Rosin the Bow
An audio journey through the world
of the violin family
While visiting New York City after our trip to Italy and France, Paula and I drove up the beautiful Hudson River valley to the Ashokan Center where fiddler Jay Ungar and his wife Molly Mason host a series of music and dance camps each summer. Jay is a highly regarded musician and composer whose waltz, Ashokan Farewell, was used by filmmaker Ken Burns as the theme for his award-winning documentary on the Civil War. Here Jay tells why he wrote the waltz and how it later helped save the very center for which is was named.
Jay Ungar - Ashokan Farewell
Back 1993, a group of friends were bemoaning the fact that all the good bluegrass and traditional music festivals took place during the summer, which meant people had to wait through the long winter to hear live music and play tunes with their friends. Thus was born the idea for Wintergrass, a festival held each February inside the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Bellevue, Washington, a dozen miles east of Seattle.
In 2015 I was asked to emcee one of the stages at Wintergrass. While there I had the opportunity to sit down with violinist extraordinaire Darol Anger. Drawing upon classical, folk, and jazz music traditions, Darol is a central figure in the emerging world of fiddle music in America. He co-founded both the David Grisman Quintet and the Turtle Island String Quartet. He currently leads the group Republic of Strings and teaches at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.
Here he talks about his family and how he became a fiddler. He also tells a story about how a single encounter with a certain violin changed his understanding of violin music. The second story is followed by a medley played by the group Fiddlers Four featuring Darol Anger, Michael Doucet, Bruce Molsky, and Rushad Eggleston.
Darol Anger - Becoming a Fiddler & Rachel's Violin
Violin maker Roland Feller was born in Switzerland and trained at the violin making school in Mittenwald, Germany, before coming to the United States. He worked for several years with the great Simone Fernando Sacconi in New York City before moving to San Francisco where he opened his own shop. A board member of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers, he has repaired and restored some of the finest violins, violas, and cellos in the world.
In 1989, Roland moved his shop to a new location in San Francisco and here he tells a story about what happened soon after making that move.
Roland Feller - An Anxious Moment
In 2003, I interviewed J. P. while attending the Appalachian Stringband Festival that is held each August at Camp Washington Carver in Clifftop, WV. The park ranger allowed us to use his cabin for the interview and while we talked, a freak hailstorm blew in, the hail tapping the tin roof above our heads as J.P. took me back in time to when music making helped people cope with the difficulties and challenges of life.
This is what he had to say about living through the Great Depression in eastern Kentucky when he was a child. His story is followed by a tune he wrote titled Maggie Meade.
David Fulton is one of most significant private violin collectors in the world today and we spent a pleasant afternoon at his home in Bellevue, Washington, talking about what inspired him to become a collector and the colorful stories associated with the violins, violas, and cellos in his collection. I was particularly intrigued by his account of how a violin made by Antonio Stradivari in 1709, known as the “La Pucelle,” came into his possession. The story is followed by violinist James Ehnes playing a composition titled Asturiana by Manuel De Falla on La Pucelle. He is accompanied on piano by Eduard Laurel.
David Fulton - La Pucelle
Rhiannon Giddens is a trained opera singer. She also plays the fiddle and banjo. A founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, she grew up near Greensboro, North Carolina, where she lives when not touring or spending part of each year in Ireland. In the fall of 2015, Paula and I visited Greensboro to attend the National Folk Festival and interview some of the performers. Here is part of an interview I did with Rhiannon who had recently performed at the White House for President and First Lady Obama. It is followed by Rhiannon playing the fiddle with Carolina Chocolate Drops bandmates Justin Robinson and Dom Flemons. The tune is called Snowdon’s Jig. It is also known as The Genuine Negro Jig.
Rhiannon Giddens - Musicians of Color
Laurie Lewis is a gifted fiddler and award-winning songwriter. I have known Laurie for many years and have always been impressed with her intelligent and heart-felt artistry, as well as her sense of humor. Not long ago we met up at the Wintergrass Music Festival and I recorded our conversation about her relationship with the violin and about the inspiration for a song called The Maple’s Lament that draws from that ancient spring from which all true folklore flows.
Laurie Lewis - Maple's Lament
Erynn Marshall grew up in British Columbia where she first fell in love with the fiddle. Later, while working for a violin shop, she tried a violin that had been made in Scotland. From the moment she pulled the bow across the strings, she knew it was the violin for her.
Here she tells the story of a birthday party she hosted for her special friend.
