An accomplished Kansas musician known for her fiery style of fiddling recounts the special relationship she has with her 97-year-old fiddling mentor from Arkansas. The two discuss their life lessons learned from fiddling, the nuances of their individual sounds, and how their love for the fiddle has been strengthened by each other. This report was produced by KCPT in Kansas City, Missouri.
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BETSE ELLIS, FIDDLER:
When I fell in love with fiddle music, I fell so hard, and I turned away from pretty much all other genres of music for years. And it was only a few years into that first flush of loving traditional fiddle music that I met Violet.
And I hadn't spent too much time with elder generation players before that, I had met a few. I had been really excited by some of those meetings and inspired by other Ozark fiddlers in particular, actually, but I didn't have that many inspirations who were female.
And meeting Violet and this really strong lady, that first meeting was so impactful and she was so welcoming, and she cared enough to spend time with me.
VIOLET HENSLEY, FIDDLE MAKER AND MUSICIAN:
I am Violet Hensley. I'm called the "Whittlin' Fiddler" because I've made 73 fiddles — made fiddles and played fiddle. I wanted to play the fiddle, I guess, because we didn't have anything else to do. But we didn't have television or radio. And Dad played it, and I guess it just struck me as I wanted to play.
I can't read, I'm not a musician. I just learned it — it's in my head. If I can't play it in my head, I can't put it on the fiddle.
I like this lady right here, too. We've been friends all of our life, but we didn't know it until we met about 10 years ago.
Learning a tune from Violet gives me the opportunity to see the whole picture literally. I like to think of fiddle tunes as melody. The notes come in the ears, and then the bowing comes in to the eyes.
And so I can sit there and watch Violet and see the circles that she draws — the little handwriting, as she calls it, with her wrists — and I can see how that has an impact on the overall tune.
Yeah, she's trying to copy my bow work. It just happens to be my arm's way of doing things. I developed that over the years of playing. I used to play, my dad was kind of a stiff arm fiddler. I'm still going to teach her some more.
Well, Violet has her own approach to these tunes, so some of them are so unique that I've never heard the likes of them anywhere else. There are some tunes that come directly from her family.
You know, Violet and her existence and her example she puts out everywhere, it's also a great reminder to appreciate those who have lived very different lives from our own, people who've lived longer than we have and the multitude of lessons we can get from them.