History of Fiddling in America
Fiddling has an extensive history and has been studied and
written about by many music scholars and history enthusiasts.
History of Fiddle Contests
contests first appeared in the U.S. in November of 1736. The first
recorded fiddle contest was held as part of a St. Andrew's Day
celebration. The best fiddler was to win an Italian made Cremona fiddle.
The next year only the first twenty fiddlers to sign up were allowed to
play. After they played their tune they were asked to play another tune
for entertainment. Sometimes fiddle contests were simply groups of local
fiddlers getting together to determine who was the "best" fiddler. At
times prizes were awarded but many fiddlers saw that as less important
than the prestige attached to winning the contest. The fiddlers and the
audience took these contests seriously, it was a matter of great local
pride for a county to have a champion fiddler.
With more and more musicians entering contests, and the need to have
playoffs, contests were growing longer than simple one-day affairs. In
Texas some contests were running as long as eight days. The Atlanta
Fiddlers' Convention was begun in 1913 and became an annual contest.
In 1926, Henry Ford, who was greatly interested in old-time fiddling,
held contests at his Ford dealership. He sponsored fiddle contests at
dealerships in hundreds of communities across the country. Ford's
promotion of fiddling helped contribute to its growing popularity on the
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.
By 1946 the contests had changed to "Fiddling Showdowns" which were more
stage shows than real contests in the strict sense, but they helped
maintain the popularity of fiddling. In some contests every fiddler had
to play the same tune, often a common one known by all, such as
"Arkansas Traveler" or "Sally Goodin". If a fiddler were suspected of
having formal training he was disqualified. The prize often went to the
person who played in the most authentic style, and that was a matter of
personality as much as fiddling skill. Judges looked for things like
trick playing, singing, and joking. One contestant was heard to say of
the winning fiddler, "he didn't out-fiddle me, he out-hollered me!".
Straw beaters were also allowed at the earlier contests. Straw beaters
were assistants who stood behind the fiddler while he was playing and
used a couple of straws to beat on the fiddle strings for additional
rhythm. Because of controversy resulting from trick fiddling, hollering
and other gimmicks, the move to judge contests on a more strict
assessment of playing skills was begun.
By the year 1951, contests were being held as events by themselves, not
necessarily attached to another celebration.