Wander around the halls of Norsk Hostfest long enough and you'll eventually come across Bud Larsen working on one of his fiddles in the Artisan Village. Take the time to speak with him for even a few minutes, and you'll learn he's part of a rich Norwegian tradition that stretches back four generations.
Larsen is the owner of Larsen Stringed Instruments, and specializes in Scandinavian fiddles. He has been to Norsk Hostfest with his wife Marlys five times, but this is only the second time he has shown his fiddles.
Larsen, from Brainerd, Minn., and his wife are both first-generation Americans. Both their fathers were born in Norway. They both speak Norwegian and have been there many times. Norway is basically like a second home for the couple because of how much family Marlys has there.
Bud Larsen takes some time off from making fiddles to play one during Norsk Høstfest Friday. Larsen is playing the last fiddle ever made by Gunnar Helland, who taught Larsen the fiddle-making craft.
Bud Larsen works on shaping the body of a Hardanger fiddle during Norsk Hostfest Friday afternoon. Larsen started learning the craft as a young boy in the late 1950s and has devoted himself to making Hardanger fiddles for the past 21 years.
This Hardanger fiddle was the very last one made by Gunnar Helland, one of 14 members of a Norwegian family dynasty that made Hardanger fiddles for four generations. Bud Larsen, a student of Gunnar Helland’s, was given the bare fiddle and told to decorate it and keep it.
"She has 32 first cousins living in Norway over the whole thing. So when we go there we don't have to buy any food or anything," Larsen said. "We just go from place to place."
The Hardanger fiddle happens to be Norway's national instrument, and Larsen specializes in making them. He learned as a young boy in the late 1950s and early 1960s from Gunnar Helland, the last of four generations of legendary fiddle makers from Norway.
"More Hellands built fiddles than Stradivariuses did," Larsen said. "So it's known as the world's largest fiddle-making family."
Gunnar Helland and his brother emigrated from Telemark, Norway, which is how Larsen was able to meet and learn from him. Gunnar had a shop in Fargo, and Larsen worked there with him for nine years learning the trade.
Larsen would go on to work in Papua New Guinea for 20 years, then move back to Brainerd and about 21 years ago he started specializing in Hardanger fiddles.
"My father was a fiddler and we're very interested in Norwegian heritage and have been in Norway a lot. And we had a collection of Helland fiddles already," Larsen said.
The Hardanger fiddle has eight or nine strings and is a Norwegian invention. It's been around for 400 or 500 years.
"It's an eight- or nine-stringed instrument with understrings, and they (understrings) are strings that vibrate when you play the upper strings," Larsen said. "This is traditional, the dragon head and the open F-holes, the inlays and the drawings, that make it a Hardanger fiddle. And also the special music that they play on it."
Larsen said it takes approximately 200 hours to make one fiddle, so each one is special to him and he makes them individually for each customer.
"Each one is a little different. I like to make them for people," Larsen said. "I only make one when someone asks me to make one, and then I like to make them and decorate them so they are personalized for the people."
He made one fiddle for a woman who went to St. Olaf College, and instead of a dragon head atop the neck he made a lion, which is the mascot of St. Olaf. Another fiddle he did for a dairy farmer featured a cow on the back.
Decorating each fiddle is Larsen's favorite part of the process because those decorations set each fiddle apart and make them unique.
Perhaps Larsen's favorite fiddle is the one sitting next to him as he works at Norsk Hostfest. It was actually the last fiddle his old master, Gunnar Helland, ever made, which was in 1939. Needless to say, it holds a special place in Larsen's heart.
That fiddle was hanging in Helland's shop, unfinished, for the longest time. While the body was done, Helland never got around to decorating it.
"I said, 'Gunnar, when are you ever going to finish that fiddle?' And he said, 'Well, you know, there's no interest anymore.' And it was true," Larsen said. "There were hardly any people playing or caring about Hardanger fiddles in the '50s and '60s. So he said, 'Someday you can have it, and someday you'll finish it for me.' And I just finished it last year."
"So this particular violin took 72 years to build from beginning to end," he added, noting it's a family heirloom he would never think of selling. "It's the transition piece between the old Hardanger builders and today's builders."
The times have changed since Larsen's talk with Helland in the shop that day. Larsen said now interest in Hardanger fiddles is on the upswing, with a Hardanger fiddle association in the United States, while many young people in the U.S. and Norway are learning about and appreciating the Hardanger fiddle.
Larsen even teaches a fiddle-making class in Papua, Indonesia every year, and absolutely beams when talking about the children there who are growing to love Scandinavian music and craftsmanship. Perhaps even more important than the fiddles he makes are the students Larsen teaches, ensuring he won't be the last craftsman of Helland Hardanger fiddles.
"So it's a revived craft and a revived interest in Hardanger fiddle music," Larsen said.
Bud Larsen takes some time off from making fiddles to play one during Norsk Hostfest Friday. Larsen is playing the last fiddle ever made by Gunnar Helland, who taught Larsen the fiddle-making craft.