Author: Daniel, Bert

What is a Fiddle Festival?

OK guys, here it is. I'm stuck here writing this Sunday column, (my second for the month since there happens to be an extra Sunday this month). You're more than welcome to read it, but if I were you, I'd high tail it up to Cloverdale and catch the second day of the Cloverdale Fiddle festival.. That's where I'm gonna be (I'm no fool I'll write this ahead of time), listening to bands like Blue and Lonesome, The Brothers Comatose, The Cloverdale Festival Judges, The West County Professional Tea Sippers and pick up bands featuring some of the best fiddlers you've ever heard. Contestants compete in Old Time, Texas Style, Waltz and Twin Fiddle and you can browse the booths or jam if you get bored with any of that.

For years now I've looked forward to the Cloverdale Fiddle Festival, on the last weekend in January, to lift me a bit from the doldrums of winter and bring the promise of another year's music season. It's always my first music event of the season, (except for this year when I took some days off to go down for the fun at Bakersfield's 48 hour jam!).

This year's Cloverdale Fiddle Festival almost didn't happen. I picked up the local paper one day and read with sadness that the board of directors of the Cloverdale Historical Society had decided to cancel the festival after 35 years due to a lack of interest and financial losses. I don't know exactly what happened, but at the last minute some key people and key sponsors obviously stepped up to the plate, in uncertain times, to keep this tradition going. Thank you all.

I attended my first Cloverdale Fiddle Festival five years ago and I haven't missed one since. My company's annual meeting is always the same weekend in January, and as a department head, I really ought to go. But that would mean driving an extra thirty miles and missing some great music. On a Saturday, no less!

I don't worry about the company meeting issue much anymore. To make absolutely sure that I could attend my second Cloverdale Fiddle Festival, I did something I'm shamed to admit in retrospect. I actually forced my kid to unwillingly enter as a contestant in the Pee Wee fiddle competition. Pee Wee is the contest division for the very youngest group of kids. I'd noticed the year before that my son Ethan could have played fiddle well enough to produce three memorized tunes and actually get a prize. That's because they always give an award to the youngest fiddler (and oldest fiddler). He would have been way the youngest that first year and I was pretty sure he would still be the youngest, so what the heck? A kid that young would have to be thrilled with any sort of prize, right?

Well, my idea worked and it didn't work. I had a solid excuse for missing the company meeting (that's the part that worked). But what didn't work so well was that my kid had had a fun time at the first festival, and he had a miserable time at the second. Not only did he now have the pressure of competing, he had the worst accompanist money couldn't buy, ME! I was terrible and he was pretty good for a six year old but not nearly as good as some of the kids competing. Kids come from all over California and beyond to compete in this thing. When the scores went up, we went over to read them and Ethan was pretty devastated. The point differences were small but I could't hide the fact that his score was dead last.

Well I've loosened up since that negative parental experience. Why not just go to a fiddle festival for the fun of it? I don't pressure Ethan to enter any more contests and he doesn't even have to go with me to the festival for that matter. I'm glad he still mostly does, but if goes and he wants to kill some boredom by playing his portable computer games while I listen to music, that's fine. At least he was there last year to hear our CBA buddy Tim Elson take first place in his division!

Let's face it. With the near demise of the venerable Cloverdale Fiddle Festival this year, we need all the fans we can get. How can we get more? (Don't ask me, I'm probably going every year anyway. It's fifteen miles from home and I love all of that music).

I do have one idea about what our local festival should be. Oddly enough, my idea comes from a former member of a jazz-fusion band I heard live many times in the late 70's. I was in school in Charleston, S.C and a band called the Dixie Dregs just blew me away. They had a guitar player named Steve Morse who was incredible and other great musicians in and out like Chuck Leavell, from the Allman Brothers Band. I'm lucky I still have my hearing (or some of it) after hearing that band in so many small venues.

Well one of the guys who eventually played with that band was a fellow named Mark O'Connor. I'm sure many of you have heard of Mark O'Connor. If there's a guy who epitomizes contest fiddling, it's got to be Mark O'Connor. He won almost everything every year during the years he was competing at the Weiser, Idaho Fiddle Contest. Many fiddle contests today are patterned after that very successful Weiser contest.

Here's what Mark says about the Weiser contest: "They put in a timer when I started entering the Open. There's a four minute time limit, so there's no clapping between songs, and that's weird. You've got to go right into the waltz. It's a nerve-wracking experience. [the time limit] was a big source of controversy."

The fact that there is a respected fiddle contest in Cloverdale fortunately brings some outstanding musicians year after year. I'm glad for that. But the contests format doesn't really produce the best music. A lot of the best playing can be heard outside the auditorium where the top fiddlers cut loose in impromptu jam sessions. I wish they could be all given more room to show their stuff. Perhaps after an elimination round and then the top fiddlers get to stretch their wings a bit more . And who wants to be "shushed" when they want to applaud a good performance. In other words, more emphasis on festival and less on contest, at least on confined contest.

We need to support our festivals and offer our opinions about how to keep this important music vibrant. The Cloverdale Fiddle Festival has been an important part of the north bay traditional music scene for many years. I hope it will continue to be a beacon every January for years to come and I hope to see you there!
Posted:  1/30/2011

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