Part of the fun of this business is learning some history. I am of the opinion that it is better to just get out and try something, rather than waiting until you have everything just perfect. Because who knows what perfect is? or was, I guess. I like fiddle music, and have spent some time researching period tunes. But as to how they really sounded, it's a guess.

First there's the tunes. We do have some tune books from the 1700s and 1800s that we can refer to. Playford, a fellow back in the 1600s in England, put together a collection of dance tunes that were used well into the 1800s (and are still being used today). But these written out tunes tend to be skeletons of the music -- the basic idea, with the understanding that the musicians would add in their own flourishes and improvisations. So it's likely that tunes played by someone in Colonial Virginia would sound somewhat different, perhaps much different, than that played by someone in Lancastershire, England, though reading from the same book. There are also tune books from Scotland in the late 1700s. Mrs. Crawford's Favorite, an air, was published in 1792. It's a nice melody, and when we play it at historical re-enactments, we try to play it in the'old' way. But it's a guess.

Bluegrass music, which we like, is older than rock-and-roll, by a good 10 years or so. Most of what is called old-time fiddle music is music of the 1890 to 1930 period. So it had probably evolved from what was heard in the early 1800s. Lately I've become interested in the instrument itself. For example, what type of fiddle did Cruzatte play? I have a National Geographic book, "In the Footsteps of Lewis and Clark," that shows a photo of a crude, handmade violin, claiming perhaps it was something like what Cruzatte played. I find this extremely difficult to believe. Violins were common, so why make something that is so easy to buy? Perhaps if you were stuck, out in the wilderness, with no violin, and time on your hands, you might whittle one out. But as soon as you could, you'd buy a real violin.

But what is a violin? You've heard of Stradivarius. He died in 1737, at the age of 93 so he lived during the Baroque period. Bach and Vivaldi were his contemporaries. His violin design is still preferred by players today. Sort of. Mr. Stradavari and other violin makers of that time made violins with shorter, flatter necks than those we see now. Music was played in intimate settings, small chambers and theaters. When the Romantic period came along, music became "bigger" – think Beethoven's 5th symphony. Concert halls were built. Public performances became common. The instruments had to be louder. They did this, in part, by making the violin's bridge higher, putting the strings at more tension, with more of the vibration transmitted down to the body. The neck was also lengthened to increase the number of notes that could be played, such as in Paganini's Caprices.

Beethoven died in 1827. Paganini died in 1840. So the old style violins were refitted with modern style necks. It's an interesting process, where the scroll and pegbox off the old neck is grafted onto the new neck -- a tough woodworking job Of the 600-some Stradivari instruments still around, maybe 2 or 3 have their original necks. The rest were converted. When did this conversion take place? The date generally given for when most of the instruments had been converted over is 1800. It's a nice, round, imprecise date.


Lewis and Clark left St. Louis in 1804. Unless Cruzatte bought a new fiddle just before he left, there is a chance he was playing on a Baroque-style instrument. Or, he could have been playing a 'modern' fiddle. Who knows? What about the rest of the instrument? The chin-rest was invented in the 1820s, in Europe, and took a few decades to become wide-spread. So, no chinrest on Cruzatte's fiddle. Strings were made of gut, and, like anything else organic, wore out fast. I would believe that Cruzatte learned how to make fiddle strings out of animal intestines, though he probably bought them when he could. I've seen violin strings listed on a supply inventory of a Canadian Hudson's Bay Company post from the early 1800s.

Even when I play at historical re-enactments, my fiddle is fitted with a chinrest, steel strings, fine tuners, and I'll often use a shoulder rest, which was invented in the late 1970s. So, we do the best we can. Still, a Baroque-style violin strung with elk-gut could be an entertaining winter project.


"I was in the act of firing on the Elk ... when a ball struck my left thye about an inch below my hip joint... I instantly supposed that Cruzatte had shot me in mistake for an Elk as I was dressed in brown leather and he cannot see very well..." Meriwether Lewis, August 11, 1806.