Marcel Robidas Article in the Kennebec Journal /Morning Sentinel

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The following article appeared in the Kennebec Journal / Morning Sentinel - visit them at:

Carla sent an e-mail with a link to a few of us, I enjoyed it and sent the link to the Wednesday Night Music e-mail list, and obtained permission from the publishers to reprint the article. It’s nice to hear about what Marcel is up to, and to see recognition of what he’s doing in the local paper! Thanks to writer and the editor who gave me permission to reprint the article. Check out the Photos & Readers Comments at the end.

One of the last fiddles made by Marcel Robidas, a labor requiring more than 400 hours to complete.

Staff photo by Jeff Pouland.

Charlie Moen of Madison joins Marcel in a tune.

Staff photo by Jeff Pouland.

Musician, craftsman helps preserve a tradition


Staff Writer

Kennebec Journal / Morning Sentinel

Friday, January 26, 2007

Marcel Robidas taps his foot, joyfully fiddling away to the tune of "Juliette Reel" in his warm and cozy home in North Anson on a January afternoon.

His favorite violin tucked beneath his chin, Robidas' love for the Franco-Canadian music resonating from it is apparent.

A tender smile slips onto his countenance as the bow rides the strings.

"It's supposed to be a circular, swirling motion, not back and forth like this," says Robidas, 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 for violin music to Somerset County, where he and his wife, Louise, chose 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. "Everyone is so nice."

Retirement, however, does not mean seclusion, Robidas was quick to point out. He and his wife are eyeing a barn on U.S. Route 201 in Madison as a possible location for jam sessions and dances, he said.

Robidas said his father worked in the granite quarries in and around Barre, Vt. The five boys and two girls in the family had to help around the home a lot. Without electricity, TV or a radio at home, and with little in the way of recreation, playing the violin was entertainment during what leisure time the family had. Almost everyone played something -- a sister played the piano, a brother played a guitar, another played the violin.

Robidas said they probably came by it naturally.

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

All the kids 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."

He said he was embarrassed at first.

"I was scared stiff, just a kid, but a guy told me just to be myself and play natural," he recalled.

But when he saw the enjoyment on the people's faces, he said, he was hooked.

The family moved to Dover, N.H., when Robidas was about 12. 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. Every Wednesday night at a barn called the Cuckoo's Nest, they held a musical night "soirée." He said he especially liked line dancing, "because when you get tired of one tune, you can shift to another. 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 began whittling on fiddles as a boy-- mostly just the head and neck at first, because he did not know then how to make the bodies. Because he had no tools, he said, his first attempts were crude. He remembered his father noticed he was slacking off on his work at home during the time was trying to make his first fiddle.

"So I buried it in the ground, and after a while I started up again," he said with a grin.

Robidas 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 do the repairs.

He kept busy repairing other violins until 1982, when he finished 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 recalls the day that 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. The CD can be purchased online by entering either the title or his name in a search engine.

Around the kitchen table recently, his wife of 14 years, Louise, and good friend Charlie Moen of Madison discussed their fascination with Robidas' work.

"His stuff can be found in the Library of Congress, right in the archives," Moen said.

Moen said he was so impressed with Robidas' knowledge of violins that he brought him a fiddle he found at a yard sale to check out its worth and trace its origin. It was made by Edwin H. Buckman on March 10, 1924, in Pennsylvania. Robidas said he doesn't recognize the name, but the three of them hope to find out by word-of-mouth where it might belong.

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, as she strummed her guitar alongside her husband and Moen.

Most fiddle tunes are handed down from generation to generation, Robidas and his wife explained.

"The names are often lost," Louise said. "Only the tunes are memorized. Some of them came over from Europe years ago."

Like the "Juliette Reel," Robidas said.

"I call it that because my mother loved it and that's her name."

Darla L. Pickett -- 474-9534, Ext. 341

Reader comments

JAM of So. China, ME

Jan 29, 2007 2:01 PM

Would like to have the source of CD the music played by Marcel Robiday.

Mrs. Carla Robidas of Barrington, NH

Jan 26, 2007 10:41 AM

Hi my name is Gillian. I am 10. Marcel Robidas is my Grandpa. My brother and I call him Papa. I play the violin and try to learn the songs Papa plays. It is hard because he lives in Anson and I live in NH. I go to Maine Fiddle Camp with my mom every June. She also plays the violin. We learn neat new songs. I also am a member of Fiddleicious. They play a lot of French Canadian music that Papa plays. But nobody plays as well as my Papa!


Marcel Robidas taps his foot, joyfully fiddling away in his warm and cozy home in North Anson on a January afternoon.

Staff photo by Jeff Pouland.

A tender smile slips onto his countenance as the bow rides the strings.

Staff photo by Jeff Pouland.

Robidas was featured in the book “Deeply Rooted: New Hampshire Traditions in Wood” by Jill Linzee and Michael P. Chaney which was published in 1998.

Staff photo by Jeff Pouland.