OLD TIMERS AND CORNSTALK TALK!
By Norris Chambers
In the old days to be called an expert in any field meant that the one with such a title really knew about the field he was in. There was a man in our part of the country that possessed such a title. Interested persons came from many directions and great distances to seek his services. What was this man’s field of expertise – you’d never guess. He made and repaired fiddle bows.
Many of the farmers in the area donated hair from their horses’ tails. We had an old gray horse that we called Alec and we let the bow maker manicure his tail periodically. He told us that Alec’s tail hair was good bow material. Clifton and I wondered if white hair was better. I had never seen a fiddle bow with any other color of hair. One day when he was gathering hair Clifton asked him if other colors of hair worked O.K., or if it had to be white.
“Other colors have been used,” he told us, “and they work very well. But everyone, especially in this country, expects the hair in a fiddle bow to be white. Some makers now go so far as the bleach the hair, but that doesn’t improve the sound.”
I told him that I had seen a fiddler in a show play a hand saw with a fiddle bow. “Yes,” he said, “It is possible to get a very good sound from a saw. The different notes are found by bending the saw while bringing the bow across the cutting edge. The saw player must be very careful or he will cut the hairs in the bow. The bow should be well powdered with rosin for this type of playing.”
While our expert was in the talking mood I decided to get a little clarification on another thing I had wondered about.
“In a song we heard at the dances there is a verse that says, “Cornstalk fiddle and a shoestring bow. Can’t play nothing but Cotton Eyed Joe.” Is there such a thing as a cornstalk fiddle and could you use a shoestring for a bow?”
“Just about anything can be used as a bow if you put enough rosin on it, and almost anything you drag it across will make some sort of sound. Cornstalk fiddles have been popular with kids for ages in many areas. They don’t sound very musical and there are many tunes you couldn’t play on one, but Cotton Eyed Joe doesn’t have many notes and it is so fast that you hardly recognize them, so I reckon you could play that song on a cornstalk fiddle.”
He than explained how such a fiddle was made. “You find a big, fat cornstalk,” he said, “and cut off about a foot and a half of the biggest part. You carefully get all the pulp out of the center until you just have the outside hide of the stalk. Take a pencil and draw four lines lengthwise between two joints. These lines are the strings. Carve between the lines with a sharp knife leaving them as thin as possible. The lines that are left are your stings. Now you’ve got your fiddle.
“The bow can be just about anything. I reckon a shoestring is about the worst kind of material for a fiddle bow. Since you have horses, I would use some horse hair and something to hold them together. The main thing is to use a lot of rosin on whatever bow you have. Take a big piece or a lot of little pieces and hammer them into a fine powder and then cover the bow thoroughly. The music you get is not going to sound very good. Some folks would call it noise instead of music.
“You can improve the sound a little bit by making a gourd fiddle. Take a nice big gourd with a long neck and remove all the insides through as small a hole as you can manage, then cut the neck into the four strings the same way you did on the cornstalk. Play it the same way you did the cornstalk fiddle. The sound will be a little better but still not very musical.
“I have seen fiddles made out of cigar boxes. These are a little more difficult to make but have a much better sound. To make one of these you take a good wooden cigar box and glue the lid shut. You cut a few little air holes along each side of the top and screw and glue a neck similar to a fiddle neck to the middle of one end. Put some pegs on the end of the neck and stretch fiddle strings from the back of the box with a wooden bridge somewhere along the top.
This thing makes music a lot like a real fiddle. You can use a regular fiddle bow or rig up one with just about anything except a shoe string.”
“I think you may be prejudiced against a shoestring bow!” I told him. He nodded his head and agreed that he was.
If you want to have real fun, try building a fiddle out of a cornstalk and using a shoestring bow! I know it will work because the fiddle bow expert said it would. Just one word of warning – don’t try holding your breath till you get a good sound out of it!