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Sunday, July 20, 2008

I bought a Steven Miller cigarbox fiddle in Asheville

And here it is! (Click, as always, for larger view.)

At the Woolworth Walk I saw a display of cigar box fiddles by Steven Miller, and I bought one. It's gorgeous and plays pretty well, considering!

I'd seen this article about him in the Mountain Xpress. Excerpt:
Working out of Asheville Craftworks ... [Miller] is focusing on cigar-box fiddles for now [but] plans to steadily expand his business to include such other exotic instruments as frying-pan banjos and toy pianos, as well as more mainstream fare: guitars, mandolins, pochettes (small "pocket" fiddles) and even classical Stradivari-style violins.

Using vintage wooden boxes he buys mostly on eBay, Miller has crafted 39 cigar-box fiddles so far... Although he believes he practically has the cigar-box-fiddle market to himself, both here and elsewhere, he admits that they're not exactly selling like hotcakes.

... many famous musicians started their playing on such instruments, notes Miller. He cites such rock, folk, jazz, blues and country-music luminaries as Jimi Hendrix, Blind Willie Johnson, Lightnin' Hopkins, Charlie Christian, Carl Perkins, George Benson, Roy Clark, Buddy Guy, Big Bill Broonzy, Eddie Lang, Josh White and Sleepy John Estes, among others.

"Cigar-box instruments basically started off as homemade instruments in the mid-19th century," says Miller. "Say you're a guy here in Buncombe County and you want to play a guitar, banjo, fiddle or something, but you don't have any money or any way of getting one. Cigars were being shipped in wooden boxes ... so you pick up a cigar box and say, ‘Well, I'm halfway there—all I need now is a neck and some strings.' That's literally how the idea started. My inspiration was to take that old idea and just do it as well as it could be done. I want to make the absolute best cigar-box fiddle anyone has ever seen."

... the instrument's defining feature is probably its graceful strut, which Miller says he invented. Of one piece with the neck, it extends across the box's entire underside, giving it the strength to handle the requisite string tension while maintaining its tuning.

Right now, he says, he struggles with refining the production process to make it more efficient. While $400 may seem like a lot for a cigar-box fiddle, the materials needed and the 20 hours of work it takes, on average, to make each instrument translate into a very low profit margin. Right now, he says, he's making about $3.62 per hour.
His website pointed me to an article called Jewish Vaudeville and the Cigar Box Fiddle in which Shane Speal writes:
In all my research, one of the most fascinating side-streets I've discovered is the tradition of one-string cigar box violins used in early 1900's Yiddish Vaudeville. ... One of the favorite gimmicks used by performers was a jug band style Klezmer music played on one-string cigar box fiddles, rubber hose horns and other homemade instruments.

Larry Fine of the Three Stooges was known as a virtuoso on the one-string.

Four years ago, I got an email from a Fiddlin' Lew Sellinger who told me about his Uncle Charlie, another one-string cigar box violinist from the Vaudeville Era. He said his uncle called the instrument a "Broomalin" because the neck was made with a broom handle and could make the instrument cry like a gorgeous soprano and sound like a human voice!

Charles Sellinger lived in New York City and was part of the Vaudeville scene prior to World War II. In addition to playing the one-string Broomalin, he also played musical saw and a rubber hose "Flexotone" trumpet of his own design.

Lew writes, "I remember my Uncle Charlie visiting us in Brooklyn and my mother was always confirming what a bad influence he was. Well, what do you expect with a background of being an expert in making crème de menthe in his bathtub while all the roughnecks were making beer and gin?"

When we hauled all our treasures back to the hotel, Hannah (who had been a strong proponent of this purchase) promptly painted this picture of the instrument. I hope she'll post a better picture of her picture, which she took back to Manhattan with her.

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At 11:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is this what Johnny Cash described in a song as a Tennessee flat-top box?

At 10:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, funny that I am reading this exactly a year later. Would love to see the kids all grown up. I remember when they would come visit the ponies. Hannah is quite the artist (and musical as well?) My son is interested in making a cigar box violin so I wandered into this site, Best regards. Kate F


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