In The Luthier's Shop

As I have briefly mentioned before, Mycelia and I have been taking fiddle lessons for a while now. My fine fiddlin' friend Artemas Rex (who you may remember from here and here) recently took me to a hidden little luthier's shop aways outside of town called Wolf Note Studio. Owned and operated by local musician Luke Wilson, it is located in a small building right next to the house he shares with his wife and long time band mate Maggie McKaig.

I was completely mesmerized by the beautiful instruments, fine craftsmanship, and rusty history the place evoked. Last week Luke and his partner Jon allowed me to come back, take photographs, and ask them some questions.

One question you may have is "what is a luthier?" Unless you play a stringed instrument you may have never heard the word. I first came across the term in a fiddle book (okay, I admit it, it was The Total Idiot's Guide to Playing the Fiddle) only days before Artemas mentioned the shop to me. Upon reading about what a luthier does, I was aching to meet one in person and see what wonders such a shop would hold. So I was thrilled when Artemas told me Luke was a good friend of his and that he had set up a time for us to go out there.

A luthier is, quite simply, someone who makes and/or repairs stringed instruments. As you might guess, this is a whole subculture within itself, steeped in intricate handiwork, fascinating folklore, and a deep love of music.

I ended up renting a late 19th century German fiddle from Luke that first day, which replaced the slightly-less-awesome fiddle that my wonderful teacher (and Luke's old time pal) Rick Toles (aka Alkali- Last of the 49ers) had lent me for free. Luke's beautifully restored fiddle had come to him by way of the dump- a long time employee there used to salvage old instruments and pass them on to Luke. I am proud to be in possession of such a piece :-)

Luke's grandfather had apprenticed as a woodworker at 14 years of age in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. It was through this work that he eventually became a luthier in the late 1800s. He made this woodworking tool. A creek going by outside his window turned the lathe that created the power necessary to create such an implement out of Birdseye Maple. Luke uses it in his shop over a hundred years later.

His grandfather also made this:

Luke's father (born to the luthier grandfather) was a classical piano player turned industrial chemist, and his mother also played piano. She never received classical training and just played by ear. This is the way Luke has always learned music as well. He says "If you hear twelve notes a few times and can't play it back, what kind of a musician are you?"

Here's the man himself, holding a Hawaiian guitar from the 1920s.

And here's Luke in his younger days, on an album he and a friend recorded in Europe in the 70s. Luke spent this time in his life between there and Canada, working with violin and guitar makers, spending time at Folklore Centers, and learning from banjo historian Pete Stanley. And playing music and honing his craft and falling in love and starting a family all the while.

One of the first things Luke showed me on my visit was the beautifully carved abalone inlay he put into this guitar. "I think you'll like this" he said as he brought it out.

I'm quite certain there was no esoteric intuition involved and that he knew nothing of my love for the whale folk (and just thought that I'd find it beautiful, because it is) but it sure did make my little heart sing to behold such a special, painstakingly crafted instrument bearing the image of my most beloved ocean dwellers.

Can you guess what this is?

Horse hair, for fiddle bows.

The shop is full of this kind of thing- crazy looking instruments that you've never seen anything like before but can tell have a long history behind them and have travelled far and wide. Here we have (from left to right)- a coconut shell ukulele made by a World War II Marine, a Moroccan three string land tortoise shell instrument, and a Chilean one string top cello made from an armadillo.

This is Jon Wondergem, who started out as Luke's apprentice many years ago and now works beside him as a junior partner, at work in his corner of the shop. Jon grew up in the area and now lives with his wife on a piece of land much farther out of town where they tend goats and fruit trees and other crops, calling their operation by a moniker just as charming as his last name- Peaches & Cream Farm. Here is Jon's beloved Epiphone Broadway guitar:

He told me that he loves doing this kind of work because of the infinite variety of options available to him when crafting an instrument. He feels as though he enters a different kind of time and space when he is working on a piece. Which, it seems to me, is proof that he is engaged in his heart's true work.

Jon and I talked about the palpable history, subtle and almost ghostly, that lingers around the instruments and pulses through the shop. He told me a story about a man, both cellist and exorcist (totally amazing career combo), who came into the shop once. Luke told him about a strange, uneasy feeling he'd been having lately while working, which made it difficult to concentrate properly on the task at hand, and the man offered a suggestion. He had Luke pick up the piece of material on his workbench upon which he lays the instrument he is currently working on, take it outside, and throw it into the air. When he did this, Luke saw a flash of light come out of the material. Things improved after that and, it seems, whatever ill spirit was lingering around the place disappeared. It makes me wonder what other energies and reminiscences are housed in these relics.

