When Late-19th Century Daughters Remember The Fiddles of their Fathers

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When Late-19th Century Daughters Remember The Fiddles of their Fathers

The other day I was doing some background research on my grand-grandfather by reading Emma Guest Bourne’s (1882-1959A Pioneer Farmer’s Daughter of Red River ValleyNortheast Texas (1950) and came across this poignant passage:

Father used to play a piece on his violin known as Blossom Prairie. I caught a few words as I would hear him singing the song, but have never heard the song since I was a child, and only know a few words. Yet the melody is still with me. In my imagination, I can see father as he sat before the fireplace in his little straight chair with his violin and bow as he played this beautiful song. At intervals he would let the bow rest as it was poised over the violin, and he would thump the melody of the chorus with his left fingers as he held the violin under his chin. In the chorus, Mount Vernon, Mount Vernon, were the opening words, and then these words would follow; [sic] “Oh, the green grass grows all over Blossom…” How I have wished for these words, but no one has even been able to give them to me. Mount Vernon was the county seat for several years of Lamar County before the seat was established at Paris, five miles north of Mt. Vernon. [1]

Bourne was born in 1882, and her longing for a ghost-song of her father initially reminded me of the early days of file-sharing on the internet–when one may have heard a song only once in one’s life, and never knowing the name, was somehow able to find it on Napster or by similar means.

But upon reflection, what Bourne’s passage reminded me of was a similar scene told by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s (1867-1957) daughter Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968) of her last visit to her grandparents “Ma and Pa Ingalls”:

We were ready to start early next day, before sun-up, and that evening we went to Grandma’s to say good-by….

Aunt Carrie and I sat in the doorway. Papa got up to give Grandma his chair and Mama stood a minute in the doorway to the dark sitting room. They had blown out the lamp, and there was just a faint start-shine that seemed to be more in the summer air than in the sky. Then, Mama said, “Pa, would you play the fiddle just one more time?”

“Why yes, if you want I should,” Grandpa said. And then he said, “Run get me my fiddle-box, Laura,” and somehow I knew that he had said those words in just that way, many times, and his voice sounded as if he were speaking to a little girl, not Mama at all. She brought it out to him, the fiddle-box, and he took the fiddle out of it and twanged the strings with his thumb, tightening them up. In the dark there by the house wall you could see only a glimmer in his eyes and the long beard on his shirtfront, and his arm lifting the bow. And then out of the shadows came the sound. It was—I can’t tell you. It was gay and strong and reaching, wanting, trying to get to something beyond, and ti just lifted up the heart and filled it so full of happiness and pain and longing that it broke your heart open like a bud.

Nobody said anything. We just sat there in the dimness and stillness, and Grandpa tightened up a string and said, “Well, what shall I play? You first, Mary.” And from the sitting room where she sat in her rocker just inside the doorway, Aunt Mary said, “ ‘Ye banks and braes of Bonnie Doon,’ please Pa.”

So Grandpa played. He went on playing his fiddle there in the warm July evening, and we listened. In all my life I never heard anything like it. You hardly ever heard anymore the tunes that Grandpa played…. [2]

NOTES

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[1] Emma Guest Bourne, A Pioneer Farmer’s Daughter of Red River Valley, Northeast Texas, (Dallas, TX: The Story Book Press, 1950), 262.

[2] Rose Wilder Lane, “Grandpa’s Fiddle,”A Little House Sampler, by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane, ed. William Anderson, (Lincoln, NE, 1988; New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1995), 66-67.


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