Cruzatte's Fiddlin'

Dance in the Chateau St. Louis, Quebec (1801)

George Heriot (ca. 1759-1839)

Historic painting showing people dancing circa 1801

Watercolor over pencil National Archives of Canada, Ottawa (Accession No. 1989-472-1)

Very little is known of Pierre Cruzatte, who enlisted at St. Charles, Missouri, on May 16, 1804 as a boatman, or pilot. The son of a French father and an Omaha Indian mother, he had worked on the Lower Missouri River as a trader for the house of Chouteau in St. Louis, and was also fluent in sign-language, the lingua franca of the Western frontier.

"This Crusat is near Sighted and has the use of but one eye," Clark explained on August 12, 1806—a few days after the unfortunate Creole had accidentally shot Captain Lewis in the buttocks. "He is an attentive industerous man," Clark continued, "and one whome we both have placed the greatest Confidence in dureing the whole rout."

All of the Corps were duly appreciative of Cruzatte's talent as a fiddle player, with which he embellished their rare hours of leisure as well as their diplomatic relations with many Indian tribes—until very late in the trip. Back in June of 1805 Clark had remarked that Cruzatte played the instrument "extreemly well." Unfortunately, nothing else the captain could have said would tell us as much about the sound of his playing as the picture above. We don't know whether the artist, George Heriot, knew anything about music or musical instruments, nor how accurately he recorded visual details, but his depiction of these two violinists corresponds with ample written evidence about performances of dance music around the turn of the nineteenth century.

Close up of a 19th century fiddler
photo of a modern day violinist

Look closely at the fiddler in the detail on the left from Heriot's Dance in the Chateau St. Louis. Notice that he holdshis instrument almost vertically, bracing it against his collarbone. He holds it under his chin—against his collarbone— but not with his chin as does the violinist pictured at right. His left arm is close to his side, and he twists that hand around rather awkwardly to grasp the neck of the instrument and finger the strings. This means he cannot shift hand positions up and down the fingerboard without risk of dropping his instrument, but he can easily play tunes with narrow ranges that revolve closely around a tonal center, like "Yankee Doodle." The most challenging pieces in Thomas Jefferson's music library required shifting through as many as five positions. But then, the elder Jefferson claimed he had practiced no less than three hours every day for twelve years.

modern violin chin rest

The chin rest, which prevents the player's chin from dampening the resonance of the violin's body, was invented in the 1820s. The neck of the fiddler's instrument appears to be shorter than that of a modern violin, but since he doesn't have to play extremely high notes, he has no need of longer strings.

During the early 19th century the violin gained a louder and more brilliant tone in response to the demands of larger concert halls and the rise of violin virtuosos such as Lewis and Clark's younger contemporary, Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840). The bridge grew higher, the fingerboard tilted away from the body, and strings began to be made of new materials. Aside from the rare and expensive Amatis, Stradivaris, and Guarnieris of the 17th century, an "old" violin today has a history of only about a hundred years. Violins that have never been "improved" are scarce, and are of dubious value as true examples of older practices and tastes.1 Even the highly prized instruments made by Amati, Stradivari, and Guarnieri back in the 17th century have been modernized—the bridge made higher, the fingerboard made longer and tilted upward, and a chin rest added.

A Stick and a Hank of Hair

18th-century bow compared with a Tourte bow

The stick of the bow Heriot's fiddler is using is curved away from the bow-hair, rather than toward it, and is perhaps four inches shorter than the later Tourte bow. The 18th-century bow stick in the illustration at right is straight when the hair is loose. When it is tightened, either with the player's right thumb or by means of a screw in the nut, the stick bends upward. The bow-hairs will then easily touch two or more strings at once, one or two sounding a "drone" pitch, while the remaining one carries the melody. It also means that the player must not use any vibrato in the melody because it would sound out-of-tune with the drones.

With the 18th-century bow the heaviest pressure on the string is in the center of the bow-hair, so that the middle of a long note or a melodic figure will be louder than the beginning or the end. Fiddlers did not play with the extreme ends—the point or the heel—of the bow, and the melodic style was connected rather than detached, for the bow seldom left the strings. A tune was played with an endless stream of up-and-down bowings, varying chiefly in repeated patterns of long and short up-and-down strokes. There were many different bowing patterns, comparable to regional speech dialects, such as the Georgia bow and the Tennessee half-shuffle.

1. Toward the end of the twentieth century the electric violin emerged in the vernacular tradition. With the sound digitally synthesized, and modifiable to a player's taste, the resonant hollow body became unnecessary, and was replaced by a more durable solid body.

Recommended reading:

Robert R. Hunt, "Merry to the Fiddle: The Musical Amusement of the Lewis and Clark Party," We Proceeded On, Vol. 14, No. 4 (November, 1988).

Joseph Mussulman, "The Greatest Harmoney: 'Meddicine Songs' on the Lewis and Clark Trail," We Proceeded On, Vol. 23, No. 2 (August, 1997).