Give him a violin, and no matter what condition it’s in, he’ll make it like new, and he always has a story or two about that particular instrument, plus its complete history.
Ken Amundson’s stories down through the years include meeting a lot of celebrities, including Vince Gill, Marty Stuart and Ricky Skaggs. He ran into Ricky Skaggs, a country/western and blue grass star, at Host Fest in Minot, North Dakota.
“He had an instrument that was busted. I was there helping the Dutton Family, one of the most popular acts in Branson. They were performing at Host Fest and I went there and visited them. We were sitting around a campfire back of the big building where all the performances take place and there was Ricky Skaggs and he was telling me about the violin he had damaged.”
When Skaggs got back to Nashville he sent that violin to Amundson so he could repair it. From there it was a ripple effect.
“He told somebody and they told somebody, and so on. I bet I could drop 25 to 30 names of people you might recognize that I’ve done business with.”
They include the Huse Family from Branson, Jennifer Collier from Branson, Nick Hoffman, who is Kenny Chesney’s fiddler, or rather was his fiddler since he has now formed his own band called ‘The Farm.’ There is also Megan Gjerken who Amundson said has a very successful double female act in Nashville. “I sold her and her sister violins from the time they were little girls.”
Several of the most unique activities this fiddling man from Benson has participated in includes crawling around in a crawl space in Des Moines, Iowa, and crawling around in the top of the barn in a corn crib at a farm in Missouri because the farmer had 400 violins and guitars in that crawl space. “He wasn’t in the business and he did not play. He was in the armed forces during the second world war, came back and whenever he want to an auction, the locals there told me that if he decided he wanted an instrument at an auction, you didn’t stand a chance of buying it.”
Amundson spent a day and a half there with an assistant appraising, looking at and assessing this farmer’s instruments. He knew the gentleman was elderly, and when he drove up into the yard this guy crawled out from under his tractor and told Amundson that it was spring and he was changing the oil on the tractor before he used it in the field. “When we went inside and were visiting, he was playing a homemade contraption – the instruments weren’t homemade but they were hooked up to a contraption where he could play them all at one time, a drum, harmonica, a fiddle and a guitar. He loved doing it.” Amundson asked how old he was and learned he was 103. “And he had just crawled out from underneath his tractor. I stayed in touch with him, and his daughter wrote me a sad letter one day that he had died at 108 while at an auction looking to buy a guitar.”
Another interesting violin to come Amundson’s way was from Daniel Allen Butler, who Amundson said was a famous Maritime historian and author that contacted him in reference to a violin that was being put forth at a famous auction house in England as being the violin that was being played as the Titanic went down. “It was supposedly being played by the great violinist Wallace Hartley. This instrument was supposedly lost and then rediscovered recently. He needed my opinion on this matter in order to proceed with a book he was writing about this tragedy.” Amundson said the whole claim by the auction house was a fraud and he proved it to be a fraud.
Amundson took pictures of an experiment he did in reference to this matter and sent Butler his opinion. In that opinion he told Butler he doesn’t believe the violin in question was the real thing, that instead it’s most likely a wide grained German instrument from the time period in question, that shows very little skill in the carving and general make up.
He said Hartley would have likely been playing on a fine Italian, French or a much better German violin than what is represented in the so-called facts put out by the people representing it. He says the straps on the case is only meant to help keep the case closed and were never long enough to wrap around a man’s body in addition to the violin case. “I’ve seen these violin cases in my career and they are not water proof. Three or four hours in the water and this violin would have been in whole parts, not attached to each other.”
Amundson said this violin could have been owned at one time or another or even the time period in question by Hartley. “I believe it could have been the one given to him by a special person as a gift. However, it is not a violin that floated in salt water for ten days.” He said a man of Hartley’s stature would never have let anyone place a metal plate on the tail piece of a violin he was performing on, as it diminishes the tone, volume and voice of the instrument. And he would have known this about violins.
“He would have been performing on his favorite, high quality violin that night, and not a violin of this apparent level of quality.”
Amundson said he has pictures he took off an experiment he did in reference of this matter. His experiment was to soak a violin in its case in 40 degree sea salt water. In one hour the ribs were beginning to let loose and the leather was coming apart at the seams. The next morning not only did the violin come apart in the case, but the case itself was in shambles. “Keep in mind that this was still water in a tub. The waves of the ocean winds would have torn apart the case and the parts, and both would have been strewn.”
Amundson said he was contacted by reporters and news networks from all over the world once his opinion was made public. Amundson also made a violin especially for the movie “Thin Ice.” A trained dog played the part of a farm dog that was taught to carry the violin in its mouth. The movie was filmed in March of 2011 in the Twin Cities. Amundson said all the violins in the movie were his violins. “I was the violin advisor/violin expert and actually re-wrote a good portion of the script so that it made violin sense.”
Another feather in Amundson’s cap is he was founding chairman of the Alexandria Festival Of The Lakes. This is a classical music festival going now into its 21st year in the city of Alexandria. “I resigned after 4 years after I knew it was doing well.” He has also judged and sponsored the Terrace Mill Fiddle Contest from time to time.
