Michigan State Championship Old-Time Fiddlers Contest: Keeping the Spirit Alive
When one thinks about music and Detroit, the first thoughts most likely go to the Motown Sound, followed by the classic rock sounds of Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, and Iggy Pop, as well as the modern alternative performers like Kid Rock, Eminem, and The White Stripes. The Motor City is probably one of the last places one would imagine old time fiddle music. Yet the music was extremely popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the farmers and lumberjacks that lived in the Michigan area, as well as immigrants and workers in the automobile plants that sought escape on a Saturday evening from the stresses of factory labor.
Automotive mogul Henry Ford strived to keep this music alive in the city and among both his workers and acquaintances. Disdaining the big band and jazz music popular with the youth of the period, Ford secured the talents of dance caller Benjamin Lovett, sanctioned a number of old time fiddle dance tune books, invited (actually, demanded) his company executives to participate in dances, and built a hall at his museum, The Greenfield Village, for holding said dances. The floor was unique in that it was specifically angled outward from the center in order for dancers to flow toward the outer reaches of the hall as the music progressed. During post-WWII years through the 1980s, fiddler Les Raber worked diligently to keep the music in the ears of listeners by performing at regional fiddle contests, festivals, and grange hall dances.
The spirit of old time fiddling is still kept alive at the Michigan State Championship Old-Time Fiddlers Contest, held yearly the first weekend of October at the Huron Applefest in New Boston, a small community about 20 miles southwest of Detroit. In 2015 the contest will celebrate its 30th anniversary, thanks in part to the continuing work of director Jim McKinney. Originally a contest participant in 1996, McKinney saw a need for the contest to present and reward true-to-form old time fiddlers instead of the flashy jazz and country fiddle players that were becoming prevalent. As a member of the local contra dance ensemble Golden Griffin Stringtet and author of two fiddle books, he knew what quality old time fiddle music consisted of. He became the contest director in 2006.
McKinney’s first task was to line up a panel of judges who were experts in the old time music field. “When I was competing, the judges were the director’s family members or friends, or a guitar player from a local country rock band,” he explains. “It seemed like an afterthought. They didn’t know anything about fiddling, just judging on what the audience would like best. I made sure that I hired in judges that knew about fiddling and how it was used for dancing.” This led to a panel consisting of historical museum curators, traditional dance callers, and previous contest winners. This change in judging format helped to ensure contestants adhered to the old time fiddle style of playing. McKinney recalls a five-time winner who was classically trained since the age of three, and performed a jazz version of “Lady Be Good.” “It was extremely good, but not old time fiddle playing. You can’t dance to it. I wanted to put on a contest that the older fiddlers who perform this music would respect. We’ve lost a lot of the older fiddlers because they were tired of getting burned by the flashiness, and I would love to get them back.”
The continuing struggle for the contest has been securing new competitors as well as publicity. The number of contestants over the years has ranged from as much as eighteen to as little as two. This past year’s competition had four contestants, with three of them being returnees, including McKinney’s son Tommy. “Getting the word out” has proven to be a challenge in recent years, and he sees a need to go beyond sending flyers to local schools, bluegrass and old time music associations, and music stores. “I just can’t find the magic email address, website, or contact to get more participants.” The contest has a lot of competition from other regional autumn festivals as well as difficulties in securing coverage from major media outlets in the Detroit area. Attendance fluctuates as well, with competition from the other festival activities and craft tents. McKinney has moved the contest from early morning to noon, which has helped to increase spectator numbers from the many “walk-bys.”
For the competition, each contestant is required to perform a waltz, a schottische, a jig, and a reel, in that order, with a total playing time of six minutes. For the 2014 competition, there was the addition of musician’s choice to perform a fifth tune, the “Opera Reel,” for a separate award. Use of a single accompanist is optional. Contestants draw their order about a half-hour prior to the start, then McKinney begins the program with a contest overview and sponsor appreciation. Between performances, he will usually be at the microphone tossing out fiddler and musician jokes to the audience. He asks that all applause be postponed until the performer has finished the entire set, and of course, no names are announced, only numbers. The judges are seated in an enclosed booth behind the stage so they can only hear the participants.
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For information on this year’s contest, visit http://huronapplefest.com/fiddlers-contest/
[Matt Merta has been writing for various music magazines for the past twenty years. He teaches guitar and bass in Detroit, Michigan, and performs and writes songs under the pseudonym Mitch Matthews.]
Photos: Top: Jim McKinney; Bottom: Stephen Pothoff.