Born in the USA
The social history of the violin in America grew out of corn-fed Cremonas and took
root in the parlors of fiddling aristocrats and common folk alike.
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By David Schoenbaum
Fiddlin’ Bill Henseley, mountain fiddler, Asheville, North Carolina
The first known violin maker to reach American shores was a trained professional—and scoundrel. In
1691, London luthier Geoffrey Stafford was deported to the colonies as a felon. He found work fighting
Indians on the Albany frontier until the Royal Governor Benjamin Fletcher took a fancy to him and invited
him to New York. Stafford returned to his trade and managed to make a few violins and lutes before
running the Governor’s body servant through with a sword. He fled and was later hanged as a
highwayman without training another maker to follow in his footsteps.
The history of the violin in America—its makers, dealers, and players—can be traced back to pre-national
beginnings, as evidenced by the checkered career of Stafford. By 1757, the 14-year-old future president
Thomas Jefferson was already a competent player who fiddled happily with the young patriot-in-the-
making Patrick Henry over Christmas holidays (see sidebar“Fiddling Founding Father” at the end of this
The violin in America, in fact, offers a cultural history of the United States as revealing and
comprehensively American as the evolution of the automobile or baseball.
Like Woody Allen’s ubiquitous cinematic character Zelig, the instrument appears virtually everywhere,
especially in early photographs. An archival image from 1846 shows an American Gothic couple posed
around a violin and cello. In another, a Minnesota Ladies Symphony, in orchestrated smiles and
kilometers of organdy, faces the camera a half century later. At Fort Bowie, Arizona, the violins of the US
Army Fourth Cavalry Band line up behind their music stands in 1886. In Deadwood, South Dakota, the
camera captured railroad workers—and an improbable stray deer—displaying