When Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote the final scene in her last Little House book for young readers, she gave the closing lines to Pa’s fiddle and its music. Laura and Almanzo’s wedding day has come to a close and the young couple sits on the doorstep of their own little house. In her memory, Laura hears “the voice of Pa’s fiddle and the echo of a song, ‘Golden years are passing by, These happy, golden years.’”1
It is a perfect ending, one that evokes the memories of Laura’s childhood yet anticipates a golden, ongoing future for Wilder’s fictional characters. But the ending also underscores the important role Pa’s fiddle plays in every Little House book. Pa and the music he creates bring the fictional family hope, inspiration, comfort, entertainment, and enlightenment.
Pa’s fiddle makes its first appearance in Wilder’s first novel, Little House in the Big Woods, when he serenades the family on winter nights. The songs he plays in this book are simple, direct, the kind of music very young children appreciate and understand: “Yankee Doodle,” “Pop Goes the Weasel,” and “Oh! Susanna.” Wilder’s first novel also ends with a reference to Pa’s fiddle: “She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”2
As the Little House series evolved, Wilder expanded the role that music and Pa’s fiddle played in her books. They sometimes advance the plot, reveal character and emotion, underscore a mood, or even provide comic relief. In Little House on the Prairie, Pa plays “Old Dan Tucker” so Mr. Edwards won’t feel lonesome as he heads home to his bachelor cabin. The song’s lyrics could apply to Mr. Edwards himself, who very well might have “washed his face in the frying-pan” and “combed his hair with a wagon wheel.”3
During the first blizzard in The Long Winter, Pa plays marches on the fiddle as Laura, Carrie, and Grace step in time to keep warm. Later as the winter deepens and the blizzards grow more intense, Pa’s fiddle mimics their sounds. “The fiddle moaned a deep, rushing undertone and wild notes flickered high above it, rising until they thinned away in nothingness, only to come wailing back, the same notes but not quite the same, as if they had been changed while out of hearing.”4 As the winter drags on, Pa is unable to make music anymore, his fingers “too stiff and thick from being out in the cold so much” to play, a detail that underscores the family’s desperation.5
Wilder thought carefully about the music she chose to include in her books, and drew on songs, marches, reels, and jigs she remembered from her childhood. But she didn’t simply rely on memory; she sometimes researched the music she placed in her fiction. In By the Shores of Silver Lake, the lyrics to one song eluded her, and in a letter to her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, Wilder decided to use only the name of the song: “When I Was One and Twenty, Nell, and You Were Seventeen.” She couldn’t find the lyrics anywhere and didn’t want to fictionalize new ones.
Not surprisingly then, Pa’s fiddle and its music weren’t fictional creations. The real Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up with a father who was indeed a gifted musician. She recalls his fiddle fondly in her autobiography Pioneer Girl, and fills its pages with lyrics from many of the songs she later included in the Little House series. The very first song Pa plays in Pioneer Girl, for example, is “Yankee Doodle.”
Charles Ingalls’ fiddle is on display in the museum at Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri, where Wilder wrote all her Little House books. I’ve had the distinct honor of holding Pa’s fiddle in my hands. It is feather-light—a rich golden brown, embellished with delicate scrollwork. Inside the fiddle are the words “Amati, Nicolana, and Cremonensia,” a reference to the great violin maker Nicolò Amati of Cremonia, Italy. But Pa’s fiddle was actually manufactured in Germany during the mid-nineteenth century. His fiddle case dates from 1850.6
Pa’s fiddle is a kind of time machine. You don’t have to hold it in your hands, as I did, to sense its simple beauty, grace, and magic. Simply seeing it for yourself can transport you back in time to two places simultaneously—the world of Wilder’s childhood and the world of her fiction. And if you’re lucky enough to be in Mansfield, Missouri, on the one day a year when an old-time fiddler takes Pa’s fiddle out of its case, places his bow against the strings, and begins to play a tune, then as Wilder wrote, “now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”
- Laura Ingalls Wilder, These Happy Golden Years (New York: Harper Trophy, 1971), p. 289.
- Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods (New York: Harper Trophy, 1971), p. 238.
- Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie (New York: Harper Trophy, 1971), p. 69.
- Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Long Winter (New York: Harper Trophy, 1971), p. 120.
- Ibid, p. 240.
- Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, ed. Pamela Smith Hill (Pierre, South Dakota: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2014), pp. 32-33.
To learn more about Laura Ingalls Wilder, check out the documentary “Little House on the Prairie: The Legacy of Laura Ingalls Wilder” and be sure to subscribe to our free newsletter.