Friday, August 26, 2022

Fit as a Fiddle

 By Cindy Regnier

 If you have read my posts in the past, you probably know I am a huge Laura Ingalls Wilder fan, and yes I’m going there – AGAIN! This time, I wanted to focus on Pa’s fiddle. The LIW books are full of references to Pa playing the fiddle and the many memories it created for Laura and her sisters. Though she included many of the lyrics to the songs she remembered, I always wished I could actually hear the music.

Charles Ingalls was an accomplished fiddler, and Laura documented 127 separate tunes that she remembered him playing. In Little House on the Prairie, Pa plays “Old Dan Tucker” so Mr. Edwards won’t feel lonesome as he heads back to his cabin. The song’s lyrics fit Mr. Edwards in Laura’s mind as she pictured him “washing his face in the frying-pan.”
Charles Ingalls

During a blizzard in The Long Winter Pa plays marches on the fiddle as Laura, Carrie, and Grace step in time to keep warm. Later as the blizzards grow more intense, Pa’s fiddle mimics their sounds. “The fiddle moaned a deep, rushing undertone and wild notes flickered high above it, rising until they thinned away in nothingness, only to come wailing back, the same notes but not quite the same, as if they had been changed while out of hearing.” As the winter drags on, Pa is unable to make music anymore, his fingers “too stiff and thick from being out in the cold so much” to play, a sad memory for Laura.

So I wondered, beyond the Ingalls family, what part did the fiddle play in American history? Fiddles, a popular European instrument, found their way to America with the first early explorers and settlers. In Jamestown in 1607, a man named John Utie played the fiddle. The Lewis and Clark expedition had at least two fiddlers in their group. Apparently that did much for morale and good relations with Indians. For a long while it was almost the only instrument you could find on the frontier.
European traditions strongly influenced America music. African culture and Native American culture also played a role until many ethnic influences eventually merged into the “American sound.” Fiddle music was the primary source of entertainment and “traveling fiddlers” were a welcome sight. The music and dancing was the escape from labor and hardship. Fiddles played for barn dances, husking parties, shivarees, weddings, even funerals.

 George Washington had his favorite fiddle tune, Jaybird Sittin’ on a Hickory Limb. Thomas Jefferson was an accomplished player, and his music played a part in courting his wife. Patrick Henry was good at fiddle playing and Davy Crockett developed the tune Crockett’s Reel, still played today.”

As the 19th century continued, immigrants brought with them the latest trends in fiddling from all over the world. In my opinion, Pa Ingalls was a large part of the fiddle’s history in America given its preservation in Laura’s books. 
Pa's fiddle

I’ve seen Pa’s fiddle on display at the Wilder home in Mansfield Missouri. I hope you can make it there one day too, if you haven't already. What a legacy!

How about you? Anyone know how to play a fiddle? Do you call it a fiddle or violin (I guess there are some minute differences) and what kind of fiddle music do you enjoy?


Scribbling in notebooks has been a habit of Cindy Regnier since she was old enough to hold a pencil. Born and raised in Kansas, she writes stories of historical Kansas, especially the Flint Hills area where she spent much of her childhood. Cindy is married to her husband of 39 years, has two grown sons, a son residing in heaven, and two beautiful daughters-in-law.

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  1. Thanks for posting today, and for your continued entries to the blog. All of you authors make it such an interesting and informative site. I don't know anyone in my family who ever played fiddle; I do have a couple of acquaintances who play. The person I'm especially thinking of would call it a violin, I believe. I enjoy bluegrass music and the fiddle is prominent in that style.

    1. Hi Connie I like Bluegrass too. Sure hope a loyal reader like you has signed up for the big giveaway - Good luck!

  2. I'm a Laura Ingalls Wilder fan, too. I've been to Laura's home and museum in Mansfield, MO. An awesome experience to step back in time to when she lived. I've also seen an impersonator of Laura Ingalls Wilder at Lincoln Log Cabin Historical Park here in our county! She gave an amazing history of her life and writing. I know several who play the violin and different fiddles with one trio recently retiring. A neighbor gives violin lesson. Thank you for this great post, Cindy.

    1. Hi Marilyn I'd sure like to see that impersonator. What a great idea. A neighbor gives lessons? Do you get to listen?

  3. Thank you for sharing this fascinating post!