A better look at Jon's workspace, as he shows me a piece of abalone inlay in a beautiful wave pattern that he put into the neck of this instrument.

Speaking of, here is Luke's workbench. Quite a lovely, rolling-green-hillside-and-oaks, view. Which is sometimes also filled with their horse Belle, any number of the deer who graze their land, and maybe a dog or cat or two.

This is a guitar from 1901 that was built by an Italian immigrant living in New York City. He was a part of a whole community of Italian craftspeople working there at the turn of the century.

This beautiful East Indian single stringed instrument, with a goat-like animal head, is made of solid rosewood, and was probably used to accompany chanting.

This guitar was made by Mario Maccaferri, who is better known as the man who created Django Reinhardt's famous and innovative guitar.

Do you notice how the bridge on these guitars is shaped like an airplane? Well, it's actually a very specific airplane. In the late 1920s, after Charles Lindbergh successfully made the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris in his small single engine plane, luthiers all over the country scrambled to incorporate images of his famous aircraft The Spirit of St. Louis onto their instruments.

This simple one string cello was popular with country folk and was used to accompany singers at church and other gatherings.

This is a late 19th century harp guitar of the sort that was peddled door to door at farms across America. I would like to meet one of those peddlers.

Luke calls this a "guilute".

A late 19th century mandolin with gorgeous abalone inlay.

I can't tell you how happy it made me to be there that day, a feeling that lingers as I go over these photos and stories now. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that I have suddenly gone from being someone who had never picked up an instrument to someone who can (kinda) play a song or two on the fiddle! One of my favorite parts in one of my favorite books, Cold Mountain, is when a 15 year old girl asks Stobrod "What kind of a fiddler are you?" He answers "Bum and shoddy". That's me, for now. But being around Luke and John and Rick and going to see shows like the one I did last weekend just serve to further embed into my heart the desire to keep at it. To steep myself in the folklore and craftsmanship and love that emanates from all the beautiful stringed instruments in the world. To continue to stomp my feet and twirl my skirt and smile to the music, and to maybe someday be the orchestrator of that experience for someone else through my own playing.

You can check out Luke and Maggie's band Beaucoup Chapeaux here. And for all you locals- they play at the Nevada City Classic Cafe every Friday night at 6pm (acoustic set! children welcome!) and will be having a CD release party at The Miner's Foundry on May 6th, details here.

Foxfire, The Greatest Gift

As I've written many times here before, the kindness and generosity that I have been shown from my online friends never ceases to open my heart ever wider and leave me feeling gratitude on a scale I have never experienced before, not just for the gifts but for the interconnected world I am a part of and the serendipitous and synchronous connections that I have been blessed to make.

A year or so ago I googled "Appalachian wisdom" or something like that. I have always felt an affinity with the lore of that land and the people who reside there. My kinfolk on my dad's side come from North Carolina, and England some generations before that. They perfectly fit the profile of the emigrants who first settled the Appalachian region, and I am sure that somewhere deep down this is why I respond so primally to Appalachian music, herbal knowledge, and general folkways.

So anyway, what came up when I googled that was Foxfire. I perused their website and realized that all the old time learnin' I sought had been ingeniously sought out, thoroughly recorded, and beautifully presented by this group, which was started as a magazine in 1966 by some high school English students who wished to record the old ways of their elderly Appalachian neighbors before they passed on.

Over the years the project expanded and it is going strong to this day. I very much recommend checking out their website. The magazine articles, composed by different students over the years, have all been gathered and made into a series of twelve books, containing all of the homesteading, earth centered, folkloric yet practical, do-it-yourself knowledge a body could ask for.

(The name Foxfire, speaking of synchronous connections [my daughter's name is Mycelia], is "a name commonly applied to several species of bioluminescent fungi that grow on rotting wood in damp forests (like the Southern Appalachians) during the warmer months. These fungi typically produce a dim blue-green glow that can be seen only in dark, starlit areas, away from any artificial lights or moonlight. Other names associated with these glowing fungi include 'faerie fire' and 'will o' the wisp.'")

