Minnesota fiddle builder brings new life to an old Norwegian folk instrument

a man and a woman look at a violin
Bud Larsen examines a Hardanger fiddle being built by retired professor Rinita Dalan at a workshop in Moorhead.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Bud Larsen built his first Hardanger fiddle when he was in the seventh grade. Now 80 years old, he’s built more than 40 of the instruments and repaired well over 100.

He learned the craft from Gunnar Helland, who ran a violin shop in Fargo, N.D., and was a member of a famous fiddle making family in Norway.

Larsen now lives in Brainerd, Minn., but is working with apprentices in Fargo-Moorhead to bring back a folk instrument that for generations has gathered dust in attics and closets across the Midwest.

two people work at a table
Rinita Dalan and her son Gus Holley plan the decorations that will cover the finger board of the Hardanger fiddle Dalan is building at a workshop in Moorhead. Holley is an accomplished Hardanger fiddle player.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

It can take several hundred hours to build a fiddle, but Larsen believes anyone can build one with enough patience and will.

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“Let’s make this accessible to the people because it’s a folk instrument and many, many people over the years have built their own Hardanger fiddles,” said Larsen.

Some of the people who gathered recently in a Moorhead workshop have years of woodworking experience. For others it’s the first time they’ve picked up a chisel or saw.

“Most of the people who worked on it are producing very credible violins,” Larsen said. “So we’re not producing any junk.”

There is a shortage of the instruments, especially in the United States said Loretta Kelley, president of the Hardanger Fiddle Association of America. “Most of them are built in Norway where it’s very hard for Americans to purchase them. So the role of makers in the United States has become very important.”

Kelley believes there are only a handful of master Hardanger fiddle builders in the U.S. and most are elderly.

a carved wooden head
Bud Larsen shows a carved troll that will adorn the fiddle being built in the workshop. A crown or dragon was traditionally carved on the head of these instruments, but Larsen encourages apprentices to "make the instrument their own."
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

“There’s going to be an even greater problem getting these instruments. So new luthiers need to be trained. So Bud is doing a really important job,” said Kelley, who will perform at a Hardanger fiddle concert in Moorhead on Dec. 2.

Norwegian conservative religious leaders called the Hardanger fiddle “the devil’s music” and fiddles were banned in churches and sometimes burned in Norway in the 19th century.

Many immigrants arrived in the Midwest with their fiddles in the 1800s. But in the face of anti-immigrant sentiment and continued pressure from clergy, many set the fiddle aside.

“I’ve learned about many of the master fiddlers that moved to this country during that period of emigration, and I don’t know of any of them who passed on their knowledge to their children,” said Kelley.

two women hold fiddles
Amy Rand (right) and her daughter Elsa Ruth Pryor (left) pose with Hardanger fiddles under a print of their instructor Bud Larsen. They are among several parent-child teams building instruments.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

One of Bud Larsen’s apprentices is 15-year-old Elsa Ruth Pryor of Fargo. With help from Larsen and her mother Amy Rand, she built her own fiddle a couple of years ago. A trained violin player, she now plays the Hardanger fiddle she built.

The instrument is noted for two sets of strings. What are called sympathetic strings run under the strings that are bowed by the player. Those sympathetic strings vibrate as the instrument is played, creating an echoing, resonant sound.

The instruments are often decorated with intricate inlays on the fingerboard and painted or inked flowers on the fiddle body.

intricate decorations on a fiddle
Hardanger fiddles are noted for their intricate inlays and paint or ink decorations. This fiddle was built in the 1800s.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The Hardanger fiddle can play haunting melodies or bright tunes said Pryor, who recently composed her first tune for the instrument.

She’s also had a chance to play a fiddle that might well be one of the oldest in existence.

Larsen was asked by a physician in Florida to repair an old fiddle that had been in the family for generations. The label inside indicates the fiddle was built in 1621. After he repaired the fiddle and played it for the family, they loaned it to him. He’s been sharing it with Fargo- Moorhead players including Pryor. Handling and playing the old instrument made her think about history and connections.

“The person that made the really old fiddle probably didn’t think that now someone would still be playing it and appreciating their work,” she said. ”So I think that’s cool. Maybe like, where will my fiddle be in that many years?”

two fiddles on a table.
A Hardanger fiddle believed to have been built in 1621 in Norway sits next to a partially constructed fiddle.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

There are nearly two dozen Hardanger fiddles that have been built in the past few years or are currently under construction in Fargo-Moorhead.

These apprenticeships and workshops are funded by arts organizations in Minnesota and North Dakota.

North Dakota state folklorist Troyd Geist helped start the apprenticeship program with Bud Larsen a few years ago. He said it’s typical for the third generation of immigrant families to want to reconnect with their culture, and the interest in the Hardanger fiddle in Fargo-Moorhead has been remarkable.

“I do think that this area has more Hardanger fiddle makers concentrated than any other place in the country,” he said.

“I’m convinced that people who study Hardanger fiddle making and fiddle playing, those who want to learn, they're going to be looking towards this area nationally because we have such a strong and growing group here,” said Geist.

a woman planes a piece of wood
Jonna Gjevre from Albuquerque, New Mexico planes a piece of wood for the body of a Hardanger fiddle at a workshop in Moorhead.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

After helping her two children build fiddles, Amy Rand is now building her own, and learning to play. The experience has deepened her connections to her Norwegian heritage. She learned a distant relative was a famous Hardanger fiddle player in Norway, and she’s thought about those ancestors with whom she now has a shared experience.

She believes that by sharing his knowledge Bud Larsen has created something special.

“The way that we’ve seen community come together, old people, young people, new players, experienced violinists. It’s beautiful,” she said.

And she now feels a responsibility to help carry that cultural tradition into the future.