Fiddles to the Left, Fiddles to the Right, Fiddles All Around
Texas Old Time Fiddling instilled the spirit of Texas music pioneers in my son, Jonathan, and I. As you play or listen, waves of feelings pass through body, mind, and soul….a very deep uplifting. Special beyond words. That’s Texas Fiddling.
- Texas Fiddler Robert Herridge Texas fiddlers and fans of the music will be heading to Hallettsville April 25-28 for a weekend of friendship, fun, and fiddling music at the 49th Annual Fiddlers Frolics.
The festival had humble beginnings. Clifford Fryer, an avid fiddle collector, for years had been traveling around the state visiting fiddle festivals. In 1971, after talking to Frank Zaruba and Kenneth Henneke, they decided to give it a go. They rented Wied Hall, Clifford invited some fiddling friends, and the three put on what they thought might be just a one-off show for a music style that wouldn’t get much attention in the heartland of Czech polka and waltz music.
Over 1,000 people showed up, cheered the music, and drank 47 16-gallon kegs of beer. They decided to try it again the next year with similar results. The festival eventually moved into the sprawling Knights of Columbus grounds (with plenty of RV hookups) in Hallettsville, expanded into three days of festivities, added a very successful BBQ cookoff, and made opening night a Cajun event.
Wes Westmoreland III, a multiple fiddling winner states it’s the best event in the state, and local music follower Karen Kurtz says it's her most favorite festival.
Everything in Texas is more better and more unique; that’s an established fact. In an attempt to describe Texas fiddling, Jim “Texas Shorty” Chancellor, a five-time national champion, described it as such: “Think of a beautiful woman without any make-up on and no jewelry. That would be a basic fiddle tune such as Old Joe Clark. A Texas fiddler would then start embellishing a note as the beautiful woman might put on some make-up, then the fiddler would add an extra draw on the bow as the woman might put on an earring. The fiddler would maybe double stop on a note as the woman would apply eye-liner; and so on, until the basic song has ruffles and flourishes while retaining its original beauty.”
FUN FAMILY FIDDLIN' FEST
The Hallettsville contest is mainly for fiddlers within the borders of Texas. There is a category for others, but they do not qualify for the Texas Champion title. A special competition is for trick fiddling where the fiddle is held in unusual positions or different group members may play your fiddle and visa-versa; it’s all about fun. Texas fiddling lends itself to family participation more than other styles, both in the family bands or the lineage, i.e. my father was a champion, my uncle was a champion, my grandfather was a champion, etc. The fiddle contests also serve as a large family reunion, where everyone knows each other’s children.
One gentleman fiddler commented that “some of them know way too much about each other.” Another commented that when they were young it was about the friendly competition between other fiddlers, now it's just showing up and jamming under the trees or around the campfires. The ease of the fiddle and accompanying guitar make it ideal for a couple of folks to sit down and start playing and before long there are several more folks fiddling along. This may go on for hours oblivious to the competition occurring on the stage inside the hall.
Texas fiddling is not about how fast you play, it’s the power or punch behind the playing, while leaving “breathing room” between the notes.
OLD TIME FIDDLING FACTS
Old-Time Fiddling (OTF) contests have been a part of Texas music culture since the late 1800s. The term “old time” refers to music your ancestors played. In 1899, there was an advertisement in a Houston paper for an old-time fiddler to join a traveling troupe that specialized in entertaining Confederate veterans. Around that same time in Dallas was an OTF contest where the classic fiddle songs Old Dan Tucker (pre-1843) and the Arkansas Traveler (1830ish) were featured.
In 1900, the Galveston paper noted that Brenham was hosting an OTF contest but predicted it would never catch on. The contest was a rousing success, profiting the promoter $200. The winner was from Caldwell, however a one-armed veteran did pretty good and was showered with coins from the audience. Later that same year, contests were held in San Antonio and Fort Worth. The contests proved to be crowd pleasers.
In 1905, El Campo held an OTF contest with a Stetson hat as first-place prize. The contest was sponsored by Ladies Aid Society of the Christian Church. J.B. McClatchey of Lavaca County won a $3 bow.
Taylor held a OTF contest in 1910. In 1915, at the Robinson Creek School, west of La Grange, an OTF contest was held with the Cotton Eyed Joe and Sallie Gooden taking honors as top songs. The La Grange American Legion sponsored a 1921 OTF contest where fiddlers and dancers took home a first prize of $10 (currently $142). The advertisement declared that “a large number of old-time fiddlers who will take us back to the days of yore and make some of the present generation feel that their parents did not miss much enjoyment after all."
The same year, just up the road, in Winchester, R.H. Easterling played Big Taters in the Sandy Land which won first place while onlookers hummed to the old words, "Eat dat bacon and save de ham." Second place went to A.W. Reeves, who though creeping up in the years, was full of the spirit of the day and played Rocking the Cradle.
