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Robert Wilson: One-String Fiddler
Mel Boel
2005-12-01

Robert Wilson is a lively Scottish gentleman, ninety-eight years old, who had a busy music career in a group with his older brother and sister in the Rochester area of New York State from the mid-1920s until 1970 or so. Calling themselves the Scottish Trio, the Wilsons entertained church, civic and clan groups with their repertoire of slow airs and humorous songs from England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Lately he finds it more difficult to play his favorite instrument, the one-string violin, due to the pain of arthritis in his hands and a hearing loss that has made the constant use of hearing aids necessary. I met with him and his wife Marjorie (also Scottish) at their home outside Rochester, in The Highlands of Pittsford (a suitable place for them, entirely coincidental, they tell me).

Where in Scotland do you come from?

From Glasgow. I came over with my family in 1924, we were in Canada first for about a year, and then came to Rochester. There is a Scottish clan here, the McNaughton, they took us in very handsomely. They heard us play these Scottish melodies, and they just loved it. [Note: In Scotland, Wilson is a minor clan that is allied with the Gunn clan.]

How did you learn to play, from your father?

Yes, he played the one string fiddle but I just picked it up, I have never played with him. My family was musical -- it started way back in 1919. My father played violin, my sister Mary played piano, my older brother David played cello. Then when my father passed away I played the violin with my sister and brother. For church dinners, and banquets, we would play with violin and cello. Then we dropped that and had more fun on the one-string for lighter entertainment. And we sang Harry Lauder songs, like “Roamin’ in the Gloamin” -- that is the type of song we sang. If we had an English program we would sing all English songs, like “I Do Like an Egg for my Tea” [a music hall tune recorded by Harry Fay, among others]. We sang humorous songs, Scottish, Irish, and English. My memory is not as good as it used to be, but every so often at night if I can’t sleep, I remember a whole song, words and all.

My brother has my father’s one-string violin, the one that my father made, and I made this one in the late 1930s. We would play the one-string violins, and violin, cello and piano, and we sang, too. We could entertain for an hour and a half no trouble. We would play the slow ones -- we did “Annie Laurie,” “Bonnie Bonnie Banks of Loch Loman,” “Rowan Tree,” “Moonlight and Roses,” those are the types of things we would play on the one-string violins.

We toured all over this part of New York State, but usually we wouldn’t travel too far from home. But within that traveling area we were quite popular. I’m sure back twenty-five or thirty years ago there were many people still alive that would know us quite well. We got to be quite well known in this part of the state. And we had two other people we picked up that were good singers, and one was a good dancer, she could do the Scottish dances well. The Highland Fling and The Sword Dance, for instance.

Now did you get paid for these gigs?

Oh yes, sure.

So what was the pay rate like back then?

Not very much.

It isn’t very much now!

If we got $25 dollars we were doing good… that was a long time ago!

That’s between all of you, right?

Yes.

Would they collect money at the door?

No, these were dinner parties that were set up, for us to entertain, or a church group that wanted us to play. Usually our entertainment lasted about an hour and a half. It was all done for fun. In fact, I never thought any one else would be interested in this: to me it is just a fun thing. The Johnsons, who heard me play -- they’ve got this going, and I never expected to cause such a fuss.

...

Do you read music?

Oh yes! We’d memorize mostly for concerts, but we would learn sometimes from the printed page.

Do you have any recordings of your Trio?

We never had a tape of the three of us playing together. We had a record, one we made ourselves at home, but I don’t know where it is now. It wasn’t very good -- scratchy-sounding. Unfortunately we didn’t get a good tape of the three of us playing together. My brother moved to Cape Cod in 1969, and we never played together after that. My brother and sister have both passed away now. But I made a tape with my sister, oh, about fifteen or twenty years ago or so, we recorded it in Maryland, where she lives. It came out pretty good, do you want to hear it?

Yes, please!

---

We listened to the tape and Mr. Wilson played along with it in harmony on the one-string instrument beautifully for short stretches of time, and then it would become too hard for his fingers. On the tape the lonesome and mournful sound of the one-string comes across beautifully, with great feeling in the performance. The tape starts off with “Moonlight and Roses,” “Carry me back to Old Virginny,” “Old Black Joe,” “Annie Laurie,” and “Danny Boy,” all played on one-string violin with piano accompaniment. Then Mr. Wilson sings four songs with great energy, wonderful diction in a lovely tenor voice. The songs are: “I’m learning a Song for Christmas,” “MacDougal, McNab and McKay,” “Roamin in the Gloamin,” and “Waggle o’ the Kilt.” [See below for a link to MP3 audio on the internet.]

...

About the instrument: Robert Wilson made his own one-string violin, patterning it after the one made by his father, that his brother David played after his father died. It has a mahogany back, spruce front, with a maple neck, in the shape of a cigar box with F holes. It uses a violin peg for a banjo-type steel string that is tuned to the lowest pitch needed for the tunes being played. It has a small bridge about 1/2" high placed at the center of the F holes. Inside the box are a sound post and corner reinforcement pieces. The instrument is played like a cello using a violin bow, and Mr. Wilson uses a slow vibrato for sweetness, sometimes sliding into and away from pitches, primarily using the middle finger, and other times fingering the notes with different fingers.

Do you change the tuning of the violin for each piece?

You tune the string to the lowest note in the whole concert.

Even when the pieces are in different keys?

Yes, you never mind that. You’ve got about two octaves, although it is hard on the fingers to play up high.

Would you normally just use all your fingers, or one finger more than another?

Yes, I would use the middle finger the most, especially to slide up and down. When you slide down, loosen your finger off the string a bit so it doesn’t sound as you are sliding. You just feel when you should take your finger off the string, and when to let the slide sound. You could learn this very fast!

Well, thank you for letting me try, and thanks for sharing your memories and your afternoon with me, it has been a pleasure.

––

Robert Wilson was kind enough to allow me to post streaming MP3 files of the pieces on the tape he made with his sister on a page of my band’s web site. The URL is www.waterbearmusic.com/robertwilson.html, and you can also get to it by going to the Links page of the waterbearmusic.com site and clicking on the photo of the one-string violin. I hope you enjoy his playing and singing as much as I have!

[For the full text of this interview, purchase the Winter 05/06 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]

[Mer Pantaleoni Boel is a composer, violinist, singer and writer who performs with her folk-classical-jazz string group Water Bear, based in Ithaca, New York. She writes music for fiddles, orchestra, small ensembles, and for film. You can find Water Bear CDs at CDBaby.com and CDs as well as sheet music at WaterBearMusic.com.]

Photo by Mer Boel.