A reel-to-reel life

Blethen Maine News Service
Portland Press Herald
Friday, January 26, 2007

Blethen Maine News Service
by Jeff Pouland

Photo caption:Marcel Robidas plays "Whiskey Before Breakfast" on one of his fiddles recently at his home in North Anson. Robidas has been playing fiddle as an avocation for 70 years.


Marcel Robidas is a master fiddler. You can hear him at the Smithsonian Institution, or right here.

Hear and see the fiddling

Marcel Robidas tapped his foot as he played the "Juliette Reel" in his cozy home in North Anson on a January afternoon.

His love of the French Canadian music resonating from his favorite violin was apparent. A tender smile slipped onto his face as the bow rode the strings.

"It's supposed to be a circular, swirling motion, not back and forth like this," Robidas said, demonstrating an exaggerated back-and-forth motion.

Robidas should know. The 76-year-old master fiddler, storyteller and violin maker, whose recorded work can be heard at the Smithsonian Institution, began strumming a tin fiddle at the age of 6 in Orange, Vt.

"My father gave my brother and I two little tin fiddles," Robidas said, with just a hint of a French accent. "They were so cute. Toys really. They sounded tinny, but we learned to play on them. We wouldn't put them down. We played by ear."

Robidas recently brought his talent and love of fiddle music to Somerset County, where he and his wife, Louise, had chosen to retire. They said they looked around New England and settled in North Anson because of the town's down-home feel.

"We just love this place," he said.

Retirement, however, does not mean seclusion. Robidas said he and his wife are eyeing a barn on Route 201 in Madison as a possible location for jam sessions and dances.

Robidas said he probably came by the violin naturally. "My father's family had 10 boys and 10 girls, and they all played the violin," he said.

All of the children in his family spoke French at home, he said. They went to Catholic school, where they would bring their fiddles and play them outside during recess.

Robidas said he and his brother Lucien "began to play a little at school parties, at Granges and stuff like that. I was scared stiff, just a kid, but a guy told me just to be myself and play natural," he recalled.

When he saw the enjoyment on people's faces, he was hooked.

The family moved to Dover, N.H., when Robidas was about 12 years old.

He worked in the woods with his brother and drove trucks to earn a living, but his fiddle was the love that drove his world.

Robidas began jamming with other musicians and playing at dances on the weekends.

He especially liked contradances "because... you can saw away for 15 minutes on a line dance."

Later in life, the National Endowment of the Arts paid him to teach the violin, Robidas said. "Every year they would send me a student," he recalled.

Even the basics of how the violin worked intrigued Robidas.

He tells stories of trying to find ebony to repair his fiddles and finding it too expensive. He said he used to knock the black piano keys off his old piano to make repairs.

He kept busy repairing other violins until 1982, when he finished making his first complete fiddle, Robidas said.

He tells the story in "Deeply Rooted: New Hampshire Traditions in Wood," an illustrated book supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and distributed for The Art Gallery and the Center for Humanities at the University of New Hampshire.

Robidas said he cut that first fiddle all in one piece using a bandsaw. The body was maple and the top was pine.

"It was different than any other fiddle in the world," he said.

Since then, Robidas has fashioned five fiddles and given them all to his children.

"It takes over 400 hours to make a violin. That's a lot of rubbing and scraping -- and cursing, sometimes. It takes a lot of patience," he said.

"It takes special tools, but I made my own tools. It sounds crazy, but I use glass to shape the wood. I learned that on the farm. My grandfather used glass to shape the ax handles. It does work good."

He recalled the day when representatives of the Library of Congress came to him and asked to record his music.

"They said it was traditional music and they wanted it recorded because they didn't want it being lost."

At the time, Robidas was leading Marcel and The Maple Sugar Band.

His work is published under the title "Mademoiselle, Voulez-vous Danser? Franco-American Music from the New England Borderlands."

It can be heard at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

Louise Robidas remembers the day she met Robidas and heard the Franco-American music for the first time.

"I knew it the minute he started playing that I liked it," she said, strumming her guitar alongside her husband.

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This page last updated on October 28, 2007.