My local library had some of the their books, so I checked one out and was totally fascinated by every word of it. Then for my birthday this year the lovely Milla sent me an original edition copy of one of the books.

(From Milla. The library's copies looked much like this one. Making me even more blown away to see the beautiful new editions, complete with that rough sort of cover texture that I love so much on books!)

Then came my correspondence with Julie from The Cuckoo's Nest (and BTW yes! I will post the second blog with photos from the inside of the boutique soon!). We discovered our mutual love of bluegrass music and natural living, and she asked me if I had seen the Foxfire books. I, of course, responded very enthusiastically that I had seen a few and loved them. Then after the blog was posted she asked me for my mailing address and let me know that the entire Foxfire set- all twelve books- would be arriving on my doorstep soon from Mountain City, Georgia.

Well, they arrived today. And I am blown away. Such an incredible resource. Such a wealth of knowledge. So many beautiful and inspiring stories and people. And SUCH a thoughtful and meaningful gift!

Thank you Julie. Thank you thank you thank you from the bottom of my heart.

And it gets even better. Today I received another package from Julie as well, this one coming from her home at Northwest Alpacas just outside of Portland. Nine gorgeous, luxurious, exquisitely hand made Pima cotton and alpaca fur dresses made twenty years ago based on The Cuckoo's Nest designs from the 1970s. You guys are going to DIE. I hope to photograph them and get them into the shop in the next week or two.

Oh, and here are the topics covered in these books, since it's hard to read here. I have put a * next to the chapters I have read and loved and a ^ next to the ones I am most looking forward to reading! And who knows which ones will capture my interest or be relevant to me in the future...

Hog Dressing

Log Cabin Building

Mountain Crafts and Food^

Planting By The Signs*

Snake Lore

Hunting Tales^

Faith Healing^


Ghost Stories^

Spring Wild Plant Foods*

Spinning and Weaving^


Burial Customs***

Corn Shuckin's

Wagon Making

Animal Care^

Banjos and Dulcimers^

Hide Tanning

Summer and Fall Wild Plant Foods^

Butter Churns^


Fiddle Making***


Horse Trading

Sassafras Tea^ (<-- the original root beer)

Berry Buckets^




Flintlock Rifles

Bear Hunting


100 Toys & Games^

Gourd Banjos and Song Bows^

Wooden Locks

A Water-Powered Sawmill

Ministers and Church Members

Revivals and Baptisms^

Shaped-Note and Gospel Singing^

Faith Healing and Camp Meetings^

Foot Washing^

Snake Handling*

Southern Folk Pottery From Pug Mills^

Ash Glazes^

Groundhog Kilns To Face Jugs (?)



Mule Swapping and Chicken Fighting

General Stores^

The Jud Nelson Wagon

A Praying Rock

A Catawban Indian Potter

Haint Tales (?)


Home Cures^

The Log Cabin Revisited

Railroad Lore^


Depression Era Appalachia^



Snake Canes

Gourd Art

The Old Homeplace^

Wild Plant Uses^

Preserving And Cooking Food^

Hunting Stories


Square Dancing^


Cherokee Traditions^

Summer Camps^

World War Veterans^


Intriguing, yes? And remember, these are all based on interviews with old timers who still practice these crafts, and who remember their place in Appalachian culture before mainstream American life infiltrated their families and ways of living. Fascinating.

(PS- Some of my favorite Appalachian media include the documentary The True Meaning of Pictures, the Smithsonian Folkways Classic Mountain Songs, The Yo-Yo Ma Appalachian Journey CD (especially the song "Hard Times Come Again No More" with James Taylor and the lullaby sung by Alison Krauss), the Appalachian Folklore, Stories, and Info website, and the incredible novel Cold Mountain. Aaaand pretty much all bluegrass music and all that it has inspired. Do you have any resources to share with me?)

Sunlight, Ringlets, Folksy Prints, and Hawthorne Blossoms

A couple weekends ago my friend Lily texted to see if she could stop by and drop off some dresses she had just thrifted for Mycelia. She was out on a stroller saunter with her darling baby Cecilia (Mycie always goes "If we have a baby can we name it Cecilia?" to which I reply, of course, that that might get a little confusing). She had scored three of the most adorable vintage prairie-esque children's dresses imaginable, and Mycie and I were thrilled! (And will pass them back to Lily and Cecilia once Mycie outgrows them). I decided to take some photos of her in front of this sweet little folk art print that I had just gotten at a yard sale that same day.

