Have Fiddle, Will Travel

By Stewart Hendrickson

It’s the middle of August and I am lacking inspiration for a new column. It’s due in a couple of weeks, so I think I’ll just go with some random musings.

"Have Fiddle, Will Travel" is a bumper sticker you can get from the good folks at Fiddler Magazine. I think it well describes my current life style. My fiddle case is a convenient size and fits nicely in the overhead bin of most airplanes. It also has a couple of straps to wear like a backpack. Only once did it not fit in the passenger compartment of an airplane. On a very small prop plane going from Glasgow, Scotland, to Derry, N. Ireland, I watched the pilot carefully place it in the luggage hold, and then carefully hand it to me after we landed.
I take my fiddle most everywhere I travel. Even if I’m not performing, I like to practice every day. A fiddle instructor once told me, “If you don’t practice for one day, you notice. If you don’t practice for two days, they notice.”
On a recent trip to Hawaii we stayed in a plush vacation house just twenty feet from the beach on the north coast of Kauai. As I sat on the veranda playing my fiddle, it was fun to watch the expressions of people walking by. I don’t think they expected to hear Irish fiddle tunes on the beach in Hawaii!
Then of course, how can you possibly go to Ireland without a fiddle? It gets you free Guinness in most pubs and you meet many interesting musicians. Once, waiting four hours for a delayed flight out of Dublin, I entertained my fellow passengers with fiddle music.
And going through airport security, I have yet to open my fiddle case for inspection, even though I now routinely take off my shoes and belt and empty my pockets (is going through nude the next option?). And I have a lot of stuff in that case other than my fiddle!
Here are some favorite fiddle quotes:
"We do not quit playing because we grow old, we grow old because we quit playing."
 Oliver Wendell Holmes

"We consider that the man who can fiddle all through one of those Virginia reels without losing his grip, may be depended upon in any kind of emergency."
Mark Twain - Letter to Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, January 1863
"Fiddlers just want to have fun!" Stacy Phillips

"I don't want talking, I want fiddling!" Luther Davis
"Get up, Kate. We can make more money plowing than we can playing the fiddle."
John Morgan Salyer
"The music comes from the fiddler's heart, through his strings and straight into your heart."
Father John Angus Rankin, Cape Breton musician
And a song:
EDGAR – by Pam Ayres

Oh, don't sell our Edgar no more violins,
That dear little laddie of mine.
Although he's but eight, we'd prefer him to wait
For I doubt if he'll live to be nine.
He plays the same song, and it's sad and it's long
And when Edgar reaches the end
With his face full of woe, he just rosins the bow
And starts it all over again.

Now Dad he says Edgar's a right little gem,
It's only his face that looks bored.
It's really delight makes his face appear white
When Edgar scrapes out that first chord.
Daddy, of course, was filled with remorse
When Edgar came home from the choir
To find that his fiddle, well, the sides and the middle
Were stuffed down the back of the fire.

So don't sell our Edgar no more violins
When next he appears in your shop.
His daddy and me, well, we both do agree
That his fiddling will soon have to stop.
Sell him a clean or a filthy magazine,
Ply him with whisky or gin,
A teddy, a bunny, or just pinch the kid's money
But don't sell out Edgar no more violins.

 Although it would be a mortal sin,
We'll do the little fiddler in,
Don't sell our Edgar no more violins.
My older sister takes great delight in reminding me that when I was eight years old and just learning to play the violin, she couldn’t bear to hear me. It takes several years before a beginning player can play in the presence of other people. My friend Ken Waldman, “Alaska’s Fiddling Poet,” learned to play fiddle while living alone in a one-room cabin in the remote wilds of Alaska; that’s the best way to learn. Here’s some advice from Ken:
Old-Time Fiddle Lesson – Ken Waldman (with permission)
“To Live on this Earth” (West End Press, 2002) and
”A Week in Eek” (Nomadic Press Audio CD, 2000).
To learn, lock yourself
and your fiddle in a room
all winter, and practice
until you play with a twisty
heartfelt rhythmic punch
that approaches trance:
fiddling is not technical
repetition anyone can master -
it's the sound you make
once you know in the blood
you clog with your fingers
while that old devil music
dances inside the box.
 When someone asks me how long I have played the violin, I tell them about sixty years. But that includes about forty-five years that I didn’t play at all. About eight years ago I started playing again (this time the fiddle and not the violin, but they’re really the same instrument). Much of what I had learned as a kid came back to me, but then I had to learn all those tunes. Learning to play the fiddle (or violin) is really a life-long process; one never arrives at the final destination, but it is the journey that makes it worthwhile.
And then there are the fiddles in my life. I have had five different violins at various times, and still have two. In the March, 2003, Victory Review I wrote a column on the acquisition of my latest instrument. It’s an interesting process. I finally waited for the violin that told me I just had to buy it.
I’m not a religious person, but recently I realize I do have a religion, it’s ITM. That’s Irish Traditional Music. There are parallels with more conventional religions. When musicians discover ITM it’s often similar to a religions conversion – “I will play no other kind of music forevermore.” The Bible is “O’Neill’s Music of Ireland.” We gather in dark, secretive places to study the holy writ (tunes) and for fellowship (craic). We share communion (Irish soda bread and Guinness). We make pilgrimages to the Holy Land (Ireland). Over time philosophical and spiritual differences develop (traditional, new-age, ecumenical, fusion, pop). And finally, as the brethren argue and differ among themselves, sessions split to form new sessions. Come, let us play!
Stewart Hendrickson is Chemistry Professor Emeritus – St. Olaf College, Research Professor Emeritus – University of Washington, and in his new career, an unemployed folk musician (voice, fiddle, guitar; ).  Contact him at for questions, ideas or comments.