Saturday, October 24, 2009

Musical Instruments – More on the Fiddling Moores

Do you play a musical instrument or did one of your family members? What instrument did you or they play? If no one in the family played an instrument, tell what is your favorite instrument or band and what is your least favorite one. The deadline for submissions is November 1st. This edition of the COG will be guest hosted by Janet Iles who authors the blog, Janet the Researcher.

With my usual terrible timing, I covered this subject previously and at some length in Fiddles and my Family (which dealt with the Moore family’s passion for fiddle music and focused on my Uncle Howard Moore, who had a flourishing second career as a violin-maker) and in a follow-up article, I Was Wrong (written because I had found a picture of my Uncle Howard and Aunt Joy with fiddles made by him after claiming in the first article that there was none). I suppose then that I could entitle this post I Was Really Wrong, because among my mother’s pictures and keepsakes I found two more newspaper articles on Howard and his fiddles, as well as his business card (above).

There is a bit of duplication among the articles, but one thing I really enjoyed about the two below was that they go into more detail about Uncle Howard’s memories of his father (my grandfather) playing the fiddle.

The other thing that jumped out at me was the mention of the Violano Virtuoso that Uncle Howard owned. I had not thought of that for ages! This was a musical machine produced by the Mills Novelty Company between 1907 and 1930 that was something like a player piano, but in addition to the piano also had a mechanically played violin (or sometimes even two). These things are coin-operated, so Uncle Howard always kept a jar of nickels next to his. The tune I remembered it playing was “Over the Waves.“

When I searched in YouTube, quite a few results came up. In one of the clips a Violano Virtuoso aficionado (try saying that three times really fast) explains what one of these contraptions is and mentions that there are currently … 15 known Violano Virtuosos in the world. I wonder if any of my cousins still has that Violano Virtuoso?

I couldn’t find a clip with “Over the Waves,” so I decided to post the clip of a Double (!) Violano Virtuoso playing “Dueling Banjos.”

Below are transcripts of the articles. (If you have ever wondered what the difference between a fiddle and a violin is, you can read Uncle Howard’s answer in the first article.)

“Violin Craftsman Visits Weiser, Lured by Beauty of the Fiddle,” by Keitha Herrick. From The Weiser Signal, Thursday, June 22, 1967, Front Page; Weiser, Idaho.

“Each year, thousands of people are attracted to the Fiddle Festival in Weiser by the hypnotic strains of the music, by memories long cherished in their childhood or by the thrill and excitement of festival crowds. At least one couple, however, has come this year to view the beauty and craftsmanship of the fiddle itself.

They are Mr. and Mrs. Howard Moore of 1702 Island Ave., Wilmington, Calif.

Mr. Moore, professionally a longshoreman in the Los Angeles Harbor, is a master violin maker in his spare time. One of his violins won the grand champion award on tone, varnish, and workmanship at the 1964 contest of the International Association of Violin and Guitar Makers held in Arizona.

Born at Lancaster, Texas, Moore moved to California in 1935 and has worked as a longshoreman loading and unloading ships most of this time, but his hobby is making and restoring stringed instruments and his love for them shows in his attention to detail.

Mr. and Mrs. Moore are the happy owners of one of the few Violano Virtuoso (an old-fashioned Nickelodeon-type box with a violin in it) made between 1909 and 1929 and valued at $2500.

Moore makes his instruments out of fine wood. He owns one piece of maple which came from a top of a library table used in the White House during President James Madison’s tenure in office. He plans to make a backing out of it.

He also owns a piece of topwood from a cathedral built in 1459 in Munich, Germany, for a violin and viol.

Moore had a ready answer when asked the difference between a fiddle and a violin. “A fiddle is carried in a sack and a violin is carried in a case,” he said.

The Moores first attended the Fiddle Festival in 1964 and enjoyed the hospitality and fine fiddling so much they planned each year to return but something always interfered until this year.

They both wish to thank the good citizens of Weiser for making their stay so friendly and enjoyable.

During the festival they are residing at the Washington hotel. They are accompanied by Mrs. Thelma Matlock, who works with Mrs. Moore at Pacific Telephone.”

Moore inspects back of violin ...

... then checks top for proper fit.

“Longshoreman By Day … Violin Maker By Night,” by Ann Salisbury. From the Sunday Scene Magazine of the Daily Breeze, Sunday, January 3, 1971, p. F1.

“Howard Moore has a hard job and a soft heart.

He’s a longshoreman who controls a power winch that swings tons of cargo from ship decks to the docks of Long Beach, Wilmington and San Pedro.

In his spare time he makes and repairs violins in his Wilmington home.

That may seem strange, but to Moore, “Violins are my life.”

