Friday, June 22, 2018

Finding common ground at a fiddlers' festival in Idaho

Dean Paton

Every June, Vi Wickam packs his fiddle and drives from his home in Loveland, Colo., to this small Idaho town. Mr. Wickam, a champion fiddler, sits in the cafeteria of Weiser High School, smiling and trading good-natured “little pokes” with friends he’s not seen for 51 weeks. He’s one of an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 musical pilgrims that journey each year to this National Oldtime Fiddlers' Contest and Festival, a competition now in its 66th year. This week, some 165 entrants, ranging in age from 6 to 87, are competing for trophies and cash prizes. The divisions include everything from Small Fry to the Senior Senior Division, where fiddlers 70 and older still garner ovations for their hoedowns. “I’ve been coming here for years, and I’ve never seen a fistfight, never seen an out-of-control drunk, never seen a fight over religious views or political views,” says Gary Eller, director of the Idaho Songs Project. “You put your politics aside for a week. There’s still a place in the world where people can be civil.” “There’s something truly wonderful here that I’ve never seen at other festivals,” adds Mr. Eller. Not that there isn’t conflict. “The contest is just an excuse for all of us to get together,” says Ms. Williams – “and also something to argue about: ‘What were those judges thinking?!’ People always complain about the judging. It’s a tradition.” The other discord here, not a minor quibble, is: What constitutes oldtime music?“Oldtime is not one thing,” insists Williams, an ethnomusicologist. “It’s regional: There’s Appalachian, Missouri style, Texas style, Canadian, Northern Missourian, Metiƛ, and others.” Most of those fiddle styles never win contests. The credit – or blame – falls on Texans. Williams points to legendary Texas fiddler, Benny Thomasson: “When he was a young man, in the 1920s, he thought he was a pretty hot fiddler, and he went to a contest – and lost,” she says. “So he went back home, tail ‘tween his legs, and figured out what to do to win: Play fancy with more variations.” She credits other legendary Texans, such as Major Franklin and Eck Robertson, with turning fiddle contests into celebrations of the Texas style. “It’s very impressive, and fiddlers were picking it up because it was so cool, and judges were giving lots of points because it was so cool,” says Williams, who plays traditional dance tunes instead of the Texas style. “But Texas style has come to dominate the contests.” It also drove a musical wedge between musicians here at Weiser...MORE

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