The Music Of Pa’s Fiddle

Like many Baby Boomers (and many folks in generations to follow, certainly), I have an affinity for the “Little House” series of books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder about her childhood in the American Midwest during the years from about 1870 into the late 1880s. Starting when I was about six, I read Wilder’s first eight books, from the first book in the series, Little House in the Big Woods, through the eighth, These Happy Golden Years. (Those eight volumes included, of course, Farmer Boy, chronicling the childhood of Almanzo Wilder, Laura’s husband-to-be, in upstate New York.) There are several volumes of Wilder’s writing that were published after her death in 1957, including The First Four Years, which deals with the first years of her marriage to Almanzo, but for some reason I have never read any of those.*

Over the years, I’ve visited numerous locales where the Ingalls family lived during Laura’s childhood, from the replica cabin north of Pepin, Wisconsin, that marks Laura’s birthplace to De Smet, South Dakota, the little town on the prairie where she came to adulthood and where her parents and sisters are buried. My travelings include Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where the 1974-1982 television series, Little House on the Prairie, was set.

Many visitors to Walnut Grove and its Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum are no doubt confounded when they learn a couple of things: First, that the real little house on the prairie was a couple of states south in what is now Kansas and was Indian Territory when the Ingallses lived there (and were, I believe, ejected by the federal government), and second, that a good portion of the Ingalls family’s time near Walnut Grove was spent living in a dugout home, basically a hole in the bank of Plum Creek some miles from the town. The dugout home collapsed long ago, but one can still see the depression its collapse created along the bank of the creek (and visitors can also see the marked burial place of Jack the bulldog).

So how did I come to think about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family’s wanderings today? Well, at the public library yesterday, I was idly flipping through the folk CDs when I came across one titled Pa’s Fiddle. Produced by an organization called the Pa’s Fiddle Project, the 2011 CD is the third in a planned series of ten CDs based on music mentioned in the “Little House” series of books. Charles Ingalls, Laura’s father, was a fiddler, and his fiddle playing often marks important milestones and major events in Wilder’s tales. All of the fifteen songs on Pa’s Fiddle (one of them presented in three variations) are songs that Wilder mentioned her father playing at some point during the series of books.

And the notes that accompany the CD detail the history of the songs and indicate in which chapter Wilder mentioned each song. From a first listen, one of the tunes most affecting to me is “Golden Years Are Passing By.” The notes say:

“This lovely song was copyrighted in 1879 by Will Lamartine Thompson (1847-1909). In the ‘Perry School’ chapter of These Happy Golden Years – which title is taken from a line in the song! – we find Laura and her sisters growing up, and, indeed, Laura will marry towards the end of the book. ‘The dusk was deepening. The land flattened to blackness and in the clear air above it the large stars hung low, while the fiddle sang a wandering song of its own.’ Pa then offered up the tune to this song on the fiddle, and ‘Laura’s heart ached as the music floated away and was gone in the spring night under the stars’.”

Here’s “Golden Years Are Passing By” as performed by the Pa’s Fiddle Band:

(Members of the Pa’s Fiddle Band are Shad Cobb, banjo and fiddle; Matt Combs, fiddle; Dennis Crouch, bass; Matt Flinner, mandolin; Buddy Greene, harmonica; Bryan Sutton, guitar; and Jeff Taylor, accordion, pennywhistle and piano.)

As to Pa’s fiddle itself, it resides in a display case at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum near Mansfield, Missouri. As several videos easily found on YouTube indicate, Charles Ingalls’ fiddle is taken out of its display case once a year and played during a festival at the museum. Beyond that, the notes to Pa’s Fiddle tell us:

“Ingalls’ instrument was likely made by Friedrich August Glass of Klingenthal, Germany, the ‘Amati’ label pasted inside the instrument’s body notwithstanding. . . . His daughter recorded that ‘Pa played by ear and a tune once heard he could play and never forget.’ He appears to have been voracious in consuming new music and eclectic in his tastes, for he knew a bounty of songs and tunes from across a broad range of 19th-century American vernacular music. From the evidence pieced together, his music and his playing most resemble, both in repertory and approach, the group of old-time fiddlers that made legendary recordings in the 1920s and the 1930s.”

The ultimate aim of the Pa’s Fiddle Project is to release on CD current recordings of all one-hundred and twenty-seven songs that Wilder mentions in her books. Pa’s Fiddle and the two CDs that preceded it – titled Happy Land: Musical Tributes to Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Arkansas Traveler: Music from Little House on the Prairie – are available through the Pa’s Fiddle Project at www.laura-ingalls-wilder.com. The project has also published two books of sheet music – The Happy Land Companion: Music from the World of Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Ingalls Wilder Family Songbook – but the first is out of stock and the second is evidently out of print and rare enough to command prices north of two hundred dollars.

* I suppose I should note that through the years, there was been what Wikipedia terms “scholarly debate” about the role of Laura Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, in the writing of the “Little House” books. Lane, a successful writer herself, edited the books and assisted her mother in their writing. Wikipedia concludes, “Almost all Wilder scholars and her biographers consider that the writing of the books was a tense but ultimately effective continuing collaboration between mother and daughter: Wilder writing the books and her daughter editing them.”

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