History of Fiddling in America
Fiddling has an extensive history and has been studied and written about by many music scholars and history enthusiasts. Research is in process and will soon be found at this location. Thank you for your patience.
History of Fiddle Contests
Fiddle contests first appeared in the U.S. in November of 1736. The first recorded fiddle contest was held as part of a St. Andrew’s Day celebration. The best fiddler was to win an Italian made Cremona fiddle. The next year only the first twenty fiddlers to sign up were allowed to play. After they played their tune they were asked to play another tune for entertainment. Sometimes fiddle contests were simply groups of local fiddlers getting together to determine who was the “best” fiddler. At times prizes were awarded but many fiddlers saw that as less important than the prestige attached to winning the contest. The fiddlers and the audience took these contests seriously, it was a matter of great local pride for a county to have a champion fiddler.
With more and more musicians entering contests, and the need to have playoffs, contests were growing longer than simple one-day affairs. In Texas some contests were running as long as eight days. The Atlanta Fiddlers’ Convention was begun in 1913 and became an annual contest.
In 1926, Henry Ford, who was greatly interested in oldtime fiddling, held contests at his Ford dealership. He sponsored fiddle contests at dealerships in hundreds of communities across the country. Ford’s promotion of fiddling helped contribute to its growing popularity on the radio.
In 1938 Joe Woods, the current national champion, along with Leslie Keith, neither of whom had any money or prospects for work, rented a park for $15, called it the Grand Ole Opry and invited Arthur Smith to come for $100 and bus fare. They promoted their contest on the radio, twenty-seven fiddlers showed up, 9,400 people attended and those in attendance judged the fiddlers by an applause meter.
By 1946 the contests had changed to “Fiddling Showdowns” which were more stage shows than real contests in the strict sense, but they helped maintain the popularity of fiddling. In some contests every fiddler had to play the same tune, often a common one known by all, such as “Arkansas Traveler” or “Sally Goodin”. If a fiddler were suspected of having formal training he was disqualified. The prize often went to the person who played in the most authentic style, and that was a matter of personality as much as fiddling skill. Judges looked for things like trick playing, singing, and joking. One contestant was heard to say of the winning fiddler, “he didn’t out-fiddle me, he out-hollered me!”.
Straw beaters were also allowed at the earlier contests. Straw beaters were assistants who stood behind the fiddler while he was playing and used a couple of straws to beat on the fiddle strings for additional rhythm. Because of controversy resulting from trick fiddling, hollering and other gimmicks, the move to judge contests on a more strict assessment of playing skills was begun.
By the year 1951, contests were being held as events by themselves, not necessarily attached to another celebration.
History of Weiser’s Fiddle Contest
In 1953, the city of Weiser, Idaho began sponsoring an annual contest which has become one of the most formal and prestigious fiddler contests held. In this same year, a contest was held in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, which saw the result of the change in judging. It was now based on standards of skill, hokum was not allowed, and there was a strict time limit for the contestants. Some of the “old-timers” had trouble adapting. One of the fiddlers, Eck Robertson played “Sally Goodin” which he usually played in about eighteen different ways, and at times took five to six minutes to play all the way through. This year, he was about half way through when the whistle blew, but he just kept on playing until someone came onto the stage and took him off. He was disqualified at this contest but in 1962 he won the senior division at Weiser.
The fiddle contests at Weiser today have very clear rules. Each contestant plays three tunes; one of the tunes must be a hoedown, one must be a waltz, the other is a “tune of choice” (something other than a waltz or hoedown). Some contests are held with less restrictions and include audience participation. A maximum of four minutes is allowed for each fiddler. Contestants are classified into different age groups and judging is based on danceability, oldtime style, rhythm, and tone. If a contestant wins the first round they move onto the second/final round or playoff. At Weiser, competing in all of the playoffs to win the championship takes six rounds and eighteen tunes. One change that has happened in the modern era that began in 1990 or 1991 is that most contests have eliminated the separate ladies division, as acknowledgment that today’s women are as competent as the men and capable of competing on an equal basis.
History of the National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest and Festival
Fiddling came to Weiser in 1863 when the Logans established a way station here and covered wagon emigrants stopped for rest and recreation. Newspaper files report fiddling contests here from 1914 to WWI. The resurrection of fiddling in Weiser was due to efforts led by Blaine Stubblefield, Chamber of Commerce Secretary from 1948 until his death in December, 1960.
Blaine was raised on fiddling in Oregon’s Wallowa Valley above Hells Canyon. He had spent several years researching fiddle music for the Library of Congress. His interest in the music led him to ask the Chamber Directors to allocate $175 for a fiddle contest. Nothing happened until January, 1953, when the idea was proposed to hold the contest during intermissions of the Fifth Annual Weiser Square Dance Festival. Prize money was underwritten by two individuals and the first official fiddling event came to life on April 18, 1953. It was billed as the Northwest Mountain Fiddlers’ Contest and was a huge success. The name was changed to the Northwest Oldtime Fiddling Champion- ships in 1956 when a regional division was added for out-of- area fiddlers.
The present National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest was inaugurated in 1963 in conjunction with Idaho’s Territorial Centennial observances. Through all these years of fiddling in Weiser, the town of 5,200 people pulls hundreds of volunteers together each year in support of their nationally recognized event. This week of intense competition and endless jamming brings together young and old for the purpose of perpetuating fiddling around the world. The National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest now certifies fiddling contests in 29 states in order to facilitate interest and maintain the integrity of fiddling contests. Over 225 contestants compete in 8 divisions each year. The week long competition also includes a Swing Fiddling and Twin Fiddling Competitions, and musical entertainment nightly from groups from around the U.S.
A Banjo Contest is held the Saturday and Sunday prior to Fiddle Week, and free entertainment stages at two parks,vendors,jamming, a carnival, parade, Kids’ Day, and other activities provide fun for everyone.
Once you’ve been to the National Oldtime Fiddlers’ Contest you’ll see why Weiser has been recognized as the “Fiddling Capital Of The World”.