Recently (well, in the past 40 or 50 years) fiddle contests have become popular. There were also fiddle contests “in the olden days” but the new type of contest has produced a new kind of fiddler – the “contest fiddler.”
Contests have standardized rules which may vary from one geographical area to another. Contestants must play a certain number of tunes within a time limit. Tunes must represent certain types of dances. In the Western states many contests go by “Weiser rules.”
Weiser, Idaho hosts The National Old Time Fiddle Contest each year during the third full week of June. Their rules specify 3 tunes – a hoedown, a waltz, and a tune of choice (which is neither a hoedown nor a waltz) – to be played in 4 minutes or less.
Contestants were, in the past, scored on danceability, old-time style, timing and tone. Several years ago at the Weiser judges’ meeting before the contest began, one of the contestants questioned the judges about how much weight “danceability” carried in the final score. One of the judges confessed, “I wouldn’t know danceability if it came up and bit me!”
The next year marked a change in the scoring. Contestants are now given just one score for each tune they play. Gradually, (remember, fiddle music is an evolving thing) contests have caused more and more of the younger fiddlers to forsake the old time tradition and focus more on flashy, showy playing. (You might have heard this described as “Texas style” or “progressive style” fiddling.) And many of them are very good! Thus, in some ways fiddle music has become, like violin music, something to listen to rather than something to dance to. Unfortunately, most contest fiddlers – especially the younger ones – have never had the opportunity to play for dancers.
Sad to say, the truly old time style is becoming a fainter and fainter memory. A few contests still promote the traditional old time sound. And there are still some old timers around who are playing it “just like I learned it from my grandpa.” Jim Herd of Sunnyside, Washington (one of my favorite fiddlers) falls into this category. Phil and Vivian Williams of Seattle have done extensive research to supplement the musical heritage they grew up with. They perform and share their music in many venues. One of the greatest resources is recordings made by The Smithsonian and other organizations interested in preserving our folk heritage.