Fiddle Festival Takes Its Annual Bow
Began six years ago as accordion player's fancy
Hartford Courant Weekend
By Robert Stepno
May 29, 1979
"Unable to bear the armor of a Saul, I went forth to do battle armed with a fiddle, a pair of saddlebags, a plug horse and the eternal truth," Gov. Robert Taylor of Tennessee said, campaigning and competing at fiddle contests almost a century ago.
Before him Thomas Jefferson had been a fiddler. More recently Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd of West Virginia has fiddled on the Grand Ole Opry.
Connecticut's politicians have yet to take up the instrument, but the capital city itself fiddles every May, and this is the weekend.
The Sixth Annual New England Fiddle Contest is set to start at 10 a.m. Saturday (June 2 is the raindate) with about 100 fiddlers bowing before a crowd of thousands in downtown Hartford's Bushnell Park.
Admission will be free and parking will be available in state employee lots near the Capitol and park.
"It's in a big city," said Bob Slora of the North American Fiddling Judges Association, when asked the differences between the Hartford event and other fiddle contests.
"But all fiddle contests are unique in one way," the Barre, Vt., resident said. "Police very seldom have any trouble at them at all-I've heard it commented on by more than one police force."
Slora, who turns 54 today, says he's seen the "college people that sit up front, have [sic] a little wine and get to dancing... But they [sic] seldom get out of hand.
Slora was one of the fiddle contest judges contacted by Paul LeMay of Peace Train when he first had the idea of organizing a Hartford contest as an event that might appeal to young and old.
"In my hitchhiking travels I wound up at a fiddle contest in Vermont and it was beautiful... There were little kids in sunsuits dancing with their grandparents. It felt like family," LeMay said, talking about the local contest's origin and growth.
Several Hartford area musicians put LeMay in touch with the fiddle judges group, and Peace Train started to build up steam.
To raise the $1,300 spent on the first contest, LeMay hauled his accordian (he doesn't fiddle) to the train station and pumped out a few tunes while he and friends sold honey to raise money.
Another inspiration came from an insurance company advertisement that said something like "There are fiddlers and there are violinists-and there are differences in life insurance too..."
LeMay walked into the insurance company building, he says, demanding to see the person responsible and complaining that the ad ignored the value of the art of traditional fiddling.
He walked out with his first $100 corporate donation and an insurance man on his board of directors.
Peace Train has learned a lot of grantsmanship since its honey-peddling days. This year's contest has a budget of more than $16,000 provided by Aetna Life & Casualty Foundation, the Covenant Group, Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance and the Mobil Foundation Inc.
The fiddlers will compete for $1,979 in prize money. The audience will have the convenience of 40 portable toilets, unknown in the first year of the contest. And the sound system has been expanded every year to carry the fiddle tunes to the far reaches of the picnicking, frisbee-throwing, sun-worshipping crowd.
Peace Train, a private, non-profit arts organization with a red caboose-bodied school bus as its symbol, also has developed other programs ranging from free movies in city parks to a major evening concert series in Bushnell Park. But the fiddle contest is still its biggest event, and the first of the warmer months.
The first had 38 fiddlers. Last year there were almost 100 fiddlers, many making their first stop on a summer of national competitions.
A poster for this year's event shows George Stinson of Scarborough, Ontario, Canada, winner of the senior division in 1978. A close look shows Stinson's western string tie, a souvenir of another "State Championship Fiddlers' Frolics" - the slide on the tie is a map of Texas.
Registration is open until the day of the contest, so Peace Train wasn't sure this week how many of last year's winners will be back.
Last year's competitors came from as far off as California. Their ages ranged from 7 to 78. Only about 15 competitors will win prizes, but fiddlers come for other reasons.
"Enjoying the music, the atmosphere, the audience, meeting people they only see at these contests - that's probably the motivation of. most of the people who come," said Tim Woodbridge, a West Hartford lawyer who has fiddled in all the Hartford contests.
He was one of the local musicians who helped Peace Train get the first contest rolling. This year he'll be one of the five contest judges.
Woodbridge says he's read of fiddle contests as far back as the 18th century in Scotland, but he's not sure why fiddling has a history of competition.
By the turn of this century, fiddling was already a link to the "good old days," according to a Tennessee folklorist, writing in 1909, who reported a 94-year-old fiddler "playing his greatgrandfather's 'pieces.'"
"To one unused to the mountain tunes," folklorist Louise Rand Bascom wrote, "the business of selecting the best player would not be unlike telling which snail had eaten the rhododendron leaf..."
Most divisions of this year's Hartford contest are judged by five members of the North American Fiddling Judges Association Inc., which has tried to take some of the leaf-splitting subjectivity out of picking the winners.
Prizes are awarded in a senior division, ages 60 years and up; open division, under 60, and junior division, 16 and under. There's a separate "Trick and Fancy" competition open to all and judged with an applause meter.
The judges award points for rhythm and timing, clarity and tone, old time ability, and expression.
A classically trained violinist, for instance, may gain points on clarity and tone but lose in the "old time" category that credits dance-oriented traditional ways of playing the tunes, judge Bob Slora said.
"A classical violinist may be too restrained, concerned too much with rounded notes and vibrato, rather than a sense of drive," Woodbridge said.
Technically, the fiddle and the violin are the same instrument, although some fiddlers prefer steel to gut strings and a few lower the bridge that holds the strings above the fingerboard, he said.
Woodbridge credits the high quality of judging with boosting the status of the local contest close to that of the autumn National Traditional Old Time Fiddle Contest in Barre, Vt.
The relatively large purses and the fact that it's usually the first contest of the season also have helped the event grow in popularity with fiddlers.
This year's top prizes are $300 for first place in the senior and open divisions, $200 for trick and fancy fiddling and $100 for the junior division. A total of 15 prizes will be awarded including $29 for the best fiddler under 12 years of age.
For the audience, he suggested other criteria - "It's a good time, it's free, and it doesn't rain on you too often."