Long before downloadable MP3s, when music files consisted of wax-covered tubes played on a hand-cranked Victrola that only the wealthy could afford, people relied on live music exclusively for entertainment. A Saturday evening dance helped them forget all of the stress and struggles of the work week. Immigrants from Europe also relied on folk music from their mother countries to help them emotionally escape from the trials of trying to become Americans. Fiddlers were the most popular of the musicians, as they could bring their instrument into homes as well as dance halls and perform for little pay, sometimes for just a meal or libations.
Cross-cultural interaction helped to create unique styles of European music around the United States. Michigan was no exception. "Fiddling from the Scandinavian immigrants in the Upper Peninsula, along with multiple-background immigrants in the Lower Peninsula, all from the turn of the last century, used primarily for dance music, is what was to become Michigan old-time fiddling" says Jim McKinney, director of the Michigan State Championship Old-Time Fiddlers Contest. Every year in early October, fans gather in New Boston to witness some of the best musical purveyors of this style of fiddle playing. Unlike bluegrass, country, or jazz fiddle, flash and speed are frowned upon, with musical emphasis being a steady rhythm and staying close to the melody. This is in order to successfully perform for the dancing audience. In essence, one is proving to be a group leader rather than shine as a solo artist.
McKinney is a tireless promoter of old-time fiddle playing. He's published two books on the music format, and currently performs with the Golden Griffin Stringtet, a local old-time string band. He began competing in 1996, and soon took over as director. He continually works to ensure that the contest showcases this style of music in the best light and does not stray from the form.
One of McKinney's biggest achievements was to secure judges that were experts in the field. "When I was competing, the judges were the director's family members or friends, or the guitar player from a local country-rock band. It seemed like an afterthought. They didn't know anything about fiddling, just judge on what the audience would like the best. When I took over, I made sure to hire judges that knew about fiddling and how it was used for dancing. People like Steve Williams from the Port Huron Historical Museum, traditional dance-caller Glen Morningstar, and previous contest winners."
This commitment helps to make certain that the contestants are adhering to the style of old-time fiddling. "We used to have conservatory-trained classical and jazz violin players come in to compete. They would play the pants off of improvisations. One performer who won the contest five times was classically trained since the age of 3 and would play a jazz version of 'Lady Be Good.' I'm not taking anything away from his playing, he was extremely good, but it was not what the old-time fiddling contest was about. You can't dance to it, and I wanted to put on a contest that the older fiddlers who perform this music would respect."
A continuing struggle for McKinney and the contest in general is finding new competitors as well as an audience outside of the current fan base. While he contacts state and local school music programs, music stores, and folk, bluegrass, and fiddle associations, his participant list remains relatively low. "In the years that I have overseen the contest, we've had as many as 18 contestants, and as few as two. Six is about the average that we get." As the contest coincides with New Boston's Applefest, much of the spectator traffic is festival attendees who saunter in and watch for a few minutes rather than fully appreciate the performances. There are no scheduled dance activities or demonstrations along with the contest, so someone observing for the first time might not realize why the fiddlers are playing this particular style. "That's where the real understanding comes from. When you get out on the dance floor and try to move to the music, that can tell you how a good fiddle player makes the difference."
Contestants are required to perform four songs: a waltz, a schottische, a jig, and a reel. They are judged on timing, clarity, phrasing, and knowledge of repertoire. While one would think that the contestants would be literal old-timers dusting off their back catalogs, many of the competitors are middle- and high-school students branching out from their structured musical academics. This can be bittersweet, as McKinney relates: "These younger players will show up to compete once, maybe return once or twice the following years, then disappear. It's probably due to going off to college, but then they don't return afterward."
McKinney's son Tommy, who is also a member of the Golden Griffin Stringtet, has competed a number of times, and has come in first place twice (three-time winners are not allowed to further compete). Along with this contest, in 2011 Tommy won the Green Parrot Old-Time Fiddlers Contest held in Key West, Fla. "The fiddle contest was the first time I ever went on a stage, by myself, completely on my own, to play in front of a large group of people. Each of my performances has benefited from the one before it. The contest also helps me remember the appropriate style or tempo of a tune. If I need to remember how a tune is to be played, I think 'How would I play this at the fiddle contest?'"
As a competitor, what are some of the biggest challenges? For Tommy: "Definitely staying focused on stage. When I'm playing for a dance, I frequently let my mind wander and I can add my own embellishments to songs and be very free in my playing. And when I'm playing for an event where there are no dancers, I frequently allow the tempo of my playing to change too, to experiment and try to find something that sounds good. During the contest, however, I have to make sure to play everything the way the judges want to hear it — the way I would play for an old-time dance. Doing this can be difficult, because I'm so accustomed to really putting a lot of myself into my playing, and many of my embellishments would not be considered 'old-timey.'"
While styles of popular music come and go with each generation, old-time fiddle music and subsequent American folk traditional dance music has always had a core audience. Henry Ford was a huge fan of the music, so much so that he built a hall at Greenfield Village specifically for the purpose of dancing to it (the floor angles very slightly outward so that dancers will flow to the outer area naturally). Yet in this day and age of computerized instant gratification, it is a continuing struggle for McKinney and other promoters of old-time fiddling to find appreciation among the masses. He promises that the performers will showcase a music that was extremely important to a maturing Michigan culture over a century ago. "We keep getting calls for fiddlers to perform at weddings, graduation parties, and family reunions, so there is a growing interest in this type of music. A hundred years ago, in Michigan, if you were a fiddle player, you played for dancing. I'm just trying to keep that alive."
The 29th Annual Michigan State Championship Old-Time Fiddlers Contest will be held Saturday, Oct. 4, at the Huron Applefest, 37296 Huron River Dr., New Boston. The competition begins at noon, admission is free. See huronapplefest.com/fiddlers-contest for more details. — mt