Pa’s Fiddle: Charles Ingalls, American Fiddler
4 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
As a child through the 1970s, I was raised with the Little House on the Prairie television series. When I discovered the public library during the summer between grades four and five, among the dozens of books I devoured were Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. In the years since, and despite the contextual racism and other challenges presented by the novels, both overt and subtle, they remain favorites; without doubt Little House in the Big Woods remains one of the coziest novels to read on cold winter evenings. Further, for years I have hoped to visit Mansfield, Missouri and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum, and this coming spring it just may finally happen.
Therefore, I come to this set predisposed to positivity.
When I reviewed a previous volume (The Arkansas Traveler) in this continuing series several years ago, I was tremendously impressed by how song titles carelessly skimmed over while reading as a youth brought to life memories of the novels. That album, while serving as a historical retrospective, was a dang fine listen. With Pa’s fiddle at its heart, it was not surprising that the old-time music collected therein prominently featured fiddle—lively and light, then mournful and introspective.
Unlike that previous set, which featured masterful vocal performances from the likes of John Cowan, Elizabeth Cook, Andrea Zonn, and Jeff Black, Pa’s Fiddle: Charles Ingalls, American Fiddler is an album of instrumentals. As before, Matt Combs ably handles the fiddling. Missed here are the contributions of Butch Baldassari, in who’s memory the album is dedicated. As Pa’s Fiddle Band, the musicians bringing these songs to life include familiar bluegrassers Shad Cobb (banjo), Dennis Crouch (bass), Matt Flinner (mandolin) Bryan Sutton (guitar) as well as Buddy Greene (harmonica) and Jeff Taylor (accordion, pennywhistle, and piano).
Sure to be enjoyed by all fans of old-timey sounds, this latest volume sounds a bit more “uptown” than the previous set. The arrangements are more refined with the full-band presenting a less rustic interpretation of the tunes. Perhaps the tunes, including a personal favorite, the spritely picked “The Yellow Heifer,” received interpretations such as those included here in the 19th century, but I wouldn’t bet on it. These, therefore, are not faithful reproductions of the music heard by Laura, Mary, and the clan, but rather relatively modern interpretations of a selection of tunes mentioned throughout the Little House series.
The performances are dynamic and fully enjoyable. The doleful sounding “Golden Years are Passing By,” played by Bryan Sutton, causes one to reflect on passing days while the full-band reprise of the tune intensifies the ache into something even more pensive. The old fiddle tune “Polly Put the Kettle On”, featuring Joe Weed on fiddle, is closer in spirit to what I ‘hear’ when reading the novels. Some tunes bring a religious element, omnipresent within the Little House series, including “My Sabbath Home” and “Jesus Holds My Hand.”
The song notes of Dale Cockrell, which places each tune within both historical and Little House contexts, are superb, concise and interesting.
There are but two elements of the album that give me pause.
There first is simply a matter of preference. If these recordings are built on the legacy of Wilder’s writing, I do wonder why the songs are presented as ‘band’ recordings as Pa usually played unaccompanied. While I very much appreciate the performances contained within Pa’s Fiddle: Charles Ingalls, American Fiddler, when listening I don’t strongly hear Wilder’s sense of place or voice.
My second hesitation around the project concerns the stated intent of this recording is to “place [Charles Ingalls] among the first rank of old-time fiddlers whose music is foundational to so much in American music.” This goal seems to be revisionist to my wee historical brain. While Ingalls’ playing is woven throughout the Little House novels, it seems to me that that was the limit of his influence.
I am willing to be corrected, but in my admittedly limited reading of fiddle playing in American history, the name Charles Ingalls isn’t prominent. I might suggest, as is hinted in Cockrell’s notes, that Ingalls’ influence didn’t extend past his family and immediate circle, and as such he is simply one of likely thousands of fiddle players whose music informed and entertained his family, but didn’t have historical relevance; the difference being, of course, that their daughters didn’t write about the experiences as widely as did his.
Quibbling aside, Pa’s Fiddle: Charles Ingalls, American Fiddler is a very enjoyable, supremely played collection of songs that further illuminate the importance of the Little House series in our understanding of American history and the place music serves within it. And, it is a dang fine listen.