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After a week long, intense practice binge with my new bow, I felt ready to meet with my accompanist for our first run-through of the fall recital line-up. An uncommonly sunny fall day surrounded me as I hummed fiddle tunes on my way to her house; golden aspen leaves whirled like confetti in my wake. It had been way too long since I'd seen Maria, and I couldn't wait to show her my projects. Her recently reconstructed studio is one I secretly covet, with its high ceilings and perfect acoustics, which lend plenty of room for the hearty voce of her grand piano.
We shared about our summers, about how rainy it was, and how none of our old ensembles play together anymore. First on the menu, appropriately, was Brahm's G Major (a.k.a. "Rain") Sonata. After the first movement had us just about in tears, we concluded that Brahms might be a bit too dark for the upcoming community fund-raising concert; such seriousness should be reserved for my own November recital. We need something more light-hearted! How about some Sarasate? To be sure, his Caprice Basque is perhaps the absolute antithesis of heavy: all spicy and flirtatious, it's unable to be taken seriously at all.
Unfortunately, the difficult passages refuse to be played in anything but the most audacious mood. It took me twice through the harmonics and arpeggios to begin to overcome some of my timidity, for them to even remotely resemble what I'd hashed out back in the studio. I couldn't help but apologise to Maria, which only made things worse.
No, you gotta play it like you don't care--like you're dancing coquettishly with a stranger, and you're wearing a stolen red dress.
Hm, I need a red dress...
The minute I'd shown up on the doorstep, my dad had called everyone he could think of to celebrate. So, we spared Friday evening of my visit for a big get-together. Great Auntie Bill came to see me, along with a slew of relatives and a few people I'm sure I'd never seen before. Having been told that we would be getting together to play folk music like we used to do, I'd been looking forward to it. Needless to say, I felt mildly betrayed when everyone showed up sans instruments--save a single violin in a wooden case that used to belong to my great, great uncle.
They wanted me to play it. Trying to hide a cringe, I opened the old case to see if this feat would even be possible. The bow was in shambles; its hair had fallen out, and the stick was something you'd laugh at if you saw it on Ebay. The violin itself seemed playable, at least. It was nothing special, just a very old cheap commercial model, fake label and all. It smelled like old-people-house. I gingerly tightened the pegs toward their tonal destination, averting my face, as my Auntie Bill went through the box, asking about various random items that had been tucked inside it. I had no clue what some of the gadgets in that fiddle case were. Then, she asked, "Will you play something for me, Emily?"
I slid my hand down the fingerboard. The strings felt gritty, the neck slightly sticky from lack of use. Using my own bow, I dragged a couple of familiar fiddle tunes out of the little wooden casket, hoping no one would notice how much the sound of it brought me disdain, hoping no would see that I was put off about being the only person in the room with an instrument, the only person being put on the spot, the only person playing now.
Auntie Bill caught her breath as though she'd seen a ghost. "Will you play Redwing?" And then the requests began. They brought out sheet music to Alice Blue Gown, Westphalia Waltz, and Oklahoma Hills, to name just a few. Feeling uncomfortably like a medium at a seance, I quickly ran through a couple of them, then ducked back to the tuck the fiddle in its box while they all talked excitedly about the old days--days I knew nothing about, days I couldn't even begin to relate to.
There inside the box lay a yellowed envelope. Curiously, I flipped it open and dug out some old photos and a letter, which read as follows:
UNCLE FRANK'S FIDDLE
Frank Benningfield shocked oats for his landlord, Joe Burns, for $1.50 a day, working from "sun to sun" to earn enough money to buy a fiddle. Joe's sons, Boss and Wade, were his school chums.
By June 1912, Frank ordered the fiddle from a Chicago mail order company, John M. Smith; the cost was $8.25 plus express, which totaled $11 for the new Amati fiddle. He was 18 years of age.
Lee Williams, a cousin and accomplished fiddler, taught him a few chords and the tune of "Old Dan Tucker" in 1907-1908, then another cousin, Harvey Walker (Aunt Sis' son) lived with them for a time in 1912 and taught him how to tune his instrument and play by ear.
"I kept the folks away at night, practicing on that fiddle," Frank recalls. "I'd work in the fields all day, whistling the tunes I'd heard Lee play from memory, then try to play them on my fiddle after supper, into the night."
