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Emily Grossman

Uncle Frank's Fiddle

September 5, 2010 at 3:56 AM

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.

From Matt Pelikan
Posted on September 5, 2010 at 4:13 PM

Wonderful post (as always - glad you're writing again), and I'm sure the ghosts were happy to hear the music.

I inherited violins from both sides of my family -- a circa 1895 Strad copy (probably from Sears Roebuck!) orignally owned by a great-grandfather on my mother's side, and a dreadful little 1910-ish, German-made copy of a French Amati copy from my father's father. My mom learned on the stradivarious (and so did I), and she can remember it being played at barn dances in the late 1930s in Illinois, where she grew up. My dad can recall accompanying his father, a very casual player, on piano. I've moved on to a better instrument as my main fiddle, but play both of the old instruments regularly and take special pleasure in thinking of the memories that they carry. I figure I've got 30 years or so before I'm done with them, but I dream of passing them along with a history like the one you found. Music, powerful in any case, makes for a very potent, tangible link with the past.

From Emily Grossman
Posted on September 5, 2010 at 7:18 PM

It's a shame that younger people are missing out on such aural tradition, one of making music with family instead of just listening to it.  Even when I was a kid, I was the only one I knew of learning my grandpa's fiddle tunes.  That was in Tulsa--might be different in other parts of the country. 

My aunt and cousins played piano later that evening, and we fooled around with some duets, which was fun.  Some of my fondest childhood memories are of me and my cousin Elaine cracking ourselves up with piano duets.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on September 5, 2010 at 7:37 PM

A wonderful post with great old family photos!  Thanks, as always.

From bill kilpatrick
Posted on September 6, 2010 at 5:09 PM

great story - long life to you and your family fiddle.  i dream of finding an old instrument of some sort hidden away in an attic somewhere ... along with an original, unredeemed share certificate from debeers ... or IBM ...

From Tobias Seyb
Posted on September 7, 2010 at 9:49 AM

I love opening old violin cases. Not because I hope to find a valuable instrument, but because sometimes there's a story inside.

In most such cases there is only a mistreated old wreck of a fiddle with a dirty, almost bald stick. But sometimes it's different. Opening the lid reveals a well kept violin with old gut strings, a menuhin shoulder rest or a velvet pad, a tube with unused eudoxa strings, an envelope with used ones, a copy of an old article about Milstein's strad, and that old smell. I enjoy to match the things with the decade they were bought or used.

Not long ago two such cases came into my possession. It was wonderful to bring the two violins and the few bows back to life.

From Rosalind Porter
Posted on September 7, 2010 at 10:06 PM

Such a beautifully written family story.   It is sad that the old traditions of making music within the family have often died out these days.  I'm glad the old fiddle was played again for a few hours...

From Emily Grossman
Posted on September 8, 2010 at 2:45 AM

Thanks.  You know, I really don't play enough fiddle music, myself.  I really enjoy it, but it has always seemed to me to be like a guilty pleasure, as though I should be spending my time on scales, etudes, or repertoire.  I don't know how this yoke of stoicism crept into my philosophy of music, but it's unneccesarily restrictive and detrimental.

From Emily Grossman
Posted on September 8, 2010 at 3:19 AM

Plus, nothing warms my heart and makes me smile like a good fiddle tune.

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