching book at a music store in our town. The book by Craig Duncan, You and Teach Yourself How to Fiddle. I would go to the basement of our home and practice. I had heard some of the tunes and since I already played guitar and banjo knew that timing is crucial. Plucking strings is one thing but pulling a bow is a learned skill. My bowing technique was horrible and th sounds from that fiddle bordered on torture.
A friend of our family who worked at Camp Falling Creek as a counselor near our home and where my wife and I both worked in the summer knew I that I had bought a new fiddle and shared a cassette tape recording of a piece of music which he just discovered. The tune was Ashokan's Farewell, a composition written by Jay Ungar.The tune being played as background music while a letter was being read written by Sullivan Ballou, a Union Army Officer to his wife. The tune was moving and emotional seemingly ancient. I had never heard or felt such emotion in music other that the old hymn Amazing Grace. I now had all the inspiration that I needed.
My fiddle Jack Branch made for the traveling Smithsonian
Beulah Land on my fiddle
Road to Columbus
The Love of God
A Fiddle to Love
After my initial purchase of a fiddle from Jack Branch, my interest and love for fiddles grew. By then we had developed a friendship that would last until his death at 90 years of age. My time practicing with my self teaching had ballooned and I had learned to play Ashokan's Farewell. Our trips to Bristol were frequent and Jack and Nannie would come over to our house for visits.Jack and Nannie loved to come over to get peaches and produce to take home for canning.
As our friendship grew, Jack told me he had built two special fiddles for the traveling Smithsonian. I don't know what happened but there had been a disagreement and the deal had fallen through.The identical fiddles were made of 100 year old Maple. He asked me if I wanted to purchase one of them, They were $4000 fiddles!! Good grief, Jack! I can't afford nothing like that but I sure would love to have one of them if he could cut the price. I bought one for $1800 and it is the fiddle I play all the time.
Towards the end of his life Jack told me wanted me to have the other of the Smithsonian fiddles and he would cut me a deal and let me make payments. It wouldn't be until after his death that I actually decided to purchase the other fiddle. Recently we made that once familiar trip to Bristol to visit Jack's widow. Nannie, who has been stricken with Alzheimer's, now lives with Jack's son and is cared for well. I was able to find the fiddle still hanging in his shop and purchased it.
I brought the fiddle home and put new strings on it and it sounds unbelievable. Both fiddles were made in 1998 and are identical. They are numbers 101 and 102 and are priceless to me.