What stories lurk in the church bass-ment? This forgotten New England lutherie tradition reportedly was born of a jackknife and a couple of wood blocks
By Erin Shrader
“They’re awfully ugly,” opines violin auctioneer Jason Price at the mention of church basses. He’s sold one or two through Tarisio, his online auction company. “Have you run out of things to write about?” wonders David Bonsey, head of musical instruments at Skinner auction house in Boston, when I mention these seminal American stringed instruments.
Auction rooms are about the only place you’ll see a church bass these days—outside a museum or the basement storage room of an old New England church, that is. But at one time, these oversized, cello-like instruments with their peculiar features and irregular outlines were a familiar sight. From Revolutionary War times until about the 1840s, they were used in churches and meetinghouses throughout New England to keep congregations singing in tune. They range in appearance from reasonable approximations of classical European cellos to idiosyncratic folk art—carefully made, but with details and proportions just . . . well, a little off.
“Why do you want to write about those?” asks museum curator Darcy Kuronen, sounding suspicious. These short-lived, short-necked American step-siblings of the cello don’t get a lot of respect in the violin world. As curator of musical instruments at the Boston Museum of Fine Art (MFA), Kuronen might be the person who cares about them most. The museum owns several, including examples by luthier Abraham Prescott, whose double basses are highly coveted, as well as the earliest dated church bass, made in 1788 by Benjamin Crehore, best known as the first American piano maker.
From time to time, Kuronen receives a call from a church or a small-town historical society about an instrument that’s just “always” been in the meetinghouse. Like the stone walls that still crisscross rural New England, church basses have long since outlived their purpose. Still, the story of this uniquely American instrument offers a glimpse into the history of our then-young country and serves as a reminder that music and musical instruments are reflections of the social, political, and economic context of their own times.
Church bass is a modern term. During the instrument’s heyday, New Englanders called it the “bass viol,” a term they used interchangeably to mean a European cello or the local product that approximated it. Sometimes they differentiated between the two instruments by calling the domestic product a “Yankee bass viol.” Whatever the name, the church bass was the first stringed instrument to be produced in quantity in America. Amateur attempts at violin making survive, but because violins and violas are small and easy to import, there was no real market for American-made violins at the time—hence no industry. Double basses and cellos, however, are large and expensive to transport, so local craftsmen did their best to make copies of the few instruments that arrived from Europe.
Thanks to the steady demand for bass viols, New England became the first American center of stringed instrument making.
This uniquely American instrument is actually less a product of the European violin-making tradition than of the Puritan practice of congregational singing. The reverent Pilgrims who arrived at the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1620 brought their tradition of unaccompanied psalm singing. Some of the original settlers had musical training, but as the next generations struggled to survive in harsh conditions, the skills required for high-quality singing were lost. All but a dozen melodies in the simplest meters were forgotten. Because so many people could not read words, let alone music, the practice of “lining out” or “deaconing” developed. In that practice, the church deacon would read a line of text, then sing it, then the congregation would repeat it.
“Praising God by piecemeal,” as a critic of the time archly described it.
By 1720, congregational singing had reached a low point. The problems of illiteracy and a shortage of psalm books had been largely resolved, but the practice of lining out continued. Once-vigorous psalm tunes were flattened by giving all notes equal length, “supposedly in the service of solemnity.” Not only that, uncertain singers would wait for their neighbor to intone the next pitch before attempting it themselves, dragging the tempo even further and resulting in several pitches sounding at the same time.
The sound? Ghastly.
Furthermore, deacons were not selected for the beauty of their singing, as James Franklin made clear in the February 1724 edition of the New-England Courant. “I am credibly inform’d,” he wrote, “that a certain Gentlewoman miscarry’d at the ungrateful and yelling Noise of a Deacon in reading the first Line of a psalm.”
Finally, a group of Harvard-trained ministers decided to reform the whole mess by teaching sight-singing, which they called “regular singing.” The change-resistant descendants of the Pilgrims had to be convinced that this was the older way and that the Bible did, in fact, encourage tuneful singing! Thus, the ministers organized singing schools taught by itinerant singing masters who would visit a community for a few weeks at a time. The American Singing School movement was born. Singing schools flourished and became great social events in their own right, as chronicled by author Laura Ingalls Wilder, who attended one 150 years later, as chronicled in Little Town on the Prairie.
Unfortunately, music reading didn’t ensure singing in tune. The pitch problem was addressed around the time of the Revolutionary War by William Billings of Boston, a prominent singing master and America’s first successful homegrown composer. The cover of his first collection was engraved by none other than American patriot and silversmith Paul Revere. Billings is credited with introducing the pitch pipe and the bass viol in order to bring his singers into tune. By contemporary accounts, he was blind in one eye, had a withered arm, legs of different lengths, and a remarkable disinterest in personal hygiene. Possessed of a “stentorian voice of no great beauty,” Billings was, nonetheless, choirmaster at the venerable Old South Church in Boston, where Samuel Adams was among the singers in his viol-accompanied choir.
“Concord, Bedford, and Carlisle all used viols in their services,” writes Stephanie Upton of the Carlisle Historical Society, in Massachusetts. “As early as 1815, the Carlisle March Town Meeting contained a warrant article ‘to see if the town will buy a bass viol to be kept in the Meeting house for the purpose of aiding the singing.’”
The motion was voted down, but records note expenses for the repair of two bass viols, in 1838 and 1840.
