Westby’s Randy Dahlen plays fiddle and continues family’s love of Norwegian music | News
Kathy Anderson Westby Area Historical Society
Great American composer Leonard Bernstein’s comment, “Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable”, is probably understood by many people in Westby, as Norwegians are known to be people who talk little and do a lot of music. They are also known to be wonderful carpenters and we are fortunate to have people in the Westby area who have shared their musical talents with us as singers, instrumentalists and luthiers.
What is a luthier you ask me? Joseph Dahlen was a luthier – a luthier. Born in Christiana Township in 1888, Joe was the second of five children and the only son of Norwegian immigrants Even and Maria Dahlen. He started carving at the age of 29 because he needed something to keep him awake as he cared for his elderly father at night and farmed during the day. Farmers are busy people, so it seems Joe has little time for a hobby, but he’s become quite a prolific carpenter. “Grandpa Joe made some great woodcarvings,” his grandson, Randy Dahlen, recently shared. Not only did he carve beautiful figures, but with very specialized equipment that he made, he created at least five violins that family members still own. There’s a children’s violin, a special banjo-like instrument, and even an extraordinary Norwegian Hardanger violin he made in 1936.
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Hardanger fiddles are unique in that they typically have eight strings, but only four are played. The four strings that are never touched, called the substrings or sympathetic strings, sit below the four active strings and vibrate to create the unique sound that Hardanger violins are known for. Grandpa Joe crafted his beautiful Hardanger violin with many intricate and artful details. The fingerboard is an inlay design made up of several different types of wood; the tailpiece is a beautifully carved piece of bone; and the scroll is a beautifully carved horse’s head.
Joe’s carpentry skills were passed down to his son, Art Dahlen, who many of you would know as a master carpenter and local furniture maker. Joe’s love for music was passed on to his grandson, Randy, and his great-grandchildren, Kory and Karlee. Randy still listens to music, but shared that the only time he played an instrument was when Kory had to teach someone to play a string instrument for a college class. Randy laughed as he recounted his success in learning musical scales and “Hot Cross Buns” on a violin so his son could earn those college credits. Kory, an accomplished trumpeter, is now the band principal at Westby High School and Karlee plays flute and piccolo.
After Art Dahlen passed away in 1997, as often happens, the family came across a long-forgotten box that Art had obtained when Grandpa Joe died. The specialized equipment Joe used to make violins, all the tools he had made himself, were fortunately still safe and in excellent condition in that box. They were just waiting for the right person to come and put them back into service.
Building a violin requires immense talent for minute detail, skill and patience. When Randy went through his grandfather’s stringed instrument box, he decided it might make for an interesting hobby and something he could continue to work on years later when he retires. Like others after high school, Randy started college courses in one area, drafting and design, before moving on to another, agribusiness. The idea of making a violin, with many different parts and parts, the fine tuning, firm hand carving and intricate detailing seemed like something that suited his personality and interests.
Randy worked as a pump jockey for the Westby Farmers’ Union while in high school and college. He continued in product sales and as a division manager at Tri-State Breeders. After Cashton Co-op Elevator and Westby Farmers’ Union merged to form Heartland County Co-op, Randy became General Manager and finally Vice President when Heartland merged with Premier Co-op. When he and his wife, Betty, were raising a family all those years, Randy was also involved in various community and religious organizations and served as a local municipal judge for twenty-one years. There was little time for a hobby until her retirement in 2018 and, sadly, more time since Betty passed away last September. Since then, Randy has seriously devoted his efforts to Grandpa Joe’s passion, making his own violin.
There are twenty-four pieces of wood in the body, not including the front, back, or neck, which are crafted and carefully glued together in Randy’s violin frame. He explained that maple, spruce, willow and ebony are used for specific parts and areas to provide strength or flexibility, to be molded into the necessary curves. Randy explained that the hardness of each of these woods resonates a little differently as the air vibrates from the strings that are played through the body of the violin creating sound. The density or hardness of the many types of wood used to make a violin is what creates the richness of sound produced by the instrument.
The top, or face, of a violin is thin to allow sound to resonate through the body but loud enough to stand the test of time. Because it can crack after several years of use or because of humidity problems, the different woods that make up a violin are cut, carved, bent, then glued with animal glue which can be “broken” if a violin must be disassembled. To be repaired.
Randy’s fiddle face is made of two pieces of spruce that are glued together. He then very carefully sculpted the glued pieces by hand to deliberately give them a thickness of two to three millimeters in very specific places. The surface of the glued boards is carved with a tool that scoops the wood so that the face of the violin is not a flat surface. Facing the violin, there are also two “F-holes” which allow the sound to come out of the instrument. Randy said the whole face shaping process can be stressful. It is so thin that you have to be careful not to crack the wood while working to hollow out the curved surfaces and then cut the F-holes.
The sides, or tips, and back are maple for added strength and because they resonate differently than softer spruce. Because maple is very hard, it must be steamed to make it flexible enough to bend. Grandpa Joe made a very special mold that would hold the wood until it dried into the familiar shape of a violin. Randy took after Grandpa Joe and made many of his own tools that help make and shape parts for his violin.
Very thin strips of willow are glued inside the parts of the violin. These strips are used to reinforce the instrument and as ledges where the front and back can be glued to the sides.
There are blocks of wood that are glued at specific points inside the violin before the face is attached. A base bar, glued to the inside surface of the face, and a sound rod support the face and relieve the “bridge”, the piece of wood that holds the strings above the face of the instrument. Interestingly, the bridge is not glued to the surface of the violin. Only the pressure of the strings keeps it in place and it must periodically be repositioned. It should also be noted that the position of the basic bar and the soundpost are very specific in relation to the feet of the bridge.
To beautify the instrument and finish the surface, Randy will first apply an alcohol varnish or shellac to seal the wood. It cannot stain the wood with anything that can penetrate the surface as this will affect the sound quality. Three coats of shellac with different stains are applied to give a nice smooth color to the violin. Randy will follow the custom of not finishing the underside of a violin’s neck with varnish, shellac, or stain, but perhaps just a light coat of tung oil, to help the violinist play the tool. Depending on the task and the time needed between all the building stages, Randy works between an hour or two to four hours at a time on the fiddle.
Ty from Old Towne Strings in La Crosse will do the final setup for Randy’s instrument. He will insert the “soundpost”, basically a pin that needs to be placed inside the violin between the top and bottom in the right place to take the pressure of the strings. He will also pass the strings between the tailpiece near the bottom of the face and the pegs at the top of the neck, then tune the violin. When finished, Randy will have to wait for a refresher lesson from Kory to play his violin, but can immediately take credit for continuing his family’s story of the Norwegian musical heritage established by his ancestors. Randy has produced a beautiful work of art that will live on for many years after he is gone. His children, grandchildren and even his great-grandchildren will enjoy his violin, and perhaps others he makes, just like him, his son Kory and his daughter Karlee speak of the love of their great -father and great-grandfather Joe for the music. As we celebrate our Norwegian heritage at Syttende Mai, the story of their Norwegian family’s love of music is a wonderful gift to our community.
Editor’s note: Randy Dahlen’s violin is currently being strung and tuned. As soon as it is returned, we will post a photo of the finished violin.