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Profiles of Masters and Apprentices
Lionel LeLeux, master fiddle builder born in 1912, still resides in the small Southwest Louisiana community of LeLeux, where he was born, reared, married, had children, and became a widower. He now lives alone, surrounded by the tools of his trade and the products of his work. Fiddles and fiddle parts are scattered all around his home, and Lionel LeLeux wouldn't have it any other way--he says that if he straightened up, he'd never be able to find anything!
There are 70 parts to a fiddle (violin) and various types of wood are used for different parts. The kind of wood used has a great influence not only in the beauty and quality of the instrument, but also in the tone it will produce. Lionel says that he prefers maple for the neck, back, and ribs and willow is best for the lining and blocks. Since so much work goes into the making of a good fiddle, he wants it to be pretty as well as a superior musical instrument.
His first and greatest love, fiddle making was not always Lionel LeLeux's primary vocation. During the hard times of the Great Depression, he learned the trade of barbering and worked in that field for a number of years. His formal education is limited, but he possess a great wealth of self-acquired knowledge, especially in the area of music and the fiddle.
When asked about how he became interested in making and playing fiddles, Lionel responds that it all began before he was born. As the story goes, when Lionel's mother was pregnant with him, his father would tease her saying, "Be sure you make me a fiddle player." And she did! However, his parents' changed their tune when Lionel was actually old enough to start playing. The elder Lionel had owned a fiddle and played a bit, but he sold the instrument before Lionel could have the chance to use it. Perhaps it was because of the hard times that they wanted him to learn a more "serious" trade and stay busy with his chores, but whatever the reason, Lionel's parents had decided that they did not want him to take up fiddle playing. He was persistent, though, and finally talked them into buying an instrument for him. Lionel's first fiddle cost $4.50, paid in weekly installments of 50 cents, which he earned for keeping his father's mules and horses watered.
Today, Lionel LeLeux's finely tuned ear is in high demand, as he uses that gift to repair and construct superior quality fiddles. He is truly a master of his trade, and artists of his caliber are rare. He is also recognized as a fiddle player and has played with Nathan Abshire, Joe Brasseaux, Angelas LeJeune, Joe Falcon, Lawrence Walker, Remus Adams, Don Montoucet, Eddie LeJeune, and Felix Richard. He played in Moscow twice with Don Montoucet.
In 1985-86, the Louisiana Folklife Apprenticeship Program helped provide the opportunity for a young Louisiana musician to begin learning the art of fiddle construction and repair. John Simio Vidrine was born in El Paso, Texas in 1957. His parents were native Louisianians, only temporarily transplanted, who returned to live in their hometown of Mamou when John was a small boy. There he learned an appreciation of Cajun music and taught himself to play the button accordion, guitar, and fiddle. At the time of the project, John worked as an audio soundman at various Louisiana music and heritage festivals, as well as at the Louisiana World Exposition in New Orleans.
John Vidrine began his apprenticeship in fiddle building in the time honored tradition of first learning to repair and restore broken instruments. Each fiddle is unique in design and the art of repair is much more than simply "fixing" or replacing a part. Consideration must be given to every detail, such as the various materials used--the type of wood, glue, and varnish--in order to fit harmoniously with the design of the original craftsman.
John first attempted to create an instrument under the guidance of Lionel LeLeux. Many of the pieces are hand crafted and some are ordered from a luthier's supply house. A pattern or template is used to mark each part as it is cut out with a band saw. After rough cutting, the back and top must be scooped out using a small oval-bottomed plane (a tool designed by Lionel). Some luthiers (or fiddle makers) simply plane the fiddle back to a specified thickness; however, Lionel LeLeux uses his gifted ear in order to judge how much to scoop out from the back plate. He does this by checking the "plate ring" as he scoops. This means listening to the tone and pitch as he lightly taps the wood, the fiddle builder continues to plane until the plate ring matches the sound of the G string of a guitar.
Many tools in the fiddle making process are homemade such as the vise to hold the plate. Tools that must be purchased are very delicate and highly specialized. For example, there is a purfling tool with two tiny blades to cut a narrow channel around the edge of the top plate of the fiddle. The purfling, or decorative trim, is inserted and glued into this groove. There are so many intricate details involved in the construction of a fiddle that it would take many years for an apprentice to perfect them all. However, John Vidrine began that process and was guided in producing and assembling all the parts of a fiddle.
From this apprenticeship, John learned that patience, time, and space are needed to be a craftsman, not only skills. After now acquiring the skills, he has begun a lifetime commitment to perfecting them. As Lionel LeLeux said, "It would take more than a lifetime to be a real violin maker."