The girl has been to one too many Violet Folklore photo shoots...

and has really perfected- and personalized- the art of the pose.

I also got this awesome vintage Easter Egg at the yard sale. It looks so familiar, I must've had one as a child.

I could not love this little scene any more. What is the little chickie saying that has the parents so concerned? And where can I get one of those buggies?

Our phototastic morning led us outside into some of the very small amount of sunshine we Northern Californians have seen so far this spring.

This statue was at this house, in this condition, when we moved in. We heart the hell out of it.

We ambled around to the back of the house, where earlier that morning, out the laundry room window, I had discovered something wonderfully magical and heartwarming right before my eyes...

But first we stopped and said hello to some of the plants in our wee herb garden...

and to the dandelion forest on the side of the house...

and to the mighty oak, clothed in ivy, that watches over us.

And then we found what we were looking for- a hawthorne tree! Though we have lived here for two months now, they have been a wet and cold and busy two months, and since the hawthorne was not in blossom, I hadn't realized it was there until this day! The first day we came to check the place out there were endless violets filling in the side and back yards, and we took this as a wonderful Welcome Home sign. And I feel the same way about the hawthorne! It's a plant that always brings joy to my heart- especially when it blossoms in May.

(Last May Mycie and I were walking behind an apartment building on our way to a woodsy path that eventually leads to a park. We came around a corner and there in front of us was a hawthrone tree in full bloom. My immediate, unthinking reaction was to throw my arms up and yelp with glee! And run towards the tree to caress the blossoms and show them to Mycie. Then I heard the words "What is that crazy bitch doing?" and looked over to see a shaved head, shirtless guy in sagging basketball shorts smoking a cigarette and talking on his cell phone on his tiny apartment balcony about 15 feet away).

Mycie picked herself a little handful of flowers and we walked back around to the front of the house to put them in water.

And snap a few more photos.

Here's hoping that spring really is just around the corner. You know, now that it's almost officially summer and all...

Hawthorne is the best known heart/circulation ally in Western herbal medicine. (WHICH MAKES SO MUCH SENSE WHEN I THINK OF THE UPLIFTING AND FREEING SENSATION I FEEL IN MY HEART CENTER WHEN I SEE THE PLANT IN FLOWER! Ahhhh, plants are SO amazing in all their complexities and all the ways they seek to communicate with and teach us.) In European folklore it is considered one of the most magical plants, and is associated with Beltane/May Day and with divine protection. My favorite discussion of this healing plant is in Judith Berger's book Herbal Rituals.

A Lullaby of a Book

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Something that I have wanted to do with Violet Folklore for a long time now is to post about the amazing vintage children's books I find in my thrifting adventures. As an avid reader and someone who always wanted to be a mama, I have been into kid's books and literacy since well before I had Mycelia. In fact, I am embarrassingly proud of the "Bookworm Award" I won at my job at an upper crust Child Development Center back in my college days. The awards were tailored to each individual for one area that they excelled in, and for me my bosses recognized my love and knack for reading to the children.

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And, not surprisingly, I love vintagey, kitschy, and beautifully done children's books best of all. The first book I am going to review for this new series of blogs fulfills another role I greatly appreciate in the books I read to my daughter- it helps her fall asleep :-)

First printed in Germany in 1968, this is the story of Tim and the whimsical thoughts he has while falling asleep at night. From his pets to his toys to the animals in the zoo to the organ grinder with his monkey at the fair to the Sandman himself, Tim's dreamy imagination takes my girl's sleepy little mind on beautifully rendered, fantastical adventures.

Here are the text and illustrations from two of my favorite pages:

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Ah, there is a water fairy hugging her little boat made out of tree bark. She is dreaming about the magic waves she will spread over the lakes and ponds.

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What does a giant use for a bed? Why, the mountains, of course. He is a jolly fellow, but he snores so loudly that he wakes up his children. Never mind, they like to watch the trains chugging through the tunnel.

(Picture me reading that in the softest, sleepiest voice imaginable...)

Words by Christel Sussmann, illustrations by Edith Witt, adapted by Rowan Carr.