- Southern Fiddlers and Fiddle Contests
Over the past decade there have been a number of excellent book-length studies of fiddling, such as Play of a Fiddle: Traditional Music, Dance and Folklore in West Virginia, by Gerald Milnes (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999), Old Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes, by Jeff Titon (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), and Fiddling Way Out Yonder: The Life and Music of Melvin Wine, by Drew Beisswenger (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002), but each of these studies concentrates on the fiddling of a particular state or individual. This new book is one of the first that attempts to look at American fiddling with a broader perspective. Ethnomusicologist Chris Goertzen, who wrote an earlier book entitled Fiddling for Norway (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), now applies the same methodologies to Southern American fiddling. In fiddling parlance “Southern” refers to a group of related playing styles, which Goertzen found all the way from Galax, Virginia to Weiser, Idaho, with the state of Texas being in the geographic center and perhaps the most significant. He focuses specifically on fiddle contests, which have replaced dances as the most important performance venue for Southern fiddlers.
In the first chapter Goertzen gives a brief history of American fiddling. The origins of many of today’s fiddle tunes can be traced to the British Isles, especially Scotland. These tunes were disseminated through published collections, which had a greater influence in the urban North than in the rural South. In the New World these tunes took on a life of their own, transformed by population movements, and especially in the South by the influence of African Americans. Factors such as early sound recordings and live radio broadcasts also helped shape Southern fiddling styles. Goertzen describes early-twentieth-century contests and conventions in the South, with the 1920s Atlanta contest as the prime example; and the influence of Henry Ford in promoting fiddling contests. These contests thrived on a strong association between fiddling and nostalgia, a connection that Goertzen studies throughout the book. The chapter ends with a case study of a Southern fiddler, Mississippi state senator George McLeod, showing how his style was developed through a complex set of personal experiences.
The second chapter considers fiddling contests as a form of competition. There is a wide variety of contests in the South, from small local contests held at county fairs and shopping malls, to large state and regional competitions drawing hundreds of contestants and spectators. The structure of these contests can vary, some with categories for various instruments (fiddle, banjo, mandolin, etc.), or styles (old time, bluegrass, etc.), or age groups (small fry, junior, adult, senior, etc.). The events also vary in the quality of the contestants, the biases of the judges, and the accompanying entertainment. Goertzen describes three large and significant contests in detail: the Old Fiddlers Convention at Galax, Virginia; the National Oldtime Fiddlers Contest and Festival in Weiser, Idaho; and the Texas State Championship Fiddling Contest. Each of these events claims to be the biggest, best, or most important event in American fiddling. They have become so large that certain inconveniences have resulted, such as not being able to find a place to camp, long waits in line to register and compete, and enduring hours of listening to hundreds of fiddlers play for a few minutes each on stage. Goertzen, himself a native Texan, argues that the Texas State Championship is “America’s best fiddling per capita.” This is brought about by a limited number of uniformly excellent contestants, who play a limited repertory of tunes in complex and varied arrangements. He points out how the style at the National Contest in Weiser, Idaho has largely come from Texas.
The third chapter considers the environments surrounding fiddle contests. Many people come to these events less for the competition than to meet their friends, camp, play music together, and socialize. Fiddle contests feature a carnival atmosphere with the accompanying foods, crafts, and plethora of...