Who Built My Fiddle? The Mysterious Origin of a Violin from Missouri
After I left Missouri and came to California, I never saw a violin that looked quite like mine.
Its orange-tinted varnish, its simple black pegs, and the double black lines tracing the edge — those things were nothing like the features of the dark European instruments that my friends in California played.
My family bought the violin in the late 1970’s from a dealer in Kansas City. Where he got it, I never knew.
Recently, I found some clues.
Not long ago, I clicked on a story in The New York Times with photos of violins in the backcountry of Missouri. I saw orange-tinted varnish, simple black pegs and double black lines tracing the edges. The story was about country jam sessions in Missouri, and I’ll be damned if some of those violins didn’t look just like mine.
I had taken the instrument to a violin maker’s shop in Southern California recently to get it back in shape after 25 years of neglect. The shop was a cheerful place, with Christmas music on display, cellos preening along the walls, and violins hanging from the ceiling, looking like shelter pets waiting to be taken in.
“It’s hand-made,” he said. “Not mass-manufactured. A pretty good instrument.”
When I opened my case, the shop cat jumped in. The violin maker’s wife, who runs the shop, shooed him off into a case of his own.
“Do you know where it came from?” the violin maker asked. He turned it and studied it from every angle.
He noted the perfect positioning of the notches on the f-holes — the curved cutouts that surround the bridge.
“It’s hand-made,” he said. “Not mass-manufactured. A pretty good instrument.”
That’s high praise in a violin shop.
He did a quick appraisal and tossed out a value that was five times greater than I thought it was worth. To think, all those times I thought about selling it for grocery money. I could have gotten much more than I expected.
Where had the instrument come from?
At the time I got it, whatever details I had known, I’m pretty sure I didn’t write them down. It was just a violin. I wouldn’t have thought it was important.
Back then, in my early teens, I wrote down everything else. I’ve got volumes of notes about carving a path out of a terrible place, recording, each year, the escalating details of injustice and abuse. In Kansas City, people did not understand that when people came from the country, they didn’t know where they were supposed to live. In the city, no one knows who your family is; people only know your address.
What did I write down? I probably wrote down the rumor regarding the dinner for the National Honor Society at a suburban high school near Kansas City. Someone told me that the hosts — the parents of a classmate — had not wanted to invite me because of the neighborhood where I lived. I don’t know if it was true. What was important was that someone had felt it was necessary to tell me.
Yes, I certainly would have written down a story like that — but not the origin story of the violin. That part of my life, I left starved and abandoned.
In the shop in California, the violin maker didn’t like the way the sound post was set inside the instrument. He said it would deaden the resonance. He grabbed a tool and extracted the post from deep inside.
“Nice little post,” he said, holding it up to the light. “Good wood. Very well made. It says something here. Maybe the violin maker signed it.”
He handed the post to me, and I looked it over. It was a name that I recognized — the name of a high school classmate from a wealthy neighborhood.
“Would someone have written a customer’s name on a post?” I asked.
“Hard to say,” the violin maker said. “People do all kinds of things.”
The sound post baffled me. The name on it — it was the name of a classmate who had not only lived in the best neighborhood, but whose father was connected to my grandparents through old-guard Missouri politics. Perhaps my classmate, who could afford to be serious about the violin, had traded it up for something better.
In retrospect, it was a little weird how the purchase of this violin came about. At the moment that I was qualifying at a higher level of music competition, some classmates bubbled up with the news that this dealer had a better instrument for sale, and that I should go take a look at it.
They badgered me, really, until I stopped by the violin maker/dealer’s shop to take a look.
He ran his business out of his garage, as I recall, and unlike the orderly, gleaming shop I visited in California many years later, it was a crazy place, full of wood scraps and pliers and steel strings that poked out from stuff stacked everywhere.
I don’t recall what the violin cost. I don’t think I paid for it myself; I was 13 or 14, and it would be a couple of years yet before I went to work. I don’t remember how I convinced anyone to pay for it. Of course, at least three generations of women in my family had played both piano and one other instrument. Also, these were country people. They loved barn dances. They had seen many a fiddle.
Where did the violin come from? Truth be told, I still don’t know, and I probably never will. I have some theories, however.
It’s reasonable to assess that a private violin dealer in Missouri would acquire instruments from two types of sellers: Country people with a relative who had played for barn dances, and descendants of German immigrants who wanted their children to connect with the Old World.
Another clue cropped up: The violin maker in California laughed at the old bridge; it was chopped down well below the prescribed height. Also, he said, the neck was set at too low a string projection. As it turns out, both of those features can be found on backcountry fiddles; they’re designed to keep steel strings close to the fingerboard so you can play for hours without getting tired and so you can play two strings together without much effort.
It’s not a stretch to imagine that the violin had been built in Missouri or Kentucky or Tennessee — that it might have even been built by the same craftsman who made those bluegrass instruments in the pictures in The New York Times.
According to the Library of Congress, Missouri supported a passel of violin makers between 1840 and 1950. One of the names on this list, Julius Koontz of Kansas City, is a name I’m sure I’ve heard. I can’t remember the context.
The violin maker in California, after running a light test through the wood, estimated that the instrument had been built between the world wars. A document from the Library of Congress indicates that Koontz was making violins in Kansas City during that period.
My violin doesn’t bear a maker’s label. I don’t know if it was made by Koontz, but it charms me to think that maybe it was; it’s surprising, how exciting it would be to put a name to the maker of an instrument that has thrilled me and plagued me over the years.
Until now, I never thought much about why I kept a violin that I never really loved. In college, I kept it because it more than paid for itself; I needed every source of income I could muster. No one in my family could be convinced to help pay for my education. College, in their thinking, was not for women, even though life in the country offered fewer options each decade. My music scholarships, while they didn’t cover everything, closed the gap a little. Playing the violin didn’t make paying for college easy. It did make it possible.
I certainly thought about selling the violin after college. During my first years working as a reporter, I considered selling it every single month to buy food; after rent in Southern California and student loans, I had only $1.10 a day left over for food.
Over time, I’ve come to look at the value of the violin in different terms — independent of its appraisal or its maker.
It’s fair to say that most of the people I’ve worked with, even at small newspapers, were not like me. Their discussions about college generally circled back to Junior Year Abroad. I struggled in one newsroom to find responses to a co-worker who put down my wardrobe and my broken-down car. (To be fair, another co-worker, in a show of unity, asked if she could ride in the car. I had to warn her that if we ran over a puddle, the water would splash her through the floor.)
Even so, what can you say to someone who is telling you that, no matter how hard you’ve worked, you do not belong?
After work, at rehearsals for a well-regarded community orchestra, no one said a word about how I dressed or what I drove. After I had played with the group for a couple of weeks, the conductor quietly moved me near the front of the first section — the place where you seat the strongest players. No one minded. No one insulted my wardrobe.
Reporters may be a dime a dozen, but a symphony can always use a strong string player. In the orchestra, I found a well-educated, well-traveled group of people who hailed from all over the world. They spoke a common language, and, with them, I did not have to obscure my own dialect.
I may never know who made my violin, or who owned it before me, but why should it matter? In our time together, that fiddle took me to a place where I belonged.
The “Reckless Violinist” series appears in essay and video form.
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