JOHN ANDERSON – SHETLAND FIDDLES BROUGHT BACK TO LIFE IN AUSTRALIA

The phone rang and as soon as I heard the words “Scottish fiddler” I passed it to Judy. “For you”. I went back to reading the paper and heard familiar sounding arrangements being made for a gig. A time and a place and a day. Then Judy said “I don’t need to bring my fiddle?”. We looked at each other as she listened. The conversation went on, I went back to the paper. When she put the phone down, she said “ We’re going to play as a surprise at someone’s 80th birthday party, and they want me to play a fiddle her father made in 1940.”

And so it was a summer Saturday evening a month or so later that we found ourselves in leafy Melbourne suburb of Ashburton pulling up outside a house with cars all over the front lawn and balloons hanging from the carport. We went in were introduced and met the family, gathered to celebrate the grandmother’s birthday. We were also introduced from beyond the grave to her father John Anderson, Melbourne violin maker, in this first instance through a violin that he made in the shed behind their house in Elsternwick in 1942. It had been carefully looked after all these years and recently restrung. John we learned had grown up among fiddle players and made fiddles to play traditional tunes on. He often played jigs and reels when friends came to call.

John, we were told, was from the Shetland Islands, between Scotland and Norway, a place where fiddle music and fiddlers are so much part of life they say if you throw a stone over a wall you’ll hit a fiddle player. He was born on the small Shetland island of South Yell.

We learned that he’d fallen in love with a Shetland girl, Mary, and she had come to Australia to go into service with a Shetland family who had opened a convalescent home in Frankston. John found work in the merchant marine and soon worked his way on board a ship sailing for Melbourne.

On the 13th November 1912 anchor was dropped in Port Phillip Bay for quarantine inspection, and the next day the ship tied up at Victoria Docks near Spencer Street. Mary was there to greet John and that was the end of his seagoing career. On the 23rd November 1912 the young couple married at the Methodist Church, Essendon. John worked all his working life for the Victorian railways, and the family of seven children were on the move round Victoria. Finally, a house was bought in Elsternwick and the moving came to a halt. But wherever they were, John’s love of Shetland fiddle music and fiddles was there with them. He made his first Australian violin in 1917 and the last in 1960. The 1960 one has a script label and is numbered 43. John and his wife lived at Elsternwick, Melbourne in their home which they purchased in 1935. John made all his own tools by hand, for example, making planes out of hack saw blades and pieces of wood. The family remember him making the scrolls ( the curly bit at the top of fiddles) with an old broken pocket knife he kept specially sharpened for the job.

John Anderson died in Melbourne in 1973 at age 91.

“I wonder whether the other ones here are still playable?” said one of the daughters. And there was an interruption to the drinking of chardonnay and the eating of cake as a couple of the family set off into the deepest recesses of storeroom cupboards at the back of the house to return with another couple of violins. Still with the old gut strings on, they had been kept as violins should be kept, reasonably stable temperature, with the bridge up and the strings under tension, which kind of holds the whole thing together. A couple of strings were broken, a bridge had fallen over.

So now there were three. “What ever became of the others?” I asked. Aside from the ones that were sold or returned to Shetland into the hands of friends, John had a practice of giving a fiddle to each of his grand-children as they turned 21. So, we learnt, Rosemary, a granddaughter in Box Hill, has a couple, and Bill has at least two in Glen Waverley. The Minister from Mansfield came down one day to see him, and John gave him one because he’d always liked him. A couple more were in Mansfield, ones John had made in the family’s itinerant days and given or sold to locals. There’s a three quarter size one in Mount Martha, and a couple more in Blackburn South.

Judy started playing Shetland tunes for the family. There was no stopping her, the Shetland fiddle tune repertoire is as vast as the ocean around the islands, and the music has a feel about it dictated by the geography of the place and the language which has, in its Scottish dialect, words of Norwegian origin. I remember once sitting in a pub in Scalloway, a fishing town in the south of Shetland’s south island, and listening to fishermen from around the North Sea rim talking each their native tongues, dialects of Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, Scottish and Shetland and making sense enough of each other for the evening’s entertainment to proceed without a hitch. And hence the musical dialect which is the music of Shetland is halfway between the music of Scotland and the music of Scandinavia.

