A few years before the birth of Napoleon an unknown violin maker in the Bavarian town of Mittenwald, finished work on the violin I’ve owned for the last thirty one years. In the centuries before I took possession of it the violin embarked on a series of peregrinations that somehow brought it to Grand Rapids, Minnesota, which is where I first encountered it. I would love to know the stories of that 230 year sojourn. Whose hands held the violin. What music they played. I will never know any of this, which only adds to the fascination. There is an allure to a mysterious past, n’est-ce pas?
By 1990, I had begun making a meager living as a musician playing in bars. My wife and I had been struggling to start up what we called community dances at local town halls. In the process we had worked with various incarnations of bands and we were just getting settled into a new one that we were calling Duck for the Oyster. Thanks to my friend, Mark Boggie, I had also hooked up with a band called We ‘R’ Us, which was lined up to play for the L-Bar X Dancers – a performing dance troop from the folk dance program out of the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse – during their tour of France that summer. I had a very mediocre violin at the time.
Three days before our flight to Paris we were scheduled to do an evening send-off performance at the University in La Crosse. The band did a mic check that afternoon and as I reached up to adjust my mic my wrist knocked my fiddle out of my arms and into the air off the stage. The violin did two somersaults and exploded into pieces on the auditorium floor.
I will gloss over the visceral details of that moment: the slow motion, the shock, the horror, the stunned and profound silence. We were musicians, and we had a gig to play that night. And after that I had to figure out how I was going to get a violin before our plane took off two days later.
The first problem was solved when a local musician, whom I had never met, offered to lend me – me, the guy that had just destroyed his own violin – to lend me his own violin for the evening concert. The generosity was overwhelming. I am ashamed to admit that I don’t remember his name. We played the concert that night and I returned his violin to him. I never saw him again.
Afterwards the band circled the wagons and did the best they could to get me through denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance before we took off for Paris. This was accomplished by sitting me down in front of “The Princess Bride” (my first viewing) and giving me the phone number of Lloyd LaPlant.
Lloyd was a fixture in the burgeoning Minnesota bluegrass community. You could find him at festivals at his trailer surrounded by other musicians come to jam, or to try out one of his guitars or mandolins, or to see what fiddles he had for sale. He was a fine luthier and if he had been any nicer there would have had to have been two of him. I called him and arranged to meet him at his home in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, the next day, where he had a few dozen violins for me to try out. And that is where my Mittenwald honey and I first crossed paths. Lloyd agreed to sell me the violin on installments. I hightailed it back to La Crosse, and took off with the band for Paris the next day.
Every musician has gig stories and I am no exception. Buy me a cup of coffee and I will happily regale you for hours with accounts of disasters, outrages, hi-jinx, embarrassment, and frolicking absurdity. For this chronicle one story from that 1990 tour de France is particularly pertinent.
We were playing a folk dance festival in Montguillon. During the three days of the festival I had come to recognize the other violin players in the groups from other countries. At that festival I had established a particularly nice non-verbal relationship with a fiddle player from what was then Czechoslovakia. We smiled at each other a lot as we were coming on and off stages. On the last night of the festival, just as the American troupe was coming off stage, my Czech friend came running up to me in a panic with someone who acted as translator. His violin had been stolen, the translator said, and he needed a violin for his performance which was happening immediately after ours. The risk seemed monumental to me, but I remembered the generosity of the stranger in La Crosse, and without a second’s hesitation I handed over my violin and my bow, which were still in my hand. I was able to get them both back (along with nearly tearful thanks) in the chaos of performers loading their busses to head for the next festival down the road. I never got his name.
Since then the Mittenwald and I have been pretty inseparable. We’ve played campgrounds, concert halls and everything in between all over the place. We’ve shared stages with the somewhat famous as well as the justifiably obscure. But it was the dances that meant the most to me. The Ducks turned out to be a pretty awesome crew to work with. On those nights when the caller, the band and the dancers were really in sync and totally grooving out – and there were plenty of those nights – life was transcendent. It never got any better than that. I don’t expect it ever will.
It has been months since I’ve played any instrument. The writing has been on the wall for quite some time and I’ve known it. I began shedding music stuff pretty early on after the surgery. The instruments..? well, that’s a harder cut to make. But the time has come. I said goodbye to the viola a few weeks ago. The Mittenwald is next. It deserves to be played. To be heard. To be held by someone who has the passion and space in their life to attend to the relationship. And that ain’t me. So the violin, along with a couple of bows will be finding a new home soon. And I’ll keep trying to figure out just what it is I’m supposed to be doing with my baffling, aimless life.