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.
Pamela Smith Hill is the author of Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life and the editor of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. She has taught writing and literature classes at several universities, including a massive open online course on Wilder for Missouri State University. She is also the author of three Young Adult novels.
I grew up watching Little House on the Prairie. I read the books in school. Michael Landon really captured the magic of those books. I’m 54 now and still watch the reruns. I even watch the podcasts of Melissa Gilbert with her husband Tim Busfield, another favorite of mine from The West Wing. Landon really was a lot like the real Charles Ingalls. Ms. Gilbert talks about how great he was with the kids on set. The whole thing from Ms. Wilder’s books to the series are America at her best! Love it all!
Dec.29,2019….I’m 66 years old..love Little House..I read all of her books when I was younger…Watching an episode now..I had been curious about Pas fiddle playing..trying to find out if Michael Landon really played that fiddle…I haven’t read the autobiography yet but will…
I was wanting to know the same thing! If Michael Landon could really play as just finished watching Season 8’s episode 11’s “A Christmas They Never Forgot” and Pa & Almonzo play a duet in it and Almonzo is definitely cording his guitar so I believe he is actually playing it and I was wondering if Michael Landon (PA) was actually playing the violin ???? on the song “Little Town if Bethlehem “…I haven’t been able to find any confirmation if Michael Landon actually plays the violin or not ????
If he isn’t playing it … he does a great job of faking it!!! ???? I always loved Michael Landon and grew up watching him in movies, Bonanza, Highway to Heaven, and Little House in the Prairie! I was devastated when he passed away as he was such a great actor, writer & producer!!! ????
Hollywood list a very great talented man when he died! ????????
I got started playing the fiddle after watching Little House on the Prairie . I was so impressed by Michael Landon’s portrayal of the real Charles Ingalls on the fiddle , I went and bought one and took my daughter’s fiddle lesson book and started to teach myself and now I can play pretty good. Along with my guitar (45 years playing it) and I play one of the songs for Mass on Sundays with my fiddle the rest on guitar. I love music and Little House on the Prairie!! says Judy Corrette in Wildwood, Fl
Did you ever find that tune you were looking for at the end of one of the episodes at somebody’s wedding?.
I’ve been teaching myself to play the fiddle since 2002 but lately I’ve been getting much better . Now I can play for church and for my music group that I’m in. Our director thinks I’m doing real good besides playing my guitar for 45 years. I’m the lead singer too.
I’d like to know the name of the song ps played on his fiddle in the pilot of little house?
I wonder why none of Pa´s dauthers had learned playing fiddle ?
Everywhere I visit my home in ava missouri and always go visit and put flowers on laura and Almanzo s graves. I then go through their home and also museum. The new museum is now open and juse so beautiful and Pa’s fiddle fits so proudly in there. It’s is such a beautiful thing to see along with laura and rest of family pieces. I just love seeing it all. I grew up watching little house and reading the books over and over and I will continue doing all these things. I will continue going and visiting their grave and placing flowers and I feel as laura is part of my family and many others that solely love her
Many thanks really handy. Will certainly share website with my good friends
we love watching little house , I have the DVD’S, I have Ben watching them ever sines I was little, I’m 35 now and my Lil man eve loves watching them. My husband loves watching them as family
Love the show!! Watch everyday…wish there were more shows like little house!
Although I have quite a few books, when I want to read I always go back to ‘THE LITTLE HOUSE ‘ , collection. I have read them many times, and soon realized the ‘LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE’ T.V. show veered quite a way off the path of the real stories from the books, so I never watch the stories any more instead read about them instead.
The first book I read was On The Banks Of Plum Creek when I was in the third grade in 1944. Eventually my mother bought and read all the books to me. My daughter has my books now.
Pa Ingalls wanted Laura to have his fiddle after his death, and made that clear when the young Wilders were leaving De Smet for Missouri in 1894 (see Rose’s story “Grandpa’s Fiddle” in Anderson’s “A Little House Sampler”). When Laura did acquired it, she donated it to the newly organized South Dakota State Historical Archives in Pierre as an example representative of the earliest settlers, which the Ingalls were the first in De Smet. The fiddle was loaned to the LIW Home & Museum later after Laura’s death – and never returned to SD.
I think the fiddle is in a fitting place at Rocky Ridge as it represents Laura’s writing the “Little House” books, but it’s not where Laura originally thought it should reside.
I actually liked the books much better than the TV show. I plan to start reading them to my grandchildren soon.
I actually didn’t care for the tv show so much because I loved the books so dearly. I had my own vision in my head as to what they all looked like & the characters didn’t fit. (Except Ma) I realize shows have to appeal to a wide audience but the stories always seemed a little too sugar-coated and then they started veering away from the stories in the books. Guess this gives you an idea of how deeply I feel about the books. Haha Oh, Mr. Edwards was exactly like I pictured him too!
I can relate to your feelings. I grew up on the books and when the TV series came along later, I could not relate to it. I too had created my own visions of the Ingalls and related folk in my own imagination.
I grew up watching little house I love this show I still today watch this show I’ve seen every episode but that’s ok I’ll watch them all over again. Thank you so much for a wonderful series
they never mentioned by the shores of silver lake or on the banks of plum creek did they
It is marvalous series i watched when i was child. Thanks all of them. God bless you all.
Love the shows and story lines. Back then it wasn’t simple but this is what we all need now
Little House is on Monday to Friday on Hallmark and INSP.
I grew up watching Little House On The Prairie I love the way Michael Landon and the cast did an absolute amazing job on the series. I never want to stop watching the show.
My family always loved to watch Little House on the Prairie.
I would love to see the stories return to television ,
I am now 77 years old, so I guess one can say, I grew up with the family of
Pa and Ma.
Little House on the Prairie is on the Hallmark channel M-F, not sure about the weekend. My granddaughter started watching it with me, she loves it!
Hello I have been watching the series on true entertainment at weekends. It brings back lovely memories of my childhood and relaxing Sunday’s watching this every week together. Absolutely wonderful stories.
I so loved the television series of Little House.
I do pray, one day soon, the television networks here in Canada, and most especially in British Columbia would buy the stocks of Little House on the Prarie.
You know, the television station that does buy it, their financial rewards would be out of this world.
Many of people my age, and younger, would love to have them.
I love the books and movies their awesome!
And if you haven’t read them you need too:)