The earliest dated example of a Yankee bass viol is the 1788 Crehore belonging to the Boston MFA. Crehore of Milton, Massachusetts, was a talented cabinetmaker and inventor who got his start in instrument making at about the time of the Revolution, according to early American instrument collector and scholar Frederick Selch. Crehore, he writes, “was prevailed upon to repair a bass viol for a musician who was in despair over the near demise of his instrument. It was such a success that he tried his hand at making other instruments.”
Crehore had a cousin named William Billings whose occupation was listed as singing master. In fact, Crehores and Billingses intermarried for generations. Might Billings have brought a shattered bass viol—his or a colleague’s—to a clever young cousin for repair?
Another clue to the origin of the Yankee bass viol comes from the biography of the Hutchinson Family, a famous 19th-century family singing quartet from New Hampshire. The biography was written by Asa Hutchinson, a founding member of the group, which gained international fame singing in support of abolition, temperance, and women’s rights at a time when those issues were quite unpopular.
Hutchinson’s older brothers took up the fiddle, he writes, and, “Asa, unwilling to be behindhand,” took up the bass viol in 1832. An older brother working in Boston procured one for him that “had been played for over 30 years in the Old South Church in Boston. It was the first Yankee bass-viol ever constructed, and, been made with a jack-knife by an ingenious American.”
Crehore the inventor, whose cousin was singing master at the Old South Church during the time the viol was made, would certainly qualify as an “ingenious American.”
The fiddle was considered the devil’s box, but the somber bass viol was seemly enough for worship and became “God’s fiddle.” Its popularity spread around New England, creating a demand for bass viols.
The music played on them was rudimentary, probably limited to simple bass lines to support the singing. Because the necks tended to be short and the bodies large (though there is a great variety of sizes) they were unsuitable for classical music. Judging by wear patterns on their fingerboards and the short necks, the instruments were rarely played higher than first position. Some even have hash marks on the fingerboard showing where to place the fingers, according to Kuronen, the curator, since musical instruction wasn’t always available.
In the memoir of a village choir published in 1829, Selch discovered the tale of a talented young musician who learned to play the bass viol from instructions in Dodson’s Encyclopedia of 1798!
In the absence of any kind of formal lutherie training, craftsmen observed whatever instrument was available. As violin expert Philip Kass, who curated the first exhibition of America violin making, says, “They had the what, but not the how and the why.”
Unfortunately, the “what” was often of poor quality or so old that it pre-dated modern construction methods. How instruments are put together and the reason behind certain conventions—for example, the shape and placement of f-holes—isn’t always obvious by simply looking at an instrument.
“It’s hard to trace what they were looking at,” says Kuronen of those early attempts at American lutherie.
Whatever it was, it was not Cremonese—American craftsmen didn’t see fine stringed instruments until after the heyday of the bass viol, when traveling virtuosi like Ole Bull and Henry Vieuxtemps started visiting America.
Dimensions varied enormously. Whereas a standard cello back is about 29 ¾ inches, Kuronen cites measurements from 26 ½ to over 33 inches. Shapes could be wildly eccentric: the early Crehore looks like a caricature of a cello, with shoulders that shoot out almost straight from the neck, a short upper bout, freakishly long f-holes, a short neck, and a massive scroll.
Kuronen points out that American craftsmen in other fields kept current with the latest methods used in Europe, but lutherie lagged behind. Typical bass viol construction methods varied from modern methods in two important ways—construction of the sound box and the way the neck is attached.
Inside the body of modern stringed instruments, wooden blocks reinforce the corners from the inside and curved strips of wood called linings are attached to the ribs to create a gluing surface for attaching the top and back. But bass viol ribs were often glued directly into a channel carved around the perimeter of the top and back plates. This construction method was quick, sturdy, and tended to hold up well in extreme dryness and humidity. Unlike the block and lining system, it is virtually impossible to take apart, making it necessary to destroy the instrument in order to fix it!
The other major construction difference concerns the way the neck is attached. In modern instruments, a large block called the neck block is glued inside the ribs. A mortise is cut into this block and the neck is glued into the mortise. In most bass viols, however, there is no block. In early New England instruments, the part of the neck that was invisible from the outside featured a foot-like extension that protruded into the body and was glued (and often screwed) to the inside of the back.
By the 1820s, violin makers in southern New Hampshire had become the most prolific producers of bowed instruments, according to Kuronen. The dean of this group was Abraham Prescott (1789–1858). Prescott made his first bass viol in 1809 and by 1820 was producing both church and double basses. He also made reed organs and sold umbrellas on the side. Prescott’s double basses are still highly coveted by jazz and orchestral bassists alike. As a deacon in the Baptist church and singing-school teacher, Prescott had no trouble reaching his market.
By 1831 Prescott moved to Concord, New Hampshire. Aided by several assistants, he produced an estimated 500 to 600 bass viols and 207 double basses. Some workers, such as William Darracott, Jr., made only components. Darracott made tuning machines for Prescott as well as piano actions for Chickering, and bass drums.
Darracott also practiced dentistry.
Other makers of bass viols who passed through Prescott’s ledger books include Moses Tewksbury, and the Dearborn brothers Andrew and David.
It would be convenient to think that the thriving bass viol industry begat a New England school of violin making, but this was not the case. Bass makers rarely made violins, and the few they did make tended to resemble little church basses.
By the 1840s, reed organs began replacing bass viols in the meetinghouse. Prescott sold his bass business to David Dearborn in 1845, who continued to manufacture bass viols until 1849, and there the trail runs dry, bringing an end to the rather short-lived New England bass viol lutherie tradition.