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  • Letter from Ole Bull to Sara Thorp
  • Jeff Todd Titon, Professor of Music and Director of the Ph.D. program in ethnomusicology (bio)

The following undated letter from the famous nineteenth-century Norwegian violin virtuoso, Ole Bull, to the American, Sara Thorp (later Sara Thorp Bull), was found among the papers of Sara Bull in Madison, Wisconsin. Internal evidence suggests that the letter was written early in the year 1869. Whether it ever was posted, or whether Bull delivered it in person, is not known.

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Figure 1.

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My dear sweet Sara,

When I promised to write you about my Kentucky adventures on this latest American tour, I could not have foretold the singular encounter that took place on the night of 4 December 1868. Now that I have returned to civilization I wonder whether I dreamed it. I believe I fell in with native violinists even more rough-hewn than the hardanger fiddlers I know in Norway. But dear miss, I am ahead of myself. I was proceeding northwest along the Ohio River. As you know, I dislike steamboats because of the belching smoke and the constant tremor, which sometimes prevents me from sleeping. That night insomnia struck. Near midnight I was out walking on deck, quite alone except for my precious da Salo violin, which as you know, I have with me always. The night was dark and the river mist thick when our steamboat rammed another vessel.

The collision caused me to lose my balance. I lurched forward. The fog made it impossible to see more than five feet in any direction. A few seconds later, one loud explosion was followed by another. Through the mist I saw a conflagration behind me, the flames reaching nearly to the height of the smokestack. I did not hesitate, but jumped overboard, raising my da Salo high above my head. It being late fall, the temperature of the water was colder than I would have wished, but this was preferable to the heat I left on the steamboat. I swam to the nearest side of the river and pulled myself out. The fire behind me provided such light as I needed to scramble up a path on the riverbank. The flames of hell could not have burned more brightly. I looked back toward the steamboat but could see no one. Indeed, I had seen no one since the explosion and fire. The boat by this time was listing to port and sinking. I had left my money on the steamboat. My wet, muddy clothes and dry da Salo were now my only possessions.

Atop the tangled bank I could see no sign of human or animal. I did not know then that I had chosen the Kentucky side of the river. As I continued, the mist dissipated, the moon appeared, and I reckoned that I was heading south along the Kentucky side. I hoped to find a cottage where I might implore the owner for lodging. I envisioned a cozy fire and a tidy parlor with the family gathered 'round while I fiddled in exchange for my board and lodging. Imagine!—and it was past midnight! But finding no place to rest, I fashioned a walking stick from a maple branch and plunged ahead, veering deeper into the forest and following a watercourse southwest. I began to wonder what wild creature I might encounter. There could be an Indian behind any tree, I thought. What if I should encounter the devil himself? Wishing to avoid being attacked by a bear, bitten by a poisonous snake, or scalped by a wild Indian, I made haste through the forest. A human life is nothing here. Usually I am afraid of robbers and I keep an eye on my things, but now I had nothing but a maple stick and my da Salo!

At length the terrain grew steep. I grew tired and slowed to a walk. I could hear the watercourse running below. Although it was not a particularly cold night, I shivered in my drying clothes. Surely I would catch a fever and would have to treat myself with cold water, fast...


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pp. 316-324
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