In The Illiad, Achilles is given a choice:
“My mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways in which I may meet my end. If I stay here and fight, I will not return alive but my name will live for ever (kleos): whereas if I go home my name will die, but it will be long ere death shall take me.” –Achilles
Achilles chooses kleos: a short but glorious life instead of a long but unremembered one.
However, when museums conserve instruments, they usually choose the latter: protecting and preserving objects at the cost of making the music for which they were born.
I make the opposite choice every day, playing my old instruments. While I try to take care of them, use wears things down.
Yes, I’ve made some scratches–with metal music stands, my computer, weather, even my fingers. It has rosin stains–I don’t wipe it regularly. I’m not even showing you the sides. I’m ashamed of the ugly damage I’ve caused to an object that’s given me such beauty.
However, I’ve also discovered museum instruments that challenge this degenerative narrative. Beyond their damaged surface, old instruments can carry experiences of struggle, endurance, rejection, love, even resurrection, and sometimes we can only hear these stories in their silence. In this article, I’ll share a couple of these “dead objects” who offer me hope that, even after instruments have lost their beauty and been silenced in cases, they can find a second life sharing new stories through the voice of museums.
I. Solomon Conn and his Civil War Scratches
In a forgotten, dark corner of the “Price of Freedom” Exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (NMAH), hides a humble fiddle. But unlike the well-lit, mint condition Stradivarius violins the museum features in its instrument collection, this fiddle–scattered among hardtack, canteens, kepis, and other accouterments of a Civil War soldier’s daily life–is covered in scratches. However, it’s these very scratches that make this instrument fascinating, maybe even more so than the 300+-year-old masterpieces to which many visitors flock.
This fiddle belonged to a Civil War soldier named Solomon Conn. And the scratches covering the back were no accident: Conn used his fiddle as a diary. He lists the fiddle’s date of purchase, his military company, and goes on to all the places the fiddle accompanied him and his fellow soldiers as they traveled to various American battles.
In my tutoring work, I recently taught The Things They Carried, a classic book on the various physical and spiritual burdens soldiers carried in Vietnam, through war and the rest of their lives. The fact that Solomon carried this fiddle with him throughout his Civil War travels, used it as a travel diary, and held onto it so his family could later donate it to the museum, proves this portable music device must have been important to him and other soldiers in his regiment.
Maybe this fiddle was never the fanciest or most beautiful, but it still had a full life: it was loved by a soldier and his regiment, it traveled America, it served in the Civil War (you can learn more about the fiddle’s role in Civil War soldiers’ experiences from the program I ran in this exhibit). I don’t know how this fiddle and the story of its past life has inspired others, but I know they’ve inspired me. For example, this fiddle and its story inspired the Civil War soldier character in my play “Fiddlers’ Green.”
Scars might not fit our model of exquisitely crafted, elegant, eternally youthful and innocent violin beauty. Nevertheless, these scratches literally communicate in words, and if scars can tell stories, maybe that’s just as important.
II. “Old Betsy” and the Birth of the Grand Ole Opry
This neatly encased fiddle–named “Old Betsy– probably led a fairly unglamourous life, far removed from the clean, corporate, red-carpeted entertainment empire housing it today.
Betsy belonged to a farmer, Uncle Jimmy Thompson, who in his old age became a touring musician with his wife and lived out of a small house rigged up on the back of his truck (talk about genuine “truck” country). Thompson had been fiddling since the Civil War, but became famous for bringing his 19th-century fiddling expertise to national audiences through the 20th-century medium of radio. When in 1925, announcer George D. Hay transmitted the sound of Thompson’s “Tennessee Waggoner” across the country on his “1,000-watt transmitter,” Hay found himself a new star and a new show: The Grand Ole Opry.*
*Note: I learned most of this history from Charles K. Wolfe’s, “A Good-Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry.”
Betsy looks about as authentically down-to-earth as Thompson himself: her scratched up, unpolished surface and geared tuners testifying to his rural, amateur roots. She was probably made in Scotland, and Thompson used to take care of her by inserting “rattlesnake rattles” and “[putting] her to bed” each night with a piece of red flannel” (Wolfe 83). Since we only have four recordings of Thompson’s music (around “a dozen minutes” total), this fiddle is one of this musical patriarch’s only remaining artifacts.
Q: What’s the difference between a fiddle and a violin?
A: You don’t spill whiskey on a violin!
Contributing to Betsy’s contemporary “fiddle” appearance was probably her vibrant past life with Uncle Jimmy. Thompson was so famously fond of whiskey, he was known to say he used it to “lubricate his [fiddle] arm!” Consequently, he also had a habit of passing out during broadcasts (the Opry is not so proud of this part of the fiddle’s history. Today, alcohol is banned backstage on show nights). This habit had unfortunate consequences for the legend and his fiddle: Thompson found his Opry career ended merely one year in, after 1926. Even then, the Opry was “becoming much more formal and structured.” Uncle Jimmy’s non-radio oriented, “leisurely 19th century manner of performing”–not to mention his association of fiddling with “drinking, dancing, and having a good time”–turned out to be incompatible with the very show it started (Wolfe 80).
