Hark back to high school. Do you ever remember sitting through a history lesson with a big smile on your face, feet tapping to a rhythm and sitting on the edge of your seat wondering what happens next? I sure didn't not back then. Then I saw Daniel Slosberg of Los Angeles, California, perform as Pierre Cruzatte, the fiddler of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. His story had me spellbound.
Dressed in brain-tanned buckskins, headscarf, moccasins, and eye patch, Dan fiddled and tapped his way through a piece of history that is celebrating its two hundred year anniversary this year. In 1997, when he first discovered that there was a fiddler who accompanied Lewis and Clark, he had not realized that he would be touring the country as part of that celebration. Pierre Cruzatte is remembered in more formal histories as having the dubious distinction of mistaking Merewether Lewis for an elk and shooting him in the behind. That incident may have colored Lewis' memory of Cruzatte, but Cruzatte himself remembered many other things about the expedition. He remembered the encounters with the Indians as they crossed the country, the songs he played for them on his fiddle and the songs that the explorers sang and danced to as they crossed the continent. The stories come alive as Dan uses his bow as a rifle and his feet as the drums, sometimes tapping out a rhythm with bones or blasting away on a tin horn.
Like Cruzatte, Dan has crossed the continent in his life: born in Michigan, raised in Massachusetts, he finally settled in California with his wife and four children. He started playing the violin when he was five years old, taking lessons until the age of twelve, when he set it aside for a few years. In his early twenties, he took it up again, but no more as a violin. It became a fiddle in his hands. He is not bound to any particular style, however, and says, "I believe that all fiddle players come to the instrument for their own unique and personal reasons, some because they're moved by hearing a particular fiddler or a particular style, some because, like me, they just love the sound of the instrument."
In recreating the sound of Cruzatte, Dan uses an old handmade fiddle outfitted with gut strings, which he gets from Curtis Daily at Aquila USA in Portland, Oregon. Played held to his chest instead of chin, the fiddle lacks a chin rest because "Pierre wouldn't have had one." This also helps Dan sing as he fiddles. He uses a specially made baroque-style bow handcrafted by Neil Hendricks of Early Strings in Reno, Nevada. "Mr. Hendricks made exactly what I was looking for. He even made me a bow out of Osage Orange, a wood that no American citizen had seen before Lewis & Clark ventured forth. The French name for Osage Orange is bois d'arc, or 'wood of the bow.' Of course, they were talking about a different sort of bow, but I like the connection."
Singing while fiddling is not an easy thing to do, and Dan does this very well, although it was not always a part of his act.
"When I first started doing the show, I didn't sing and play at the same time. I did all the songs a cappella. Carl Weintraub, an actor/storyteller and the artistic director of the company 'We Tell Stories,' agreed to take a look at my Cruzatte program and advise me on ways to improve it. Among the many suggestions he gave me -- suggestions which, by they way, changed the program from being barely watchable to being where it is today -- he told me that, 'You have to sing and play at the same time.'
"'But I can't sing and play at the same time,' I assured him.
"'Well, you have to sing and play at the same time.'
"So I started to try to sing and play at the same time. This was rather difficult for me, particularly using the standard, under-the-chin violin hold -- not impossible, though. While I sang, I just played chords on the fiddle. I managed to do it, but it felt incredibly unnatural. At one point, however, while rehearsing the show in the garage for the chalk faces I drew on the back of our garage door and a stuffed Barney doll in a lawn chair, the fiddle slipped down to my chest. Maybe I was tired, I don't know. But I immediately saw how holding it that way made sense for Cruzatte, not just because it's much easier to sing while holding the fiddle that way, but it's much easier to dance while holding the fiddle that way, too. It also tells the audience, from the moment Cruzatte comes on stage, that he's a fiddler and not a violinist. And it also allows Cruzatte to make more direct contact with the audience. The fiddle is not as much in the way as it is when using the standard hold."
[For the full text of this article, purchase the Summer 2003 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Beverley Conrad is a fiddler and storyteller from Pennsylvania. See her ad on this page or her website at www.fiddlerwoman.com]
Photo: Craig Ferré Photography