1999 Florida Folk Heritage Award
Clayton Raulerson (1906-2000) was a master fiddle maker from Narcoossee, Florida. He learned to play fiddle as a child and played for over 80 years. As a young man, Raulerson worked driving cattle from Lake Okeechobee to the Orlando area. In those days, all cattle teams had a fiddle player who kept the teams entertained at night around the camp fire—and he also served in that capacity. Raulerson explained that the fiddle “was the only thing back then we had that you could move around.” He later extended that role to repairing the fiddles of others—since fiddles were often damaged after being in a saddle bag for weeks. Raulerson’s reputation as an expert craftsman grew until eventually bluegrass and country fiddle players on the Nashville circuit sent their fiddles to him for repair.
Raulerson began making fiddles 30 years ago. The first “looked like a hillbilly job.” Eventually, he based his patterns and jigs on the famous Antonio Stradivari violin of the late 17th to early 18 centuries, noting that this model has been popular for hundreds of years: “I copied him, ‘cause he was supposed to be the best maker there was.”
Making a fiddle is a complex and time-consuming process. Raulerson first selected a perfect piece of for tone. HIs daughter contended that “he had a special touch at knowing the wood.” Raulerson sought out trees for their straightness and quality to obtain wood with the right grain. He often used spruce for the top and maple for the back, which he planed to 1/8 to 1/ 16 of an inch in thickness. The pegs for tightening the strings were made from maple or oak. After the fiddle was assembled, Raulerson dried the instrument for 30 days in the “hottest, driest place you find in the sun,” then painstakingly varnished the wood with a special secret recipe.
Raulerson was an important figure in Florida’s fiddling community—having sold fiddles to numerous musicians throughout the state. As a self-taught musician he downplayed his ability, though his friends and children fondly recall listening to him play the old fiddle tunes. Raulerson regularly performed at central Florida fiddle gatherings. Raulerson taught fiddle making to Oaldey Brandon, and demonstrated his skills at the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs. One of Mr. Raulerson’s fiddles was included in the Florida Folklife: Traditional Arts in Contemporary Communities exhibition curated by the Historical Museum of Southern Florida.