Amundson really has pretty much seen and done it all when it comes to musical instruments. He started repairing instruments when he was eight years old and continues today at age 69. He grew up in Benson, moving from there in 1959 and has come full circle, returning to what he calls home. “It’s fun to spend my last years of working in my home town. I know there are a lot of people out there like me. I’m 69 years old and there are fellow senior citizens out there that have instruments, not just violins, but all kinds of instruments that they don’t know for sure what to do with them, if they should fix them, sell them, give them away or whatever.”
Amundson appraises and takes care of all musical instruments that are wood or plastic and with strings on them. “I take care of all that and I can guide someone toward what they can do with the particular instrument they’re worried about.”
Amundson not only restores violins or other stringed instruments, he has also made violins, but he doesn’t call himself a violin maker. “You need to make 30 to 50 violins to call yourself a maker and say you’re an accomplished maker. My main work is the restoration of instruments for professional people and for students. That’s actually more technical and more skill required.” There are a lot of things about restoration you can’t learn in a school, it has to be tutored to you, he said. Amundson was tutored by his father since he was eight years old. “I got exposed to what he did with the violins. I was one of the children that was interested in what he was doing and was underneath his heels goofing around.”
Amundson said he’s proud of his ability to restore something that’s been smashed or broken or just been used too much and needs to be brought back to the original.
“That doesn’t mean we just totally re-varnish something, we don’t do any of that wholesale re-varnishing but I restore them to their strength and capabilities and touch up the spots I work on.”
To restore a fiddle it has to be taken apart very carefully. He uses a camera to take pictures as he works, then makes detailed notes of what he does and proceeds with what he knows and what he’s learned from other experts in the field. “You’re never at a point where you dare think that you know everything. There’s always something that you come across that you think, ‘I haven’t seen this before’, so you might call someone you respect in the business.” He said the fiddles are put together with horsehide glue.
“Through the centuries there have been three or four glues that have been experimented with, chicken hide glue and fish hide glue, but the one that’s most prevalent is the horsehide glue because you can harvest it and get more plentiful amounts of it.”
He explained that glue is water soluble so when you decide to take apart an old instrument, you just draw a fine line on the seam where its glued, using something as thin as a razor blade. “It should break the varnish there, you’re barely able to see it with the naked eye and you touch that with warm water and keep going around the edge and keep doing that, pretty soon you can put that same blade in-between the pieces and it pops off just as nice as can be.” It takes a lot of patience and it takes a lot of experience, Amundson said, because if you push that process too quickly you can end up cracking whatever you’re taking apart.
When it comes to the cracks in the top, the back and the ribs of the instrument, they add to those intersections and the interior of the violin. “You don’t see it, and it’s what we call cleats. They’re pyramid shape in structure and are somewhat diamond shaped and we go across the grain about every inch with one of those if needed, and on the inside and we work them down so they’re there adding strength.” He then glues that intersection, and then does the cleaning. “A repair like that should last 60, 70 or 100 years.”
The horse hair he uses for the violin bow repairing comes from the coldest climates, like in Siberia. “It grows thinner and straighter with hardly any curl to it.” The horse hair has to be sorted, he said, noting you can buy straight Siberian Horse hair for $700 a pound. You can buy salt and pepper horse hair for half that amount. And you can buy black horse hair for half of that again. “Every horse tail, no matter how white it looks, if you look closely it’s not all white, there’s some gray and some spots on the hair and that is all washed through and examined by the eye, then sorted and selected.”
This is what he uses to re-hair the violin bows. “The glue comes from the ingredient you scrape off from the inside of the hide.” You can’t use man-made glue, he said, because when something goes wrong with the instrument you can’t take it apart again to work on it.
Amundson has some very unique instruments he is doing restoration work on. He has a small bowed instrument that he’s done a lot of work on and the nearest he can figure is it’s from Mongolia. “The Norwegians hold their Fjord Pony in high regard and use it on a lot of their work. The Vikings use the Fjord Pony to pull the ships in and out of the Fjord because there is no wind for the sales in the openings in the mountains where the ships go in. “They hook onto it with a long rope and pull the ship out to the ocean. In my research, the Mongolian instruments are much like this instrument, and I believe this instrument is from 1850.”
He doesn’t remember where he got the instrument but he’s had it for 30 years. It’s carved out of one piece, carved out like a gourd and it has this little bow with it made with horse hair. “I think it’s what they call a one off. I think somebody in Mongolia or maybe Norway said ‘I’m going to carve a little instrument,’ and there are large ones similar to it on the Internet.”
Amundson has over 300 fiddles, some of which he’s worked on and others that still need work. “I’ve done work almost worldwide, I’ve done a lot of work out of Canada, have done a lot of work that comes from other countries. I have a lady in Australia that plays the violin while up on a trapeze with a circus. She has six or seven violins and once in a while they get damaged and pretty soon I see it come through the door.”