Erynn Marshall - A Birthday Party
Just after midnight on a bitterly cold winter night in 2014 Frank Almond, concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony, was confronted by a man in a parking lot after a concert. The man used a taser to knock Frank to the ground and steal his violin. The instrument was made in 1715 by Antonio Stradivari and is known as the “Lipinski.” Captain Jeff Point, head of the homicide division of the Milwaukee Police Department, teamed up with special agent David Bass, a member of the FBI’s art theft unit, to apprehend the culprit and recover the violin. The story is followed by Frank Almond performing on the Lipinski Strad the first movement of the Sonata in G minor Il trillo del Diavolo by Giuseppe Tartini 1692-1770.
The Milwaukee Violin Heist
When I began this project I knew little of the history of the violin. For that reason, I drove from my home in Olympia, WA, to Salem, OR, to visit William Monical. Bill Monical is an expert on bowed string instruments, especially those of the baroque period, and he owned a violin shop on Staten Island in New York City for many years where violinists and baroque players from around the world came to get their instruments repaired and adjusted. He now gives lectures at Willamette University where he continues his research on the early evolution of bowed stringed instruments.
William Monical - Stowaways
After giving the keynote at The Violin Society of America's Conference in Baltimore I found time to take the train into Washington, DC, where I met up with Stephen Ackert, the recently retired curator of music for the National Gallery of Art, and Bruno Nasta, a professional violinist who helps organize the music concert series that takes place inside the National Gallery. For several hours we strolled among the galleries looking at paintings that feature one or more of the violin family of instruments. Here Stephen and Bruno talk about a painting by the Italian 16th century artist Michelangelo Anselmi that shows the Greek god Apollo competing in an early fiddle contest of sorts.
The National Gallery of Art Apollo and Marsyas
Two-time Grammy winner Mark O’Connor was born in Seattle, Washington. His family had little money when he was growing up and yet his ailing mother drove him every weekend two and half hours south to the town of Centralia so he could take lessons from the great Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson. Mark went on to win numerous fiddle contests, including the Grand Masters Fiddle Contest sponsored by the Grand Old Opry when he was only thirteen years old. Here Mark tells the story of his legendary “white fiddle.” It is followed by the tune Soppin’ the Gravy played by Mark on the same fiddle.
Mark O'Connor - The White Violin
Elmar Oliveira is one of the most highly respected solo violinists in the world today. He is the only American to win the gold medal at the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow. Along with his busy touring schedule, he teaches at the Lynn University Conservatory of Music in Boca Raton, Florida. I traveled to Florida late in 2014 to interview Elmar and we met at his home, which he had purchased just days before and was still waiting for the furniture to arrive. That explains the concert hall acoustic quality of the interview—perhaps that is appropriate given how much time Elmar spends performing in concert halls.
Here he tells two stories: The Violin Auction chronicles the progression of violins he has borrowed and owned over the years. The second, Beethoven and the Beta-Blocker, looks at the use of drugs such as Inderal by some musicians as a way of dealing with performance anxiety.
Elmar Oliveira - The Violin Auction & Beethoven and the Beta-Blocker
For several years I produced and hosted a public radio series titled The Telling Takes Us Home, a Celebration of American Family Stories. Like the Rosin the Bow project, I spent a good deal of time traveling around the United States recording people telling their family stories. In 2001, the organizers of the Virginia Festival of the Book asked me to be part of the festival’s opening event on the stage of Cabell Hall on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Also presenting that evening was the folksinger and social activist Pete Seeger and his brother Mike Seeger who played the banjo and fiddle and was a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers. Part of the excitement was the fact that the two brothers had not performed on stage together for more than ten years.
Sadly Pete and Mike are both gone now but the memory of that evening remains fresh in my mind. The highlight for me was when Pete urged me to grab my fiddle and join them on stage. John McCutcheon, who was in the audience, also joined us and we played a medley of well-known American fiddle tunes before swapping tall tales and other humorous yarns. The next morning I sat down with Pete and Mike and interviewed them for several hours. They talked about their family and the stories they heard growing up.
Pete Seeger - The Traveling Music Show
I met Craig Sease in the mid-1980s when he lived in Morgantown, WV, and I was living just across the state line on a farm near Waynesburg, PA. Craig is a skilled surgeon and devoted old-time fiddler and I am fascinated with this combination, how one passion informs the other. A few years ago I recorded Craig for my radio series on family stories. Here is the story he told about how both medicine and the violin came into his life.
Craig Sease - Grandfather's Violin
Here is a story Pete told that happened when he was very young and his parents decided to take their “cultured” music into the back country of North Carolina in the 1920s.