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 Fiddle and Fiddle Contest History

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

Fiddle 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 radio.

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.

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