Every Texas fiddler attributes his or her interest in fiddling to Mr. Eck Robertson. In the 1920s, recorded country music was melodic string music (vocals, banjo and guitar out front with fiddle as background) with lyrics about the glory of God or disasters. Eck and Henry Gilliand (guitar) literally showed up at the door of RCA Victor Records and asked to be recorded. The story goes that they refused to leave until recorded. They recorded 16 commercial recordings in the years 1922 and 1929. The traditional songs Arkansas Traveler, Turkey in the Straw, Sallie Gooden, and Great Big Taters were huge sellers, which astounded RCA Victor, and have been designated as the beginnings of current country music. They have been performed countless times at contests and front-porch picking sessions. These 16 recordings effectively tell the history of old-time music in the 1920s and alerted record companies to the market for old-time fiddling music.
This was made locally evident in 1925 when Hajek’s Confectionary in Schulenburg announced that there were “Three New Old Time Fiddling” records for sale in the store.
The OTF popularity kept rolling through the decades. Austin being Austin, the paper was advertising a group of OTFiddlers (old-time fiddlers) who called themselves the Federal Moonshiners. This was during prohibition in 1931 and the band was sponsored by Federal Tires. Two years later, OTFiddlers played at Governor “Ma” Ferguson's inaugural reception.
A false alarm was sounded by a Houston paper in 1931 when they reported: “Today the modern tendency for jazz is crowding out the old time fiddler and dancers.” Their predication was obviously misguided for the following year, Texas newspapers reported that an old-time fiddler was run over by a drunk cowboy and the following year the Bryan paper reported the widow of an OTFiddler had passed away. They had been a vaudeville act.
The continuing awareness of the OTFiddler was evident when a Hearne humor columnist announced his run for governor in 1941 on the platform of lifetime pensions for OTFiddlers. When Gene Autry toured Texas in 1943, his opening act was a champion OTFiddler. A statewide contest for OTF was held on New Year’s Eve in 1948 in Houston, which was advertised in the Shiner paper.
Fiddling has always been in the Hallettsville (Hville) area. In 1892, two fiddlers from Hope gave a crowd a great show. In 1894, the local paper editorialized that it was “Hard to get $2.50 for the preacher, but easy to get $5.00 for a fiddler." Later the same editor commented that a group of prominent men were going fishing on the river for several days and a good OTFiddler could make some good money if he went along.
In 1896, the Speaks(ville) columnist in the Hville paper lamented the loss of their champion fiddler George Anderson as he has relocated to Smother’s Creek (just west of Hville); two years later, George was fiddling at a dance in Yoakum and was described as "whole souled and big hearted" (as are the fiddlers you will meet at the Frolics). In 1900, the Hville Fire Department put on a giant celebration that had an OTF contest (also a biggest foot and baldest head competition). The fiddler had to be over 50 years of age, and first prize was $6. The following year Yoakum sponsored a OTF contest.
In 1905 another Old Fiddler’s Contest was held in Hville during a multiday citywide trade fair. Local merchants donated over 40 prizes and the contest was held in the District Courtroom in the Courthouse. Will Henry of Koerth and Vol Butts of Salem won first places. Vol was 15 years old. Crockett Jones of Mustang Creek had a reputation of being the best fiddler in the area and had many a dance at his house. He came to this area when he was a youngster in 1853 and passed away in 1911.
It appears that every couple of years or more frequently an OTF contest was held within a small radius of Hville. The OTF contest has come to stay in Hallettsville.
READY. SET. FIDDLE.
The 2019 Fiddlers Frolics kicks off Friday evening, April 26 with the Anything Goes Fiddle Contest that is the trick fiddling division. It's also Cajun Fun Night with music by Chris Rybak, Keith Junot, Bonnie Riley, and Sean Orr.
The next morning at 9:30, the Accompanist Contest starts where Juniors (under 15) will compete but be ranked separately. At 11:30 the Senior Division (65+) will be held and it is open to both Texian and out-of-state fiddlers. At 1 pm the Texas State Championship begins, only Texas residents.
Saturday night, a dance will be held in the hall with Jade Patek (yes, of that Patek family), Casey Donahew, and Randall King. Now, while all of this is taking place inside the hall, outside will be various free shows with Keith Junot and Chris Rybak (with Sean Orr accompanying him) and dozens of impromptu jam sessions around the grounds.
On Sunday morning the Accompanying Guitarist competition begins. To clarify, a contest fiddler is not a soloist, but plays along with a rhythm guitarist. The guitarist sets the beat that the fiddler plays to, so if the guitarist makes a mistake it can cause the fiddler to lose. They are very important to the competition. BBQ Cookoff awards will be presented as well.
Later Sunday morning the newest three members to be inducted into the Hallettsville Hall of Fame - Marty Elmore, Shara Fryer, and Tom McDaniel - will be presented plaques for their continuing support of the Fiddlers Frolics. The afternoon will be crammed with the state fiddling championship playoffs culminating with a round-robin style fiddling showdown at 5 pm.
Area favorite, Joel Nava & The Nightriders, will perform Sunday with their brand of fun music on the outdoor stage, and the never-ending jam sessions.
So for a real taste of Texas head on down to Hallettsville for one heck of weekend. See ad, p. 4.