Moore, 61, became interested in violins as a child. During the 1920s he lived on a Texas farm.

‘On the weekends we’d have country dances at people’s houses. They’d move the furniture out, roll up the rugs and dance until 1 or 2 in the morning,’ he said.

‘The girls’d wear gingham dresses and there’d be corn whiskey and home brew and home-baked pies. My dad had a fiddle, and his brothers used to borrow it.

‘I guess I loved violins even then because when they’d take the fiddle, I’d always tell them to be sure and bring it back.’

Moore says violins remind him of those days at home on the farm.

He was one of 11 children and there was a lot of work to be done, but everyone looked forward to Saturday nights when his father would take out the fiddle and play ‘Turkey in the Straw,’ ‘Ragtime Annie,’ ‘Arkansas Traveler,’ and ‘Leather Britches.’

‘My father kept his fiddle in a wooden case under the bed. We kids were forbidden to touch it. When he was away, I used to take it out and tune it by ear and try to play it.’

Moore has won more than 20 trophies with his violins, among which are first place and grand champion awards for workmanship, tone and varnish.

His violins sell from $300 to $600 and he has sold 30 of the 37 he has made.

‘I can make a good violin in about 60 hours but it usually takes a long time because I’m kept busy repair old ones,’ he said.

Moore did his first repair work when he was seven.

‘One of my father’s violin pegs broke, and I carved a new one from a buggy spoke. It was the only hard wood I could find,’ he said.

Moore’s eyes light up when he talks violins. “I’ve got a piece of maple for the back of a violin, and that maple came from a library table which was in the White House when James Madison was president,’ he said.

‘I may combine that with a top of some spruce wood that was once part of a cathedral built in 1459 in Munich, Germany.

Moore has a Stradivarius violin-back proportion chart on his workshop wall.

‘But when I’m making a violin, I’ve found I get the best results with proportions I’ve figured out myself,” he grinned.

‘There are more than 72 parts to a violin, many of which must be sculpted and carved to perfection,’ Moore said. ‘But the most important is tone. It should be rich, round, and full with good carrying power.

‘And a violin should have playability. Some violins have a bright tone, some are mellow, and some have a dark tone like what you hear in gypsy music.’

Until 10 years ago Moore had forgotten violins. He married at 18 and went to work in the oil fields.

‘After that I got into the building trades and construction. In 1935 I came to the waterfront and started my longshoring, and all that time I’d forgotten them.

‘But in 1960 my wife and I were rummaging through a garage for some trailer gear.

‘I saw an old violin case hanging from a nail. I asked about it and … the family gave it to me.

‘It wasn’t in very good shape – it was almost falling apart, but it was a good violin. When I held it there and looked at it, I remembered hearing my dad those old fiddle tunes,’ he said.

‘I remembered the broken peg and the Texas hoe downs, and I knew I could restore it.”

Thanks to these articles, I now even know some of the tunes that my grandfather played on his fiddle. I guess the timing of this Carnival of Genealogy wasn’t so bad, after all.

Submitted for the 83rd Carnival of Genealogy.


  1. What a great musical history your family has! Music was lacking in my childhood. It's a shame your uncle never felt he had his father's talent but his own talent of craftsmanship was amazing.

    I had never heard of a Violano Virtuoso before. Neat that he had one of his own.

  2. I ADORE that quote! So simple, so elequent!

  3. Such a neat family history to have-you know I'm partial to music : ) I loved the articles-especially his quote about the difference. One of my girls is taking violin this year-I can't wait to share his words with her.

  4. Apple - Sometimes I have to catch myself when I am about to say that I didn't get much "cultural immersion" growing up. I did - it was in this music.

    Carol - Thanks - the Moore side of the family is kind of like that - few words but eloquent.

    Tipper - I think my Uncle Howard would have been "tickled," as we say, to meet you and your family. Good luck to your daughter - I think she is studying one of the best instruments!

  5. Great article. I live just a hop, skip and a jump from the National Oldtime Fiddler's Contest still held annually in Weiser but have never been. Maybe I'll have to look into that.....

  6. I envy those who can craft a violin. Wouldn't it be cool to be able to do that?

    Thanks for sharing yet another great article with us in the COG Greta!

  7. Wow! What a musical family history! I love the title of the second article: "Longshoreman By Day...Violin Maker By Night" ~ 7 words and they say so much about Howard. Also the article mentioned him growing up and working on a farm, but having a fondness for the fiddle. It seems that his day job was just that, a job, and the violin was his passion! Thank you for sharing.


  8. What a great example of resourcefulness "making a violin peg from an old buggy spoke." Charming story of a man doing what he loves. Thanks for sharing.