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Westby's Randy Dahlen makes fiddle, carries on family's love of Norwegian music

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The great American composer Leonard Bernstein’s comment, “Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable,” is probably understood by many people in Westby because Norwegians are known as being people of few words and lots of music. They are also known for being wonderful woodworkers and we are fortunate to have people in the Westby area who have shared their musical talents with us as vocalists, instrumentalists and luthiers.

What is a luthier you may ask? Joseph Dahlen was a luthier — a violin maker. Born in Christiana Township in 1888, Joe was the second of five children and the only son of Norwegian immigrants Even and Maria Dahlen. He started carving at the age of 29 because he needed something to stay awake as he cared for his elderly father at night and farmed during the day. Farmers are busy people so it seems that Joe could hardly have time for a hobby but he became quite a prolific woodworker.

“Grandpa Joe did awesome woodcarvings,” his grandson, Randy Dahlen, recently shared. Not only did he carve beautiful figures but, with very specialized equipment he made, he created at least five violins that family members still have. There is a child-size violin, a special banjo-like instrument, and even an extraordinary Norwegian Hardanger fiddle that he made in 1936.

Hardanger fiddles are unique in that they usually have eight strings but only four are played. The four that are never touched, called understrings or sympathetic strings, are below the four active strings and vibrate to create the very unique sound that Hardanger fiddles are known for. Grandpa Joe made his beautiful Hardanger fiddle with many intricate and artful details. The fingerboard is an inlaid design made of several different types of wood; the tailpiece is a beautifully carved piece of bone; and the scroll is a handsomely carved horsehead.

Joe’s woodworking talents were passed on to his son, Art Dahlen, whom many of you knew as a local master carpenter and furniture maker. Joe’s love of music was passed on to his grandson, Randy, and his great-grandchildren, Kory and Karlee. Randy is always listening to music but shared that the only time he ever played an instrument was when Kory needed to teach someone how to play a stringed instrument for a college class. Randy laughed as he told of his success learning musical scales and “Hot Cross Buns” on a violin so his son could earn those college credits. Kory, an accomplished trumpet player, is now the band director at Westby High School and Karlee plays the flute and piccolo.

After Art Dahlen passed away in 1997, as often happens, the family came across a long-forgotten box that Art had gotten when Grandpa Joe died. The specialized equipment Joe used to make violins, all tools he had made himself, were luckily still safe and in excellent condition in this box. They were just waiting for the right person to come along and put them back in use.

Constructing a violin takes a tremendous talent of painstaking detail, skill, and patience. When Randy was going through his grandfather’s box of violin-making tools, he decided it might make for an interesting hobby and something he could continue working on years later when he retired. Like others after high school, Randy started college classes in one area, drafting and design, before switching to another, agribusiness. The thought of making a violin, with many different parts and pieces, the fine fitting, the steady-handed carving, and the intricate detail seemed to be something that fit his personality and interests.

Randy worked as a “pump jockey” for Westby Farmers’ Union while in high school and college. He went on in product sales and as a division manager at Tri-State Breeders. After Cashton Co-op Elevator and Westby Farmers’ Union merged to form Heartland County Co-op, Randy came on as GM and finally as VP when Heartland merged with Premier Co-op. When he and his wife, Betty, were raising a family all those years, Randy was also involved in various community and church organizations and served as the local municipal judge for twenty-one years. There was little time for a hobby until his retirement in 2018 and, sadly, more time since Betty’s passing last September. Randy has since then seriously devoted his efforts to Grandpa Joe’s avocation, making a violin of his own.

There are 24 pieces of wood in the body, not counting the front, back and neck, that are made and carefully glued together as part of Randy’s violin. He explained that maple, spruce, willow, and ebony are used for specific parts and areas to provide strength or pliability, to be molded into the necessary curves. Randy explained that the hardness of each of those woods resonates just a bit differently as the air vibrates from the strings that are played into the body of the violin creating sound. The density or hardness of the many types of wood used to make a violin is what creates the richness of the sound produced by the instrument.

The top, or face, of a violin is thin to allow the sound to resonate in the body but strong enough to stand the test of time. Because it may crack after several years of use or because of humidity issues, the various woods that make up a violin are cut, carved, bent and then glued together with animal glue that can be “broken” if a violin must be taken apart to be repaired.

Randy’s violin face is made of two pieces of spruce that are glued together. He then very carefully hand-carved the glued pieces to purposely make them two to three millimeters thick in very specific areas. The surface of the glued boards is carved with a tool that scoops the wood so the face of the violin is not a flat surface. In the face of the violin, there are also two “F-holes” that allow the sound to come out of the instrument. Randy said the entire process of shaping the face can be stressful. It is so thin you have to be careful not to crack the wood while working to scoop out the curved surfaces and then cut the F-holes.

The sides, or bouts, and the back are made of maple for strength and because they resonate differently than the softer spruce. Because maple is so very hard, it has to be steamed to make it pliable enough to bend. Grandpa Joe made a very special mold that would hold the wood until it dried to get the familiar shape of a violin. Randy has taken after Grandpa Joe and made several of his own tools that help make and shape pieces for his violin.

Very thin strips of willow are glued to the inside of the bouts of the violin. Those strips are used to strengthen the instrument and as ledges where the front and back can be glued to the sides.

There are blocks of wood that are glued to specific points inside the violin before the face is attached. A base bar, glued to the inside surface of the face, and a soundpost support the face and take pressure off the “bridge,” the piece of wood that holds the strings above the face of the instrument. It is interesting to note that the bridge is not glued to the surface of the violin. Only the pressure of the strings holds it in place and it periodically has to be repositioned. It must also be noted that the position of the base bar and the soundpost are very specific in relation to the feet of the bridge.

To make the instrument beautiful and to finish the surface, Randy will first apply a spirit varnish or shellac to seal the wood. He can’t stain the wood with anything that will penetrate the surface because that would affect the quality of the sound. Three coats of shellac with various stains are applied to give a smooth and beautiful color to the violin. Randy will follow the custom of not finishing the underside of the neck of a violin with varnish, shellac, or stain but maybe just a light coat of tung oil, to help the violinist play the instrument. Depending on the task and the amount of time needed between all the construction steps, Randy works anywhere from an hour or two to four hours at a time on the violin.

Ty at Old Towne Strings in La Crosse will do the final setup of Randy’s instrument. He will insert the “soundpost,” essentially a dowel pin that must be placed inside the violin between the top and the bottom at just the right spot to support the pressure of the strings. He will also run the strings between the tailpiece near the bottom of the face and the pegs at the top of the neck and then tune the violin. When it is completed, Randy will have to wait for a refresher lesson from Kory to be able to play his violin but can immediately take credit for continuing his family’s history of the Norwegian heritage of music set by his ancestors. Randy has made a beautiful work of art that will live on for many years after he is gone. His children, his grandchildren, and even his great-grandchildren will enjoy his violin, and perhaps others he makes, just as he, his son Kory, and his daughter Karlee talk of their grandpa and great-grandpa Joe’s love of music. As we celebrate our Norwegian heritage at Syttende Mai, the story of their Norwegian family’s love of music is a wonderful gift to our community.

Editor’s note: Randy Dahlen’s violin is now being stringed and tuned. As soon as it has been returned, we will publish a photo of the completed violin.

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