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Separated by 70 years, two men build friendship, fiddle
Sep 08

The Citizen Tribune of Morristown

MORRISTOWN, Tenn. (AP) _ Shaan Ramaprasad had options this summer.

He could have picked an internship that would have provided a jumpstart to his career as a rising senior biomedical engineering student at Vanderbilt.

But that's not what Shaan wanted. He wanted a break. He wanted another summer at home in Morristown. He wanted to spend time with an old friend. He wanted to devote a little more time to his musical passion.

And most of all, he wanted to learn to build a fiddle.

Shaan, who performs as a beatbox and musical director for the award-winning Vanderbilt A Cappella singing group the Melodores, has studied violin since a young age. At one point, when he was younger, he made his own functioning violin out of cardboard for a school project.

As he grew in his musicianship, it came time to purchase a serious violin. He studied makes from around the world, never quite finding the sound, the feel that he wanted.

That's when he heard about J.W. Green, a White Pine fiddle maker and master craftsman nonagenarian. Ramaprasad sought him out and an unlikely friendship was born.

Separated by roughly 70 years and pretty much all of their life experiences, Green and Ramaprasad don't have a lot in common on the surface.

But the ties that bind the two together come from a source that spans generations; the desire to create art and music.

``This is definitely something, my whole life, I always wanted to do,'' he said. ``I've tried building a fiddle multiple times out of balsa wood, out of cardboard, out of whatever I could find at home. I know senior year of high school, I thought I was going to figure out how to make violins really cheap and figure out how to get them into under-funded schools.

``But I really had no idea what I was doing.''

``I know in college we can get caught up in wanting to keep on pushing our career to a certain direction. I just figured this was the summer to learn how to do this and I'm so glad he was able to help me fulfill that goal.''

So a Vanderbilt student from Morristown took a summer off from building a bright future to learn to build a fiddle.

``It was a good break from regular academia,'' Ramaprasad said. ``I could have done an internship, coding all day, but this allowed me to have the experience to hang out with Mr. Green. We've always had a lot of fun together.''

It was fun. But it was also serious work. Green gave Ramaprasad an advanced course.

``He fell right in on top of it,'' Green said. ``If he had gone to a violin makers school, he would have to serve five years to get that fiddle looking like where it is, right now. He did it in less than three months from start to finish.''

The result is something both Green and Ramaprasad take pride in. The fiddle's tone will adjust with age, but it already has a musical personality.

``That fiddle came off wanting to be played,'' Green said.

``The first day I played it, it had a depth to it,'' Ramaprasad said. ``It had this really deep sound to it. I was worried because it didn't have some of the higher tones I wanted; it was a little bit muted. But it just takes a while for the wood to start vibrating so it can really settle into the sound it's going to have. I think it will keep opening up through the years.''

``When you've played two years, that thing will sound like a different fiddle,'' Green added.

Sitting up in Green's White Pine living room, the two share a few quiet jokes. Ramaprasad mostly listens respectfully as Green tells his story. But Shaan said in the workshop, the relationship is a little more free flowing.

``You get a different experience when you're down there in the shop building a fiddle,'' he said. ``While you're scraping away, you get all sorts of stories. Some of which, I'll just keep with me and some I will pass on and share.''

And make no mistake, Green has stories to tell. Born in Louisiana to a musical family in which all eight kids could do something. Green is a World War II veteran pipe-fitter who traveled the country working in construction during the post war boom.

American Enka lured him to East Tennessee where he stayed, except for a stint doing a high-money job in the Middle East.

Along the way, he got the idea in his head to start building musical instruments. He started off with building guitars, but backed off because of the price of wood.

Not willing to give up his passion for woodwork, he turned to building gunstocks for a while.

``It was interesting to play with,'' he said.

Then he found a magazine, planted strategically by a co-worker, who was helping build the textile plant at American Enka in the early '60s that changed his life.

``Best I remember, it said any fool that can work with his hands, and has old tools, could build a violin,'' he said. ``The fiddle was not my instrument at all. But seemed like every day I turned around that catalogue was staring me in the face with that article in it. I thought, `Well, I'll just try to build a fiddle.'''

``The more I got into that thing the more interesting it got.''

The first one wasn't a success to Green's liking, but it got him started.

``The more I fooled with it, the more I could not quit,'' he said. ``I just go possessed building fiddles.''

He started taking them to bluegrass fiddlers and his work was quickly in demand for some high-level fiddlers.

``I never did advertise as a fiddle builder at all,'' he said. ``But I did make up business cards. I started getting calls from out of state, wanting me to mail them a fiddle. I never would do that. If you want a fiddle I built, come by and pick your fiddle. I'm not gonna pick one for you.''

Fast forward 50 years and Shaan Ramaprasad arrived at Green's front door in search of an instrument that spoke to him.

``Shaan gets all excited and wants to go to Europe to find him a fiddle,'' Green said. ``He went over there and tried everything in Europe, I think.''

But Shaan's mother saw an article in the paper about Green and his fiddle-making. She suggested that Shaan check out the local artisan.

``They came out here and I think he was surprised when he came across a five-string I had built,'' Green said. ``He never had played a five-string.''

Ramaprasad played the five-string and really wanted it, but hesitated in the purchase. He was heartbroken when Green sold it to another buyer.

But, the violin, which both men believe was meant for Ramaprasad, was returned by the buyer who couldn't adjust to the fifth string.

Ramaprasad didn't miss his second chance.

``He fell in love with that thing,'' Green said.

Ramaprasad stayed in touch and the friendship grew beyond fiddle maker and client.

``He's my boy,'' Green said. ``I've enjoyed him.''

Green said it's gratifying to see someone of a younger generation interested in continuing his passion.

He's fixing to take it over, where I'm leaving off,'' Green said.

And Ramaprasad already has the bug.

``He always says it's kind of an addiction,'' Shaan said. ``Once you start you want to keep outdoing the last one you made. This one turned out about as good as I feel like I can do right now. I'm afraid to do the next one. I know the next one's not gonna be as good. The next one, I'm going to do it on my own, for the experience.''

``Ya, that's right,'' Green said. ``I'm not going to mess around with ya on the next one. I'm gonna keep up with you. He's been there now.''

Ramaprasad didn't set out to learn a skill for the summer. He wanted to learn a skill for life.

``If I'm going to do it, I wanted to do it right,'' he said. ``And I wanted to learn from the best.''


Information from: Citizen Tribune, http://www.citizentribune.com

By The Associated Press, Copyright 2019