The Story of Lars Hansson Fykerud
By David John Smith
In the 1800’s hardship reigned in Norway. This was the time of the great America migration when nearly one-third one of the population left for the New World. It was into this time of change that the legendary fiddle player Lars Fykerud was born in Sauherad, a village located just south of Notodden on April 5th, 1860.
From the time he could pick up a bow, he was a prodigy. Son of folk musicians – fiddler Hans G. Fykerud and his wife Torbjørg Larsdotter who played beautiful willow-flute, young Lars would leave a trail of rich and compelling stories and fiddle tunes in his wake as he went from valley to valley playing what the preacher men called the “music of the devil”.
The Hardanger Fiddle and the Miller Boy
The legendary Hardanger fiddle player “Myllarguten” (the miller`s boy) Torgeir Augundson (1801-72), also hailing from Sauherad, was a major influence on the young Lars. But in just a short time, Lars had created his own unique style that built upon Myllarguten and other fiddlers within Norwegian traditional folk music in the Telemark region.
The Hardanger fiddle – which would later gain status as the Norwegian national instrument – is a decorated violin using mostly gut-strings, with a total of 8 or 9 nine strings.
In addition to the four main strings, there are 4 or 5 understrings – also called sympathetic strings – that resonate while the four main strings are played.
Until Lars came along, the general tradition was that fiddle players held their fiddle to their chest while playing. Lars changed all this as he held the fiddle up to chin and played the instrument, like a classical violinist. His standing posture and image was strong and pure, and he was far superior to any his contemporary Hardangerfiddle-playing colleagues in Norway in the 1870’s and 1880’s.
Not the Marrying Type
In 1883 he married a woman nine years his senior, Anne J. Tveitan, and soon they had three children. In 1886 he settled with his wife and first child in Notodden – then part of the Heddal village. Two more kids were born there.
Thanks to the Notodden organization Folk-Trad Notodden
Then, In 1888 he won the first big Norwegian “kappleik” (fiddler-competition) in Bø in Telemark. Though he did his best to provide for the family, fiddle players did not make a lot of money in Norway – but luckily for all, Anne came from a fairly wealthy family.
Sneaking off to America
Lars was the best traditional musician that Norway had to offer, and although he was very popular in the 1880s, he wanted more. So when the call for America came (as it had for so many Norwegians before him), Lars left his wife and three children in a small cotters farm in Notodden without even a goodbye. It was not until three months later in 1891 that his wife received a letter from him, saying that he was in the United States.
When he arrived in New York in 1891, he was called the greatest musician in the western world. To add to his stardom, Lars bought himself a fake professor title for his passport that enabled him to command higher wages for his concerts. He played Carnegie Hall in New York to sell-out audiences, commanding
up to 4,000 dollars a night at a time when the average wage for a skilled worker was 800 dollars a year.
A True Star
Lars Fykerud had come a long way from his humble Norwegian roots, and he was now a true star. Then, for the next seven years, form 1891 – 98 he criss-crossed North America holding concerts wherever he could as he tried to reap the benefits of stardom.
Some say that Lars opened “Fykerud’s Saloon” in Stoughton, Wisconsin with his brother Hans (1862-1942) who came to America in 1893 and who was nearly as good a fiddle player as his older brother. But it was Hans that ran the place from the start, and would manage it for many years until 1936 when he
returned to Norway.
Note: Even today you can visit the old Fykerud saloon, now called the Nevermind Bar in Stoughton.
Hard Living and Coming Home
As with many great artists within various musical genres, Lars couldn`t quite handle the pressure and soon took to drinking. He struggled to uphold his status as a top musician as the great stardom of his earlier years gradually faded.
Over time, his money ran out. Suffering from tuberculosis, Lars travelled back home to his family in Notodden, Norway, in 1898. In the following years, he held a few concerts, but his health failed rapidly, and he died at a hospital in Skien, Telemark, Aug. 19th 1902. His wife and children lived on in Notodden for the rest of their lives.
The Fykerud Style has become a well-known genre within traditional fiddle music in Norway and Scandinavia; a style that arguably influenced other genres as well as the social behavior of the youth of that era.
Lars was a star during his lifetime, and has remained so within Norwegian traditional music. His compositions are played even more often by Norwegian Hardanger fiddle players today than in his own time.
Although his life in America remains a bit of a mystery, there are researchers now looking more closely at The America Years hoping to reveal more facts. Some sources has even said that Lars recorded some of his tunes while in America, but this stands to be explored/ confirmed – or not.
Whatever the case may be, one thing is without question – that the legacy and influence of Lars Fykerud still stands strong today – well over a century after his death.