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American fiddling, for centuries among our most energetically cultivated oral traditions, now flourishes in a revival centered on carefully structured contests, a revival that was sparked in the late 1950s to early 1960s by fiddlers in the Northwest and remains vigorous throughout the nation today. This grass-roots movement fits Kartomi's definition of a "nativistic musical revival," that is, an effort to revitalize a body of music perceived as threatened, with the attempt made for a mixture of "nationalistic, racial prestige, historical, nostalgic, touristic and artistic reasons."(1) Indeed, fiddling was particularly apt for such a revival, since its identity had long leaned on a fluid mix of nationalism and what Susan Stewart has termed "the necessarily insatiable demands of nostalgia."(2) Some observers have lamented the effects of today's revival, especially the tendency of the contests that serve as its engine to channel musical style. For instance, Samuel Bayard, dean of the small group of folklorists who have been the main students of American fiddling, wrote that fiddle contest rules and associated changes in taste have pushed performance "toward constantly greater uniformization and standardization, enforceable now as never before. If standardization is ever achieved, our traditional fiddling art will be at its last gasp."(3) The revival of American fiddling, however, like any large and lasting nativistic revival, encompasses significant variety in musical style, in revival mechanisms, and in cultural meaning. The factors that inspired the revival have balanced or meshed differently over time and in different regions, just as have the musical styles that it inherited, changed, and supplemented.
The basic tension in today's fiddle-contest system pits nationally distributed, virtuosic performance styles of relatively recent vintage and a relatively modern approach to competition against a more oldfashioned approach. The nationally oriented fiddlers play in Texas contest style or in one of several bluegrass styles, whereas other performers choose a more immediate geographic focus by using some part of the patchwork of local styles, which are older, usually less flashy, and thus arguably less suited to a forum built around listening rather than the older function of dance accompaniment. In most American fiddle contests national and local fiddling meet head on, and over time, national styles dominate. Most contests include mechanisms that tend to shield older styles, however, even if this protection is unintended and inefficient. Moreover certain contests have rules explicitly fencing off local styles, although it is seldom clear whether those rules work. This article focuses on four contests: one typical small contest in Illinois and less representative but especially interesting events in Minnesota and North Carolina. Together these contests illustrate how the local and national approaches balance in the American fiddle contest system. They also illustrate the dynamics of change experienced by traditional musics in the modern world.
Early Fiddle Contests and the Early Revival
Documented fiddle contests in colonial America began with an event advertised in the Virginia Gazette of November 26, 1736:
We hear from Hanover County, that on Tuesday next, (being St.
Andrews Day), some merry-dispos'd Gentlemen of the said County,
design to celebrate that Festival, by setting up divers Prizes to be
contended for in the following Manner, (to wit) A neat Hunting Saddle,
with a fine broadcloth Housing, fring'd and flowr'd &c. to be run for (the
Quarter,) by any Number of Horses and Mares: A fine Cremona Fiddle to
be plaid for, by any Number of Country Fiddlers, (Mr. Langford's
Scholars excepted:) With divers other considerable Prizes, for Dancing,
Singing, Foot-ballplay, Jumping, Wrestling, &c. particularly a fine pair of
Silk Stockings to be given to the Handsomest Maid upon the Green, to
be judg'd of by the Company.
At Page's Warehouse, Commonly call'd Crutchfield in the said
County of Hanover, where all Persons will find good Entertainment.
