Bluegrass enthusiasts to gather in celebration of their favorite musical instrument
By Benjamin Pearson 06/14/2012
Old-timey fiddle music isn’t one of the first things most people associate with Ventura County, but this Saturday in Camarillo’s Constitution Park, fiddle fans and novices alike will be immersed in the area’s surprisingly rich fiddle culture, which will be on full display. The Old Time Fiddlers Association Third Annual Fiddle Festival will boast a half-dozen local bands, workshops, jam circles, arts and crafts and, for the first time, an all-ages fiddle contest.
About 40 fiddlers ranging in age from 6 to 73 years-old will compete in three categories for the contest’s cash prizes: hoedowns, waltzes and a style of their choice. The competition rekindles an annual tradition that, years ago, formed part of the Ventura County Fair, but fiddle contests in general are a tradition that predates the founding of the country. The first documented contest dates back to 1736, and by 1926 the events were so popular that Henry Ford hosted them at his car dealerships. According to Wayne Agnew, the president of the California Old Time Fiddlers Association, the lucky winner received “a new Lincoln, a thousand dollars, a new set of clothes, and Henry Ford personally paid to have his teeth fixed.”
Agnew grew up in Oklahoma, where there was always a fiddle contest at the local fair and where “everybody had a fiddle in the family.” He claims he’s not alone in bringing the fiddle — and his love of it — with him when he moved to the area. “My parents and the parents of a lot of people locally came from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and they migrated out here, a lot of them during the war years since Ventura was an important place, and still is, for the Navy and Seabees.”
While over the years old-time fiddle music has become less popular, he says, “It’s still ingrained in the people. It’s amazing how the older generation hears it, knows it, feels it and associates with it. There is a big gap between them and today’s world, where a lot of young people haven’t heard that music.”
That’s one reason the local division (founded in 1974) of the statewide California Old Time Fiddlers Association puts on the event. “One of our goals is to transfer that knowledge of old-time fiddle culture to the younger generation,” says Agnew.
Audiences at the Fiddle Festival will see many younger fiddlers take the stage. But even young people who know how to play the instrument as a hobby don’t necessarily share the older generation’s understanding of fiddle culture and community. “They’re learning it more as individuals. And a lot of them will learn to play on their own, but are never exposed to playing with another instrument except their teacher’s. But to play with two or three instruments, or with singing? There’s no place they can go to learn that in a class.”
Taking fiddle classes also means most students learn songs from sheet music, which can’t teach the improvisational skills and musical teamwork required to play in a group. “I play fiddle myself,” says Agnew, “and I usually learn it by sheet music, but when I back somebody up, I play by ear. And the younger generation doesn’t necessarily know how to do that.”
Of course, Agnew says, older players have plenty to learn from their younger counterparts, too. “There is a problem in a lot of cases that the older generation is set in the way they do things and they don’t embrace the young students to come and play with them. It’s more like, you come and play for me instead of a culture of let’s let the kids play and let’s us play their song. And that’s one of our big problems that locally we haven’t been able to resolve. We’re trying, through the Fiddle Festival, to give the kids their own place, their own thing.”
The Old Time Fiddlers Association Third Annual Fiddle Festival, Saturday, June 16, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Constitution Park, 600 Carmen Drive, Camarillo. The event will feature workshops, music jams, arts and crafts and food. Performers include Phil Salazar, Restless Hillfillies and Silverstrand Bluegrass. For more information, visit www.cafiddlers.com.