What is an antique fiddle?

Have you ever glanced through a classified ad section in the newspaper and saw an ad for an antique violin, mandolin or some other type of instrument?

When I see an ad of this nature I wonder how the owner values the instrument. Is it like a mahogany federal chair from the 1700s or a walnut pie safe from the 1820s?

These are both fine examples of antiques.

Does the title antique before an item make an instrument better or more valuable?

When a 200-year-old chair is bought it can be used to sit upon but can a 200-year-old fiddle be played?

I answered one of those antique violin ads once and found a beautiful instrument that had little or no practical value as an instrument because of a lack of a good sound.

Although I have seldom passed up a fiddle at a good price, and the lady assured me that it was a fine antique and worth every penny she wanted, in this case I did.

I did not take the time to suggest to her what I am going to share with you:

An antique is a car, piece of furniture, fine piece of glassware or china, not an instrument. To make an antique valuable several variables need to be in place, a group of people who want it, in most cases good quality workmanship and a general rule of thumb a three-digit age, with the exception of cars.

An instrument should improve with age if made well, but if it is junk now it will be junk 200 years from now.

An antique should retain its function of original intent. A chair should be sat upon, car driven and instrument played.

If an instrument belonged to Grandpa then it has a value, a sentimental value, but it does not make it valuable to outsiders, that is unless your grandfather was Fritz Kreisler, Stephane Grappelli, then there is an added value of celebrity and musical history.

Every musician would like to find that early Gibson Mastertone banjo under a bed or that original Stradivarius violin tucked behind the rafters of the basement, but not everyone will. Most will not even come close.

That does not mean you should stop looking. Just beware of those who think of old instruments as antiques to be looked at and not played. Some of the finest instruments played by professionals on symphony stages around this world would probably be found to be 2-300 years old, are they valuable because they are old, no, they are valuable because of the time the maker took to create them and give them an enduring sound that is pleasing to hear.

The best way to choose an instrument no matter the age is whether its sound is pleasing to you.

Who is going to have to listen to it more? If you can’t stand it no matter how old it is it’s worthless to you.

A fiddle and a fireplace

Some say it was a coal mine cave-in. Others say it was the fever, but whatever the reason my Grandpa Harve found himself orphaned in a time when if children were lucky some relative or caring neighbor took them in.

I don’t know much about his childhood, although I am told his tales of life on the Tennessee River rivaled those of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.”

When my dad was a boy, Harve gathered the children around the fireplace and before bed told a story of an orphaned boy named A.J. (his real initials), filled with intrigue of riverboat gamblers and the dangers of riding the rapids on a handmade raft.

By this point in his life Grandpa Harve had become what my late cousin, Reece Franks, called demanding. Of course, Reece often found himself out tending to his horse and buggy after he came in from a visit to the general store where he sat and reminisced with his friends.

For some reason, as Harve became a man the waters of time brought him to Catoosa County where he courted a young girl named Emily Jane Bandy.

Already a talent at the fiddle, he brought the fiddle along while he courted. Although I think Grandma Emmer often thought he spent more time a fiddlin’ than he did a courtin’.

He eventually won her heart and the couple settled into a life of farming and raising children.

The love of music was something he shared with several of his children, teaching the fiddle to his son Tom. Henry took up the banjo, Ethel learned the piano, Jesse played along on the harmonica and the juice harp, while another one of the boys took up guitar.

As the sun lowered itself behind the hills, the clan would often gather in the parlor after supper and play a few tunes like “Turkey in the Straw,” “Leather Britches,” and “Camptown Races.”

Lester and Griff would roll back the rug and, although she’d probably not admit it the next Sunday at the Baptist church, Emmer and Harve danced a jig or two.
Harve had already passed his love of music along when a farming accident injured his left hand, making him unable to play anymore. That was probably one thing that pained him deep within his soul.

Henry’s death would eventually take the strains of the frailing banjo from the group, and as the family grew and the boys and girls married they took their music with them.
As the grandchildren came buzzing around, I know he would have given anything to pick up his old black fiddle and play them a tune but instead Harve entertained them with his stories of a youth making his way into adulthood in the reconstruction-era South.

I wish some of them had written the stories down but, alas, they are lost with time and even the memories that they ever existed are about gone.

It was from my great-uncle Tom, who made his life in Gordon County’s Sugar Valley, that I first heard someone play the fiddle close-up. He played some of the same licks that his father played before him.

While Grandpa Harve was not there, I could imagine him sitting at the fireplace, his old black fiddle in hand, playing with all his great-grandchildren gathered around him.
While many gather their earthly musical inspiration from the pop icons of this era that parade across the Grammy Award stage, I still draw my strength from family musical roots that run deep into the Appalachian soil.

Now we gather around computers, televisions and many other means to find our entertainment.

So many of us have lost something through the coming of so many choices – the ability to entertain ourselves by playing music with each other, sharing stories, telling jokes, and giving the next generation shoulders of those behind us to stand upon.

Without those connections often given in the experience of sharing life from one generation to the next, it is easy to see how so many folks waver in with little meaning or purpose to daily activities or lifetime goals.

Hundreds sweated, toiled, lived, fought, birthed, struggled, flourished, suffered, smiled and hoped so that we could walk after them and hopefully have a better life and make a difference for the family, the faith, the country or even mankind.

How much of a difference each day means that we are given when put into that prospective.

I encourage you to build upon the gifts you were given, make a difference in the lives of those you love and those you don’t even know.