Old Time Fiddlers are simply group of people who get together and fiddle, mostly playing old classics like Turkey in the Straw, Arkansas Traveler, or Rollin in my Sweet Baby's Arms. One thing that distinguishes Old Time Fiddlers from other musicians is that in order to be considered a true old time fiddler, the musician must have no formal training. Some Old Time Fiddler gatherings are basically jam sessions, with anyone who shows up being allowed to play. Fiddles are accompanied by guitars, mandolins, banjos, hammered dulcimers, autoharps, and many other instruments. Other gatherings are contests, complete with rules, prizes and formats.
Fiddling contests have existed in the U.S. since the 1700's. The first contests were local affairs, often pitting the best fiddlers from one county against those of the surrounding counties. It was a matter of great pride to live in the county with the champion fiddler. As these contests became more popular and numerous, the need for more playoffs arose, and contests became longer. In 1926 Henry Ford started sponsoring contests at his Ford dealerships across the country. His promotion helped fiddling gain in popularity on radio stations across the country. 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. Popularity continued to grow, and by the 1950s, Old Time Fiddle contests were numerous, and prizes were often substantial.
Today the National Old Time Fiddlers Contest and Festival is the top event in the U.S. It's a week long event held annually in Weiser, Idaho, and features intense competition, endless jam sessions, and musical entertainment from around the world. Over 350 fiddlers compete in 8 divisions each year, and the festival also certifies fiddling contests in 29 states in order to keep interest up and maintain the integrity of fiddling contests.
Rules at fiddle contests have evolved through the years as well. Earlier contests were often more stage shows than actually contests. Often the fiddler with the best act would win the contest, using things such as jokes, trick playing and stage presence to take the prize. This is known as 'hokum' to old time fiddlers, and not looked upon with favor today. Straw beaters were also allowed in earlier contests. Straw beaters were assistants standing behind the fiddler while he was playing who would beat on the fiddle strings with straws to add rhythm. Today, rules at most contests are much more strict. 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). 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. 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.
Old time fiddling was a part of my childhood. My dad played the guitar, and several family friends played fiddles, guitars, and banjos. We'd all meet at someone's home, or rent a hall and the musicians would jam while the kids ran around and played and the wives would set out the food for the potluck dinner. It was great fun, and one of my favorite memories. Old time fiddling rocks!