Fiddler and Fiddlers' Conventions

The fiddle is a four-string, bowed instrument-most often a violin, though resourceful musicians have fashioned facsimiles from cigar boxes and tin cans-upon which are played a variety of folk melodies, primarily for dancing. Some people argue that the fiddle has one string more than the violin-the one used to hang it on the wall. Because of its portability, its common use as dance accompaniment, and its folk heritage extending back to the 18th century in the British Isles and western Europe, the fiddle quickly assumed a role as the primary folk musical instrument of settlers in the New World. In the 19th and early 20th centuries southern fiddlers exhibited subregional variation according to such characteristics as bowing patterns, bowing method, fiddle placement, tunings, repertoire, tune titles, tune texts, tune structure, and instrumental accompaniment. The predominant tune forms in southern fiddling are variously referred to as reels, breakdowns, or hoedowns and are played in double meter to accompany dancing. Southern fiddlers also perform rags, waltzes, blues, and hornpipes, though these forms are less common.

In the second half of the 20th century improved travel conditions, the radio, the phonograph, and the proliferation of fiddle contests whose judges adhere to rigid aesthetic standards have blunted the more pronounced regional distinctions that once characterized southern fiddling. However, the broad stylistic designations of Appalachian or Blue Ridge (further subdivided into Galax, North Georgia, and others) Deep South (including the unique Mississippi fiddle bands, which show an apparent black influence), Ozark, Cajun, and Southwestern (sometimes referred to as "contest" style fiddling for its emphasis on ornate improvisation and precise execution) still have relevance.

Fiddlers' conventions, at which the central event is usually a competition or "contest," have become a primary performance outlet for contemporary fiddlers. As early as 1736, in Hanover County, Va., southern fiddlers competed against one another for prizes and prestige. The most famous contests were held in Atlanta; Union Grove, N.C.; and Knoxville. In the early part of this century Henry Ford sponsored a series of competitions to determine a national champion through his automobile dealerships. Ford felt that fiddlers and fiddle music embodied the moral, conservative values he wanted his contests to inspire in those who attended them. Today every fiddler in the South lives within easy distance of several of the numerous conventions sponsored by communities, civic groups, state agencies, local businesses, and regional and local fiddlers' associations.

Jay Orr
Country Music Foundation
Nashville, Tennessee


From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOUTHERN CULTURE, edited by William Ferris and Charles Reagan Wilson. Copyright 1989 by the
University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

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