My great-grandfather was a musician. Not as a professional trade but by practice and reputation. He was an Irish immigrant back around the turn-of-the-century, moving here to escape the ongoing Irish civil war fighting, deciding instead to start anew in America. He settled in Chicago and by day took on the blue collar life of a streetcar conductor, and at night, the amateur fiddler. Family lore includes tales of winning talent shows, both in local entertainment venues and on the big-time radio shows of Chicago in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
My mother still has his violin, still in its delicate case. It sits in a small, cramped closet, in a tiny home in the suburbs. Once every five or ten years someone pulls it out to take a look at it, and talk about how we don’t know anything about it, and how so many of us know little about the man who owned and played it.
Over Thanksgiving my great-grandfather came up in conversation, and thus “the fiddle” and the question of who should inherit this….some day. (As the only family member working in the arts, I claimed dibs years ago.) I needed to see it again and wanted to show my husband this family heirloom, so I headed to the closet and gently pulled it out.
The instrument itself seems as if someone tried at some point to restore it to its glory. In fact his son did just that, trying to “clean” the exterior of the wood and sadly discolored the face. The bridge and tailpiece are off, the strings are gone, and the bow’s horse hair is frayed and fragile.
But one of the more striking details was how the back of the neck had a patch of the finish being completely worn off from use. Running my hand over that stretch made me wonder how often, how many times, for how long had his hand gripped it.
I’ve an interest in history and genealogy and now I’m on a mission to learn more of the provenance of the instrument itself, which gives us few clues. We always wondered if he’d brought it with him from Ireland. That, however, seems unlikely because peering inside the F Holes we can see a label, handwritten with my great-grandfather’s name and Chicago address— an address none of us recognize. Yet. It could be an early address, but it seems to point to being purchased or made in Chicago. The note itself looks almost like a yellow post-it note, and I wonder about how common it was to put such a label inside. And how did they do that?
The only other clue comes from a stamp on the metal base of the chin rest: a large B, surrounded by “Becker Patent Trade Mark” which at first seemed really promising. I did a few searches online and wrote an email or two back and forth with the Carl Becker violin company of Chicago, which has been around since the turn of the century. They told me they’d have to see the violin in person to make any kind of assessment (which makes complete sense) but that from the picture of the stamp they could say that the insignia was absolutely not affiliated with them.
So where does this leave me? Still in the dark but even hungrier to learn about this fragile piece of wood. I want to talk to violin makers, musicians and historians. I want to know more about where and when it was played. I want look more closely, again, at this delicate and amazingly light violin and discover the tales it might be able to tell.
This past summer I took a fabulous trip to Ireland where I visited the old stomping grounds of my great-grandfather. We heard music in many places and fiddle music in a few. At one point I heard a violin playing traditional Irish music and we followed its sound. We discovered this young busker on the main pedestrian street in Galway, who made me wonder about my great-grandfather Felix. And I imagined that had he been born one hundred years later, perhaps he wouldn’t have come to America. Perhaps this is what that streetcar conductor would’ve been doing.