Ole, pronounced like the name of a Norwegian, because… well, that is where the story begins. (Think: Ole, Ole, oxen free!, and you’ve got it).
Once upon a Time. a Norwegian folk violinist by the name of Ole Bull (1810-1880) took popular sentiment by storm, despite his disillusioned Utopian past. Having once heard a rare recording of his live performance for Norwegian Public Radio, his passion and skill are evident. He strove to pluck notes with the fingers of his left hand, like his idol, Pagianni. Then he flattened the bridge of his Strad with goal to play, with his bow in the right hand, as many as four strings at once. It was impossible to believe only one instrument made all that beautiful sound.
With a perfect confluence of mass media and European popularity, Mr. Bull and his Stradivarius turned fiddle by a flattened bridge, were on the way to becoming the first popstar with a branded product.
Here’s how it happened. The year is 1878 and Mr. Bull is at the height of his career. One night, after a gig in St. Louis, Ole meets a luthier, Mr. Lowendall, a violin maker from Germany who is given permission to see and measure the famous instrument. The luthier is not, of course, allowed to open the precious violin’s wooden body to measure and copy the delicate interior vital components of blocking and stays.
Mr. Lowendall is, however, allowed to mass produce the fiddles he makes from this exterior pattern and some guesswork. On the back, each was made to bare the name of their famous owner, once removed: ” OLE BULL” was added to the swarthy, stained and thusly branded wooden body.
From the factory Lowendall established in Berlin came fiddles with excellent tone and dubious blocking, lovingly made and shipped, of all places, to America. The men who made them in the spacious four-story building were luthiers too, craftsmen fresh to the newly industrial cities from whatever hunger that drove them out of the countryside. Perhaps they had to hurry more than preferred on an instrument, but steady pay was good and the work likely less dangerous than other manly professions of the day.
Ole, the violin, had his first gig already. A huge contract with Sears Roebuck, a mailorder catalog that supplied the American West, East, North and South with everything from underwear to genuine redwood frame Victorian house kits. He and his kin were to be shipped across country providing the necessary instrument of torture for so many schoolage children and other students. I bet no one ever told the violins this as Ole and his mates boarded first the steamship, then the train, then often the postman’s bumpy wagon, to reach his destination. Home at last.
Who is to say that he didn’t dream, the branded fiddle packed in wooden shavings upon his jolting adventure almost 120 years ago? Would he imagine breaking the quiet of evening by singing at pioneer campfires? Help out with music at church? Play a jig at sea, or (shudder) even be called to the symphony one day? We can only suppose, if he thought anything at all, waiting patiently in his box, on his way home. His first home, in a long line.
And it is likely that, when he arrived, being only a $2 Strad copy and worth what a person might pay for a handsome meal at the time, he was handed to a beginner. If violins can cry, then this one likely screamed, screached and moaned it all out at this point, for I have never heard a sour note from him since. If he arrived from the factory with a case, it vanished soon thereafter.
The lack of protection left him vulnerable, handsome as he was. His varnish, a fashionable two-tone over bookmatched striped wood grain, is pitted with scars from hot ashes. Were they sparks from a busker’s campfire? Dustings of embers from the notorious smoking fiddler? Along the way, someone even pushed two guide holes into his stiff neck, cracking its surface ever-so slightly as they mark the first two finger positions on the strings- serving a vital guide for beginners.
Musically speaking, I was almost virginal. Oh, a few heavy petting sessions with a guitar once looking for a Stairway… and there was that ride through the Wilds of Woodwind sitting in the third clarinet section of high school band. It was then I convinced myself that reading music was both impossible and useless. Decades later, Ole made me think otherwise. By the time we met, I had even been abused by a warped bow (the friend of a young Chinese violin) and was still naively ready to give Apollo’s sweet pasttime torture another go.
Despite the years in someone’s attic or barn, where ever he was Ole was kept clean enough to avoid smelling musty today. When we met it seemed like a promising start. He was handled pretty kindly through the years, having first of all, survived, then at some point, been deemed worthy of repair. I know this by the sticker inside his hollow wooden body. It reads: Repaired by: So. California Music Co., S. Broadway, Los Angeles / February 4, 1960.
This is a big step up for a $2 fiddle. Many of his friends and shopmates were broken, or broken-in badly and handled roughly because the instrument was after all an ill-blocked mail order bargain. It would take a year of conscientious playing and tuning, playing and tuning, to develop the potentially rich tone. Ole, my Ole, was one of the lucky ones, he survived. Then someone bothered to have him repaired. It must have been true love, or at least a very respectful owner.
Yet when I met him, he had no case. No safe place of his own to sleep in. Since I had to save up for his purchase, I also had time to find a case for him on Amazon. Then, wishing to avoid a previous blunder, I introduced myself to the old fiddle before I took him home. It seemed my first violin came fresh from a Chinese factory for the western student market and resented being grabbed by the neck and handled roughly by a beginner without so much as a “How d’ye do?”
In retaliation I am quite sure she conspired with her friend, the warped bow mentioned earlier, to hide all the notes from me. That went on for 200 hours of practice before I knew enough to both apologize, and fix the bow problem. But by then it was too late for me and the violin I called Lin-Lin. She was set on playing highbrow classical music, I think, while I persued older and more “popular” folk tunes from the days when the fiddle was a mainstay for an evening’s entertainment at home.
And I had met Ole by then. So, with a polite if not fond farewell, I traded her in for an old Sears Roebuck fiddle who gets cranky in the mornings and whenever the weather changes. But he likes my music alright, and sometimes I think he’s even helping me with the tunes. His way, perhaps, of saying “Thanks for the bed and a place to call home, and someone to play music with.” At his age, he seems to have his notes, and priorities, straight. AD =:->