The following year, 1913, the Benningfield family moved near McAlester, and Frank, together with his sisters, Mattie and Ethel, taught themselves to read music, from the books they bought. Frank also played guitar while brothers Jay and Tom played guitar and Jay, Tom, Kattie, Ethel, and Frank played the organ for singing in their home, many times for five hours without playing a single song twice. Viola Williams also played the organ, then later nephews Herman Benningfield and Carroll Riddle played guitars; Lee and Harvey were fiddlers.
On Sunday evenings, only Church songs were played; however, the boys played for dances in the Stuart community on Saturday nights. There was no dancing in the Benningfield home and the girls in the family did not attend dances.
At one time Frank wrote down the names of 120 songs that he could play and sing from memory, with at least 40 or 50 old time fiddle tunes included.
They played Arkansas Traveler in the key of D, Whistlin' Rufus in G, Ft. Smith (his mother's favorite) in G.
"The fiddle should always be kept with the old organ," Frank told his niece, Billie Stich, when he gave her the fiddle on Saturday, April 27th, 1985. Billie was given the organ November 1983, with instructions that it should always be kept in the family. Frank played his fiddle until he was 90 years of age, then gave it up at age 91.
Inside the fiddle bears the inscription "Andreas Amati Riot Cremonae anno 1640 Germany".
Auntie Bill was very old, her fingers and arms now too fragile to play her favorite songs on the guitar. Uncle Frank had been dead a long time, and many of the other faces I used to remember being at the musical gatherings were also absent. After all, it's been years since I played those songs with them, years since I'd been around to see so many of them. They'd slipped away and I'd not even noticed. Maybe if I'd stuck around, my parents wouldn't be so out of practice, and they could play with me. Instead, here I was, the only person left in the room with an instrument, the only one playing now. I played Oklahoma Hills for Auntie Bill. The non-musical relatives walked about, talking, saying goodbye, completely uninterested. Looking about the living room, I wondered about those ghosts I'd let out of that old wooden box, and what they thought of us now.
Hope I made them tap their feet.
Matt had a lot of instruments, and he seemed excited to show them to me, including his own fiddle, which had been set up with a flatter bridge and strings closer to the fingerboard for easy fast fiddling. "You lose some of the projection, but that's not really an issue when you play in a band." I noodled around on it and immediately noticed that it liked to slide. You could feel it under your fingers when you searched for the tones. Every violin bears the impression of the one who plays it, like a thumbprint left in clay. If you listen to it, it will tell you where it's been. In the previous shop, I played a violin from 1720. The moment I touched it, I felt as though I'd stepped through a time portal, and I was playing with Bach and Mozart, all light and golden and refined. It demanded to be played just so, and I gladly obliged.
Matt handed me an unlabeled fiddle from somewhere in Eastern Europe. "Oh, this one cries when you play it," I remarked as I pulled out a deep, dark wail from the lower register. If I had more time, I would have asked it to tell me its story, why it ended up so sad. But now I was being shown something else, and another thing. So many violins, so little time! And I still needed to make up my mind about the bow.
Matt was giving me handouts now. He had a collection of his own arrangements of fiddle tunes that I could have. And here was one of his CDs. As though he could still see the question mark floating over my head, he went into further detail about the qualities of the Nurnberger. In pristine condition, as though it had hardly been played, this was the perfect example of a Nurnberger. It dated somewhere around 1930 or earlier, and was not a shop bow. Now he was knocking the price down. His talk was so convincing, but I didn't want any pressure to get in between me and my search for the perfect sound, so I agreed to take it out on trial instead. My mom and I needed to meet up with my high school piano teacher, anyway, who lives nearby. Perhaps she could provide an answer.
Susan Akin waited to greet me at her home in Overland Park. It was so good to see her again! We spent a little time catching up, and then she led me downstairs to her studio to sight-read some duets. I took turns with the Hill and the Nurnberger, and the choice was beginning to become more clear. Once I had new music in front of me, my mind left the bows and began to think about music. This was when I was able to get the most natural feel for each one, and it suddenly became apparent which bow was the one best suited for me.
Mr. Nurnberger it is. We celebrated with some Kansas City barbecue on our way out of town.
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