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Fiddler Gusta


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How well I remember him, the tall fiddler with his violin. He had an unusually long face with a respectable nose, permanently filled with snuff which, from habit, was periodically transferred from the snuffbox to his nose. I cannot say I ever saw him laugh but glee filled the faces of the dancers on the dance floor. He didn’t talk much; but always played willingly and never tired of playing.

Generation after generation saw his bow dance as they waltzed away with a young heart and hopped to his polkas in frenzied youthful delight. When he was called on to play for some occasion, one could hear him in his corner as he played his polonaise. They questioned whether a dance should start with a polonaise. Gustaf thought it had a fine tone which met approval from the old folks. He sat in his modest nook and played long into the night, and the old heads nodded in approval. Though he seemed half asleep the passage continued with a vigorous hand in time to the music and the beat was always maintained.

Such was Fiddler Gusta. He was a rare country fiddler who understood how to handle a violin. In our country as well as in Sweden, this instrument has unfortunately been displaced by the concertina.

Henrik Gustaf Hellund was born 12 Nov. (Jan.) 1825 in Skutnäs village in Pedersöre parish. “Lill-Gust” (as he was called) was the same as all other boys, but early on showed his musical talent. That was when he showed an interest in the violin of his brother who was four years older. His first violin was made of sawmill sail and was kept in the sawmill. There the 6-year-old played. It was inferior, but adequate. Then Gusta had a chance to play on a regular violin belonging to clockmaker Alenius. Gusta taught himself diligently because the desire was great. He learned the technique from an old caretaker Vinsten who used to play music at dances and later from music teacher Gestrin “Stråka-Jobb”, who was employed at Jakobstad highschool.

Gusta yearned to become an expert, but funds were lacking. So with what he could procure at home and to move forward in his life, Gusta became a country fiddler. At age 14 he debuted at his brother’s party for a large farm wedding, and then it was from wedding to wedding, from dance to dance. The fiddling brothers appeared everywhere with polkas and waltzes trilling endlessly from their violins and the bones seemed to jump in everyone.

At age 21 he married an 18-year-old farmer’s daughter Bata Lena Bagarnäs, born 21 July 1829. They obtained a farm and land in Pedersöre church village, but Gusta had no desire to be a farmer. Bata Lena presented Gusta with four girls; she died 14 July 1860. She inherited consumption from her family, and all her daughters died later of this sickness.

Left with four small girls, Gusta thought he should give them a new mother, but he could not force himself to remarry. So he stayed home, but when he tended to business outside the house the picture of his beloved wife stood before him so clearly that he could not possibly allow another to take her place. Such love is rare among country people and people thought that Gusta felt he was a little superior of the country people. So he plodded along with his small children and asked one of his sisters to help them at home.

After his wife’s death the fiddler became grave, sober-minded and pietist. Sheet music was burned up and the violin sat in the attic. But it came down soon again and with his dear comrade under his arm, Gusta again went from wedding to wedding and from dance to dance. Never particular of his own comfort, he was always ready, when and where he was needed. Naturally the violin brought in money and such needs as necessary. However during the last two years of his life, Gusta didn’t play any more. He thought it was sinful to lure the young people to see life through the eyes of an old man.

Gusta died 28 October 1893 following a stroke that had affected him a few weeks before and left him speechless, a moment after returning home from church where he had received Holy Communion. On 9 November the burial service was solemnly read over him in Pedersöre church in the presence of family and friends from the city and parish.

Fiddler Gusta was a typical Österbottener, calm, ordinary, unaffected, industrious, thrifty, sincere, and God-fearing. In his conduct he was tactful, never offended anyone and observed what he said when he came in contact with people. Perhaps it should be mentioned that Gusta supported Jakobstad’s residents by serving with another skill other than fiddler, namely barber.

Lastly, some words of Gustaf’s violin. He bought it from some merchant in Jakobstad for 7 rubles. At one time he was offered 500 marks for it by a Viborg resident but he didn’t sell it because he needed it for an evening’s entertainment in the city. Then the workers at a tobacco factory started a horn band and he fretted that he didn’t receive an invitation. He was willing to give up the violin for 100 marks, but got no buyer.

The bandmaster Westerlind visited Jakobstad once and Gusta went to him with his instrument to get his opinion of it. The bandmaster said it was good for its type but to show Gusta a decent violin, he took his own costly instrument and played a concert for Gusta. Gusta was a little proud of his ability, but here he met his match. It was related that he later could have said “people used to call me Fiddler-Gusta, but now I think they could call me Pingel Janne.” Pingel Janne was a well-known, feeble-minded beggar from Vasa who went around the farms in Jakobstad with his little concertina, playing the same two tunes. Surely Gusta could have become more than a country fiddler if he had received advice and the possibility for training.

Ester Lauren

Rewritten 21 Mar 1973 by Paul Andersson
From Släkt-och Bygd # 17

English translation by June Pelo

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