Judy played a set of traditional tunes we recorded a while ago with Fiddle Club, the very names of which are redolent of the place. “Da Mirrie Boys O’Greenland”, followed by “Donal Blu” and finishing with “Sleep soond I’da Moarnin”. The children and grandchildren stopped dead in their tracks, some were close to tears. Judy played a tune by Tom Anderson, the father of the rejuvenated interest in Shetland fiddle music, called “Da Slockitt Light” (The Dying Light) which he wrote after his wife’s death. It’s a plaintive beautiful tune, with many musical pointers to its Shetland origin. There is a history in Scottish music of a much closer relationship between classical playing and fiddle playing than, say, in Irish music, and Da Slockitt Light, and tunes like it, allow a player with mastery of the classical and traditional styles of playing to mix the two in a uniquely Scottish, and Shetland, way. In a later conversation, we found out that John was a cousin of Tom Anderson’s. For fiddle players with an interest in Scottish music, this is akin to discovering a family link to John Lennon.

More cake was eaten, the dog was allowed out of the back bedroom where he’d been put when he started howling at the fiddle music, perhaps confused by the smell of the old cat gut strings.

“So how many of John’s fiddles are still being played?” we asked. Oh well, came the vague reply, some were played by people in the MSO, and he sent some back to Shetland. A photograph of a great old player, Laurie Matheson, playing one of John’s fiddles in a concert in Lerwick, capital of the Shetlands, in front of the late Queen Mother in 1961 was produced. A thought came into my mind that I stayed with a very upstanding old fiddle player in a magnificent stone mansion north of Scalloway when I was there in my twenties. I tried to remember if the man who played fiddle those long Northern summer evenings as I accompanied him on guitar was indeed this man whose photograph had been pulled out of a drawer some thirty years later. That bit is still unresolved.

To give an idea of how remote Shetland was before the oil was found in the 70s, I remember seeing an advert in The Lerwick Times which read :
“Depressed? Suicidal? Write to
The Samaritans, PO Box 27, Inverness.
We will answer your letter inside a fortnight”

The end of the evening came, and promises were made to stay in touch. One of us had the mad idea that as the Fiddle Club was due to do a big gig at Hawthorn Town Hall the following year, and to record a new CD later that year, maybe we could assemble as many of John’s fiddles as we could and use them to perform and record some Shetland?

And so the word went out through the lands, for relations and friends to bring their Anderson violins down to Blackburn. And lo, two did come from Mansfield as had been promised and others were found closer at hand. Some had never been looked at since last put up in the attic in 1969. Others had been used for violin lessons for each of the children and were still being played. Some had never been played, but sat as ornaments on sideboards in suburban living rooms, a reminder of days when music was an active part of life for more people, not just something bought in a shop, tuned into on a radio or downloaded into an Ipod.

One of the great things about the Melbourne Scottish Fiddle Club is the range of interests and skills of its members. Jim Vizard, who has been with us since the start of the club, was, we now learned for the first time, an active violin repairer and builder. He told us he made the violin he plays. How can you play with someone for 10 years on a regular basis and never have that conversation, I asked myself? So many great and fascinating people have a humility and a self-effacing-ness which is remarkable. Jim, who, it turns out, was Secretary of the Violin Makers Association of Victoria for many years, volunteered to put the fiddles back in playable condition. Twelve Anderson fiddles gathered at our house awaiting repair. Jim collected them and with a friend put them all together again, all in playable, to say the least, condition, inside a week.

And so the day of the big Hawthorn gig came, and amongst a crowd of 700 sat members of John Anderson’s family. More tears were shed as the old man’s fiddles were played, and in particular when Jim played Da Slockitt Light, a tune by Tom Anderson, on his favourite Anderson, Number 11 made in 1932.
*Thanks to Bill Sides for the family photographs of John, and to other family members for all the great stories.

All these photos which follow feature Anderson fiddles:

*Stay tuned for more news about the Anderson Shetland fiddles. At the Hawthorn gig, we had 15 beautifully restored fiddles, another three which needed more work on them than time allowed. Another five are on their way to us.