It is of interest that "country fiddlers" were granted immunity from competition with "Mr. Langford's Scholars," whose probable formal training made them not "country." That this contest, which recurred annually for a few years, was held on St. Andrew's Day suggests a Scottish connection of some kind, and thus perhaps a Scottish model for holding fiddle contests. There is little more to be learned from this oft-cited ad, and documentation of fiddle contests unfortunately lapses in the United States until late in the nineteenth century. The city became a less likely contest venue when fiddle tunes lost a place at the center of fashion. At the same time, few countryside locations would have had a sufficiently dense population of fiddlers and sufficiently easy transportation to assemble enough players to hold a contest. In addition, of course, documentation of rural doings was sparse. Careful samplings of newspapers and diaries from these times turn up few reports of contests. In any case, it seems likely that fiddle contests were rare in the early United States, although dancing to fiddles went on unabated in the countryside.(4)
Beginning late in the nineteenth century, fiddle contests burgeoned in the United States. Charles Wolfe, in his study of country music in Tennessee, found that in late nineteenth-century Morristown "local fiddling contests were often held as part of the Fourth of July celebration. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Knoxville held contests as part of the Labor Day celebrations. An account from the Knoxville Tribune of August 30, 1891, lists the fiddle contest as part of the `Amusement Program,' which included a mule race, a tug of war, a typesetting contest, and `toddy tail-pulling."(5) Wolfe further notes that other, independent turn-of-the-century contests were held "in the courthouse and during the sessions of the quarterly circuit courts. Often the highest praise a fiddler could receive was `best in the county,' for in an age of poor roads and rough hilly country, the width of a county often meant a hard days journey."(6)
The number of contests in the South waxed and waned early in the twentieth century, exhibiting the most vigor in the mid-1920s, when Henry Ford jumped on the bandwagon by sponsoring contests at dealerships nationwide, hoping thereby to help (in his eyes) keep jazz from poisoning the country. One famous series of contests in Atlanta extended from 1913 through 1935. Atlanta papers told audiences to "expect tunes your granddaddies used to dance to in the country cabins before they moved to Atlanta and got rich in real estate and turned to grand opera lovers"; they would "hear the whisperings of April voices in the leaves or raindrops dripping from the eaves of some lone cabin on the hill."(7) It was not just gushing journalists who attached antiquarian romance to early twentieth-century fiddling. Performers and record companies often called fiddle tunes "old," and a few fiddle contests favored older competitors. For instance, the competitors in a contest held in Stamford, Texas, in 1935 had to be at least fifty years old.(8) This round of southern contests subsided as radio and recordings transformed popular "hillbilly" music.
The current revival began in the Northwest with contests in 1953, 1961, and annually thereafter in Weiser, Idaho, which had not hosted a contest since 1915. (This timing makes the fiddle revival roughly contemporary with the urban folk boom, but the fiddle revival was run by tradition insiders and would outlast the folk boom.) Fiddle contests were soon supported by formal fiddlers' organizations, which proliferated swiftly. Following the formation of a handful of state organizations, the American Oldtime Fiddlers' Association incorporated in 1964; the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers' Association, in 1966; and the National Old Time Fiddlers' Association, in 1968. Many of the first recruits were older fiddlers who lamented that country and western music had largely abandoned the fiddle and sought to continue playing with the support of other members of this network.(9) These and additional, younger members also had the more general aim of holding onto or remembering a way of life--the rural and small-town life that its proponents still believe is relatively quiet, easygoing, honest, safe, neighborly, family- and child-oriented, and possessing a real sense of community and of moral vitality.(10) This is clearly an idealization meant to counter the frustrations of mass culture and modern urban life, but it is a vision that more than a few city dwellers share with most rural residents.(11)
The organizations of the new revival sponsored "jam sessions" in which musicians were brought together by this formal network rather than by the earlier serendipitous gatherings of family or neighbors; by newsletters that offered colorful anecdotes, obituaries, and news of events; and above all by contests. Activity within formal fiddlers' associations stimulated activity outside their purview, and soon as many contests took place under the sponsorship of local governments, chambers of commerce, and philanthropic clubs as did under that of the fiddlers' own organizations. Taping at contests and at home became ubiquitous, which aided dissemination of tunes and styles, critical listening and self-improvement among players, and attempts to standardize judging.
Detailed contest rules were invented (for the first time, I believe) with the intent that prizes no longer be awarded on the basis of personality, showmanship, audience appeal, or specialized virtuosic techniques regarded as tricks--pieces featuring pizzicato, harmonics, and so on were now disallowed at contests. Such rules set a general framework, one still followed today, in which judges were to evaluate performances on the bases of authenticity, rhythm and timing, and tonal quality and clarity (sometimes collectively called execution), as well as taste or creativity. The rules for the seventh annual Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Association contest illustrate the delicate balance thoughtful judges in this revival sought. The rubric on "creativity" states, "The judges will look for variations, improvisations and `good licks'"; under "authenticity" we read that "the judges will look for selection of authentic tunes and performance styles. Indiscriminate use of variations that make the basic tune unclear. . . and inappropriate modern licks will result in lost points."(12) The listening forum encouraged change, however, and many performers soon spent more time worrying about creativity than about authenticity. Performers, seeking elaboration and virtuosity, began to channel fiddle styles, which had never been static, toward the most complex traditional style--Texas style (which is sometimes called "superstyle")--and bluegrass. This alarmed both scholar-participants(13) and some insiders,(14) although …