The Old-Time Herald Volume 9, Number 5

Letter From Ole Bull to Sara Thorp
By Jeff Titon
Jeff Titon’s “A Letter from Ole Bull to Sara Thorp,” is an Old-Time Herald first, a short story! The following is Jeff’s explanatory note that accompanied it:

Readers familiar with Ole Bull (1810-1880), the most famous classical violin virtuoso his era, will know that this letter is my (JTT’s) invention. There is good evidence for many of the details, but the plot itself—an 1868 encounter between Ole Bull and some old-time musicians in Kentucky—is fiction. We do know a good deal about Ole Bull’s personality and the events of his life from 19th century accounts and from his actual letters, the tone of which I have sometimes imitated here. He grew up in Norway learning classical violin but he also was fond of folk hardanger fiddling, had heard it as a boy, and did much to popularize it in his native land. He transcribed hardanger pieces and played them on the standard violin; he sponsored concerts by hardanger fiddlers; he knew them and respected them and performed with them. He concertized all over the world and had a particular fondness for the USA, where he founded an ill-fated utopian colony, Oleana, memorialized in a popular folksong by that name. He did marry the putative recipient of this letter, Sara Thorp, from Madison, Wisconsin, in 1870. We know that Bull barnstormed on the Ohio River, that he played American fiddle tunes at the ends of his concerts, that he met American musicians, and that on this particular night in 1868 his steamboat caught fire and he swam ashore. Although many of the details in the letter to Sara Thorp are factual, the meeting with the old-time fiddlers in the woods, the fiddle contest, and the tune-swap are ideas that came to my imagination and are based on my historical research on Kentucky fiddling, biographical research on Bull, and years of involvement with fiddle folklore and contemporary old-time music communities. The Bull photo and signature comes from his 19th century cartes-de-visite.


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