As a former Opry tour guide (forbidden from telling the above story), I know that the Opry is still careful about the stories they’ll let Betsy tell. Like the stories and sounds of her former player, she is usually merely seen and not heard about. This is just my theory, of course, but I believe the Opry wants to maintain a certain wholesome image with which Thompson’s 19th-century behavior and fiddle remain incompatible.
Nevertheless, another story still speaks through Betsy’s mere presence, and it’s this one that makes the Opry proud to show her off.
So what story is it that makes the Opry want people to see this cheap, old fiddle? After all, as a music-maker, this fiddle only left behind 7 recorded tunes and was only on the show for about a year?
My theory is that the explanation for this fiddle’s prominence is similar to why Uncle Jimmy Thompson has been mythologized as the Opry’s first performer from its very beginning. For George D. Hay, the Opry’s first broadcaster and promoter, “the image of a lone fiddler standing out on a stage and attempting to entertain a crowd with nothing more than his fiddle and his skill was a potent symbol for all that the Opry stood for… [Hay] found in Uncle Jimmy Thompson an ideal figure to fill this role as the Opry got started” (Wolfe 100). Likewise today, Thompson’s fiddle symbolizes the Opry’s 19th century, romantic, “pre-industrial,” stringband, rural, amateur roots.
The idea of legitimizing “roots,” real or not, has become essential to the now very modern, urban, corporate Opry. “Traditionalism” is constantly valorized at the Opry today, although most of its signifiers are just for show (e.g., the lit-up red barn, the cowboy hats and boots, the pew-style cushioned auditorium seats).
“Old Betsy” feels authentic. She is a genuine “root” whose value lies less in her past music-making than her current symbolism. Seeing Betsy–next to the General Manager’s Opry office, in the middle of bronze plaques chronologically listing every Opry member, through the Mail Room every country superstar passes to reach the dressing rooms and stage–this old, beat-up, forgotten prop confers on the Opry itself authenticity, legitimacy, and values.
So while she might come from humble roots and look a bit rough around the edges, in her new home, Betsy’s mere presence has become a powerful symbol for the “most famous stage in country music.”
III. A Gibson Gives Rise to Bluegrass
Though I want to believe objects outlive us, I know even the most well-crafted, museum-protected instrument is mortal. However, unlike people, instruments sometimes get a second chance. One such inspiration–that’s died and lived again–is Bill Monroe’s resurrected mandolin, the “most famous mandolin in American music history.”
Unlike Thompson’s “Betsy,” Bill Monroe’s mandolin undoubtedly lived a full, distinguished, first life. Bill found his F-5 Master Model Gibson soulmate in the 1940s and it was his “constant companion” in developing the “aggressive playing style” that brought the mandolin’s sound front and center within the traditional string-band ensemble. Thus, this particular mandolin was instrumental in creating the basis for an entirely new genre of music: bluegrass.
Nevertheless, even a lifetime of musical genius couldn’t protect this Gibson when, in 1985, “an intruder broke into Monroe’s home and smashed the treasured mandolin with a fireplace poker.” Poor Monroe experienced my biggest nightmare: his beloved instrument broken and nearly burned.
But that’s NOT the end: Gibson took the nearly 150 slivers and “painstakingly reconstructed it.” Not only did Monroe and the mandolin continue playing together until Monroe’s death in 1996, but now, Monroe’s mandolin lives beyond him by inspiring terrified young fiddlers like me that there is life after instrument death.
Thus, even without Monroe, this 150-sliver mandolin continues communicating from within its protected glass case. Like Conn’s Civil War fiddle and Thompson’s Betsy, this mandolin has outlived its player and found its own story. Though now silent, the mere visual of its dramatically lit wholeness and beauty, combined with its historical association, testifies to the power of love a musician can have for an instrument. Though the injury seemed hopeless, Monroe stood by his instrument, had it fixed, and used it, up to his dying day. And through this story of love which this instrument tells on its own (with the museum’s help), Monroe’s mandolin has found a new life telling stories even today.
Achilles may have chosen a short life so he could be remembered forever, but through museums, instruments can sometimes choose both old age and a good story. Silent in cases, they may lose the ability to fulfill their natural virtue of making music, but museums can also give instruments new voices that last beyond the transient musical sounds they originally produced.
Remembering this third choice helps me choose to give my instruments a full life. I love my violin, and sometimes my love hurts it. I take my violin to drunken jams, we practice under trees, we travel through foreign countries… I know carrying my violin through the battlefield of my life risks surface and mortal wounds, but I don’t like us being apart. And for every heartbreaking scratch, we’ve written songs, found friends, and made memories.
Therefore, while I hate contributing to my fiddle’s mortality, when I remember all these stories of museum instruments, I’m hopeful that ultimately, loving and living with my violin is what’s best for it. Maybe my violin will die earlier. But then, maybe it will rise again. Either way, it was made to sing, and I’m going to make sure it has a good story to tell.