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.

A Dutch Manhattanite, 10 Generations Away

The tip of Manhattan, mid 17th century, everything to the West was unsettled

Lately I have been on a bender, reading and watching everything I can about New York City. And for two reasons. One: I haven't been to a city bigger than Sacramento in FIVE YEARS. I drove out of San Francisco in December '05 and haven't made it back since, despite the fact that it's 3 hours away. And I am starting to feel crazy crazy stir crazy in my idyllic rural little town. I need people, movement, actions, and shops and restaurants that open before 11am and close well after 6pm. (I have never been to NYC. In fact, as far as America is concerned, I haven't been further east than Idaho).

And two: I recently discovered that I am the direct descendent of folks who were among the original settlers of New Amsterdam, later to be named New York (when the English realized that the key to the continent lay in conquering that one tiny island, and quickly did so). Roelof Martense Schenck was born in the Netherlands in 1619 and emigrated to "Nieuw Amsterdam" in 1650, where he soon found himself a wife. They are my great great great great great great great great grandparents.

Upon making all of these discoveries my first thought was The Dutch settled Manhattan before the English? which I quickly learned is a common reaction. It seems that historians all over the world are discovering how the early mythologizing of NY's origins by the English conquerers effectively blotted out the contribution made by the Dutch to the future cultural milieu of the Unites States.

And quite a contribution it was. The Dutch have long been considered the most tolerant nation on the planet (going back to at least the 1600s, which is also when they first sailed onto American soil). Amsterdam at the time was a thriving hotspot of new and rapidly evolving ideas about politics, economics, government, science, philosophy, botany, you name it. The leaders realized that it was, in part, the great diversity of people who sought refuge in their country that made it such an exciting and economically successful place, and they brought this belief with them to the New World.

Which is not to say that the Dutch, or my ancestors among them, were forward thinking idealists and pacifists with love in their hearts and freedom for all on their minds. No no. They were self serving, money grubbing, slave trading go-getters who just happened to realize that tolerance toward diversity served their best economic interests.

They loved them a free market, put commerce before all other gods, and were willing to find a way to live alongside people vastly different from themselves in order to make their lives as prosperous and comfortable as possible. Which is to say that they were, truly, the spiritual and intellectual forefathers of New Yorkers from then on out.

Once all of this started to settle into my mind, my imagination was effectively captured (sometime in the last decade or so I've become a serious history nerd), and my reading has followed suit ever since. In The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America, Russell Shorto makes sense of tens of thousands of pages of 17th century Dutch papers from the colony (translated only recently by Charles Gehring) and weaves them into a fascinating tale of early American vision and drive.

He is also quite keen sighted and humorous in his presentation of some of the documents, as when describing the close, almost fawning-over-one-another friendship (expressed in letters and poems) between the Dutch colony's most long standing governor, the peg-legged Peter Stuyvesant, and his friend (and cohort in the world dominating East India Trading Company) John Ferret. Shorto writes, "At times the correspondence cries out for a latent-homosexuality reading (i.e., when the men write of 'such pleasure' each receives from the 'skilled hand' of the other); it's probably more profitable, though, to see the poems as little portals onto the relationships between seventeenth-century Dutch merchant-soldiers, in which there was a frank deference to one's greater power and in which language was expressed in language as Baroque as the pink-cheeked detailing in a Frans Hals portrait."

My point in quoting that long winded paragraph is simply that the book is not only informative, but quite entertaining as well.

Moving on. On my nightstand, but as of now still unopened, is The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty by Jean Zimmerman. I look forward to reading it.

Next to it, and having been open a few times, is City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and Early Manhattan. This book follows a couple centuries in the life of a family of medical practitioners- barber surgeons (yes, one and the same professions), herbalists, and certified medical doctors. It is a fascinating study on the state of understanding of the human body and medicine at the time (blood transfusion, for example, was quite a new and controversial concept, which is too bad for the poor folks who almost had the life sucked out of them by leeches set upon them for therapeutic "blood letting").

All in all, it's a piece of American history that is highly relevant to who we've become and yet is unknown to, and taken for granted by, most of us. Broadway (literally, a broad way), Wall Street (the street where they built a wall to keep the Indians out), Queens, Harlem, Staten Island, the Hudson River, and many of the other place names around that area all came from the Dutch. The words boss, stoop, coleslaw, and cookies- and even good ol' Santa Claus (Sinterklaas) himself- come to us from the Dutch.

But Manhattan's history, of course, goes well beyond its original European settlers. Graham and I have been watching a PBS American Experience documentary by Ric Burns all about the history of New York City. It's something like 15 hours long and completely captivating. The building of Central Park, How The Other Half Lives, the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Draft Riots of the Civil War, the capitalistic free for all on Wall Street in the 19th century, the Erie Canal, the brilliant mind and roving eye of Walt Whitman, the insanity of early skyscraper building, Ellis Island- it is such a big history. Here's a little taste from the first episode (which, of course, begins with the story of New Amsterdam).

Someday, I will go there. Though I do have to keep reminding myself of what it looks like now, in 2011, before I become too enamored of the image of myself disembarking from a 17th century Dutch sailing vessel onto a rickety old dock and looking up to see neat little rows of narrow yellow brick houses with an abundance of variegated tulips planted out front...