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The Ultimate Tool Shed for Instrument Lovers

By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
July 3, 2008 - 1:00 pm

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Bill Graham
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.

Bill Monroe and Bill Shakespeare surely would disagree about several points regarding this small, brown, wooden instrument with four pairs of strings and an ornately carved peghead.

Shakespeare called this plucked and strummed instrument a cittern. It was glued together about 1590 and he made fun of what he considered garish carvings on the pegheads of such instruments in lines of the plays he was writing for the Globe Theatre.

"No sir," Monroe would say. "It's a mandolin, easy to see that. An oldtimer for sure. But it looks just like them little pancake mandolins (Gibson Army-Navy models) that some of the boys brought home from the first great war. Even if the top and back have a bit of arch. Be just fine for an old fiddle tune. Let me try it."

Oh to hear him do so. Especially since this is the only known surviving example of what were once common instruments in Elizabethan England.

Similar thoughts went through my mind over and over at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, S.D.

The best out of a 13,500 instrument collection representing the finest musical endeavors of Planet Earth are on display. They're cleaned and polished in cases, unplayed. Footsteps and whispers are the only silence breakers in the solemn dignity of the former Carnegie Library building.

But for a musician, sounds keep coming at you in your mind. You imagine them and wonder how close the pings, dings, toots and chimes in your head are to what was real.

So it was to for the founder of this feast, Arne B. Larson, a South Dakota high school musical teacher who collected 2,500 instruments from around the world before he donated them for the museum established in Vermillion in 1973.

He played all band and orchestra instruments because school teachers did so to instruct students in those days. Clarinet was his specialty.

Then Arne retired and helped run the museum, until his death in 1988.

A thirsty and curious musical soul he was, like the people who created instruments ranging from rare violins made for kings to the flat board cut into a guitar shape by a slave, strung up with wire and played.

Arne Larson drew notes from all.

"For him, it was about playing them," said his son, Andre Larson, 66, who has directed the museum since its founding. "He wanted to know how they all sounded."

That got him into trouble with a staff striving for conservation when the instruments moved from his house to the museum.

"He wanted to pick things up and play them for people," Larson said.

Well Arne, I'm on your side.

The cittern Shakespeare made fun of looks just like a mandolin with ancient wood. I desperately want to know how it sounds. The neck looks straight, and someone has set it up with modern strings and a replica bridge.

But I feel the same longing every direction I turn.

Such as the room with a complete collection of the Gibson mandolin family from the early 1900s—including one of only two Orville Gibson lyre mandolins known to be in existence.
How does it sound, I wonder?

Oh to hear the imposing, black-face mando bass plucked.

Ditto another room with various Martin, Gibson and other maker's pre-war guitars and mandolins and banjos in original, mint condition. And the John DeAngelico work bench and instruments, including a mandolin.

I'm blown away, but other rooms hit me harder. Because I have a good idea how the instruments made post-1900 probably sound.

My imagination has to work harder to hear what the early 1700s lutes that came from the attic of a European castle sounded like.

The absolutely stunning bowlback mandolin made by Antonio Vinaccia in Naples, circa 1772, looks too pretty to be played.

Although, the museum's website describes it thus: "with tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl decoration and whimsical f-holes carved on each side of the soundhole, a beautifully carved bridge, the back of twenty scalloped ribs of maple with ebony/ivory/ebony stringing, the neck and head covered with tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl, and exquisite pegs with mother-of-pearl inserts, all in untouched condition, including the varnish, and ready to be played."

But there are even older lutes, citterns and various mandolin relatives. Some fancy, some simply primitive ancestors of what we play today.

Plus some of the most rare pianos, guitars, horns, harpsichords, hand-carved flutes of wood and ivory, organs, drums and members of the violin family. The only Stradivarius with original intact neck sits near a complete string quartet of Amati shop violin family members.

All are the tip of the iceberg. This museum has the most complete collection of instruments from all cultures and time frames in the world.

How do they sound, I kept asking?

Sometimes they are played, Larson said.

The small lutes and mandolins that fascinate me most, he says they sound pretty, but quiet, made for someone to play in a quiet room.

The lack of money, and people professionally proficient who are willing to spend time in Vermillion, limits more concerts or recordings.

Maybe someday, Larson said.

Soft-spoken and modest, he couldn't quite find the words to answer my question about what the collection says to the world.

"I wish I could say something profound," he said.

Well he needn't say anything, really. Arne and Andre Larson gave their life's work to this collection.

These instruments provide a roaring loud message on their behalf.

The drive in human beings to use harmony to connect the mind to spirit within and with fellow beings without and with God is powerful beyond words.

The path of musicians and instrument builders from a wing bone whistle blown in a cave to a Lyon and Healy mandolin softly strummed in a parlor is part of a long, beautiful, melodic march for which the end is not yet found, and perhaps never will be.

Museum tidbits

Lloyd Loar: No, the museum doesn't have a Loar F5 mandolin or close cousins. But it does have a complete collection of Loar's ViviTone electric instruments. And more.

Arne Larson once took a college course with Loar and knew him personally. They corresponded, and some of those letters are in the museum's collection.

Andre Larson said the museum has not purchased a Loar due to price, and he's directed the museum's acquisition funds toward instruments even more rare and unique. He's hoping someday someone will donate a Loar mandolin.

Much of the muesum's collection was donated.

Website: Highly recommended, super interesting stuff.

In the basement: The museum has rooms with extensive archives full of musical information. But also, rooms stacked floor to ceiling with instruments cases, holding rarities.

For example, Larson and I peeked under a cloth covering a five-string banjo, a Gibson RB-250. The handwriting on the head said: "To my good friend Johnny Cash —Earl Scruggs."

The future: The museum is beginning a fundraising drive to build an extension that will link the Carnegie building with another existing structure, greatly increasing exhibition space and adding a performance venue.

Admission: No required fee, you can tour for free if you wish. But the museum suggests donations. I happily bucked up for the suggested $7 donation for adults, worth every penny. As was the "Custers Last Band" CD of the general's favorites performed on period instruments.

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