Creativity, necessity and persistence created a perfect storm for the proliferation of indigenous Louisiana instruments. Many homemade instrument builders made just one instrument, the one they played and handed down until it fell apart or ended up in the hands of someone like professionally-trained luthier and violinist Anya Burgess, owner of SOLA Violins in Lafayette.
Burgess notes that while most instruments can be considered “handbuilt,” the term “homemade” more accurately applies to those instruments built by an untrained person using materials and tools near at hand or repurposed for the project. Over the years, she’s compiled a list of local violinmakers and documented their building techniques and quirks. Family members bring in heirlooms for repair and Burgess makes them “at least playable,” although the rough construction won’t give them the concert hall sound that a professionally-built violin carries.
Instead, they tend to have what she calls “that front-porch sound” produced by thicker boards, improvised strings, and crude bows. Of the homemade fiddles she’s seen, Burgess can recall one female builder, one fiddle made with a bone tail piece, several hidden maker’s labels, and in each one, the builder’s personality.
“I have great respect for anyone who builds an instrument without prior knowledge and guidance,” she says.
Emar Andrepont, a well-to-do farmer from Prairie Ronde, was one of the first to build orchestra-quality violins. Patterned after the work on one I. Benoit from New Orleans, Andrepont modified his technique with some rather unorthodox practices. One deviation was that he made his front and back plates by molding thin sheets of wood over a pre-made pattern and submerging the pieces in a well, rather than carving them from a thick block of wood.
Burgess and many other observers consider Lionel Leleux to be the pinnacle of local violinmakers. Born in Vermilion Parish in 1910, Leleux was interested in fiddles his entire life—he chewed on his daddy’s fiddles while cutting his first teeth, daydreamed about fiddles he would build one day, and dismissed school because there weren’t any pictures of fiddles in the textbooks.
“It’s hard to believe, I guess, because I don’t know if anyone could ever be hardheaded enough to continue with a start like I had. I started on bows in 1925. I started repairing fiddles in July 1927. I had no tools. So, in order to work on pieces of wood, I would break bottles and old window panes to make scrapers to scratch at the wood. I had no tools, no money to buy nuts. I would cut old bones. That was from 1927 up to 1932. That’s what I used to work on fiddles in the days of the Depression. From then, I started buying a few tools, buying some good wood. And today [January 7, 1975], I’m still going along, fixing fiddles, and making a few.”
As a fiddlemaker, Leleux honed his craft to the level of folk art by sheer willpower. Leleux’s interest in fiddlemaking grew out of successful early attempts at repair work. Once he found that he had a natural talent for fine woodworking, he set out to master the creation of the instrument. With unusual tenacity, he eventually mastered advanced math and science with only a grammar school education, doggedly pursuing his interest sometimes at the rate of only one page a day.
“If you find the geometrical formula that you need, you can develop a design for your fiddles. The Strad [Stradivarius] design. Then you can also develop a bow design. The dimension, the curvature, the camber, all by following a mathematical formula, and trigonometry, and that was something that I had never been able to do. I hadn’t gone to school enough. I had lots of trouble with that.”
“I hardly went to school at all. When I would go to school, being interested in fiddles, I noticed after a few years that I had not yet seen even a picture of a fiddle in my textbooks. So, when the school year would begin, the first thing I would do was to put my books on the desk. I would open the cover and catch the pages and I would fan them and look through a book. If I didn’t see a picture of a fiddle, or a fiddle bow, I would turn the book over and I would fan it again in the other direction, and if I still didn’t see a picture of a fiddle or a bow, that was the end of the subject for me. And naturally, there were certainly no such pictures in my textbooks and I knew already what I wanted to do. I figured that school had nothing to offer me so I stopped going. Later, I found a book which described how to make fiddles. Then, I was very interested. So I started reading that book, and when I came to the part about varnish, I found a word that I didn’t know. Being interested in what I was reading, I made it my business to get up and get my father’s dictionary to look up the word. In the explanation, in the definition, I found another word that I didn’t know. So I had to look it up in another part of the dictionary and there were quite a few big words like that. I guess to save paper, they used many big words. It looked like it had been written by lawyers. So it took me five or six days to read one page and understand what was written there. Then, I realized what I had missed by quitting school. I finally understood, all right, but it would have been so much easier if I had stayed in school and had been able to read that page one time straight through to understand. It would have saved so much time. I wouldn’t have had to suffer so much to learn what I know. I didn’t give up, but it was hard.”
What’s the difference between a violin and a fiddle? One’s got strings, the other’s got strangs!
Truly, the difference is in the music played on it. Early fiddlers played old orchestra-quality Italian, French or German violins that came to Louisiana with the wave of Americans and others were made in America and patterned off those European standards. And many others were made locally to satisfy a personal desire or give to a friend or neighbor.
Given the lack of specialized tools building a violin required, early builders used pieces of broken bottles as scrapers, improvised parts from wooden cigar boxes, cypress barn slats for necks and bones as pegs. Many a resourceful young fiddlemaker risked his mother’s anger for a few unraveled rows of window screen for strings, or a spool of thread to hair a bow. Acadian fiddlemakers learned through trial and error, some eventually producing instruments of high quality, with imported backs, ribs, necks and scrolls, constructed of exotic woods.
More likely, though, are instruments like Wedisson Reed’s of Eunice. His early fiddles were whittled from cypress planks and eventually adapted to include top and back plates of spray-painted Formica. One of his Formica fiddles is part of the Natural Science Museum’s permanent collection. Arnaudville’s Paul Devillier used commercial lumber for his first fiddle and interior paneling for his second instrument. Lionel Leleux carefully cured rare swamp maple plates for a series of Louisiana instruments. Adner Ortego of Washington used a curious collection of salvaged woods including magnolia, black gum, cherry and walnut that produced a beautiful variety of colors and grain patterns.
“I learned the hard way: self-taught. I wanted to play violin, but during the Depression, you couldn’t buy one, so I made one. I heard my Dad play on someone else’s fiddle.”
Other fiddlemakers created grain designs by painting wavy lines on the ribs. Builder Louis Jouett, and high school band director, taught himself to build violins and used the kitchen table as his workshop. He mixed his glue in a poached egg cooker in small batches. His daughter remembers pushing aside violin parts and tools so that she could eat lunch.
Such is an instrument builder’s dedication to his creative outlet. Local violinmakers today, like Anya, Matthew Doucet and Chris Segura, revel in encounters with older handbuilt fiddles. As a repairer of violins, Anya has enjoyed the little surprises in some of those older Louisiana fiddles. Lionel Leleux stamped his work with his name, location and date, but since it’s only visible through the endpin hole, only the next person to repair the instrument would discover it. Anya has documented each of these discoveries, including his business card, which boasts “Over 50 Years Experience.”