The Santa Barbara Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention quickly became a major event in the Southern California traditional music calendar. By its third year, 1974, we had close to 4,500 paid attendees. That we did so was due, in the main, to the tremendous response by the California music community who attended, participated, helped spread the word, and who volunteered to help prepare and staff the convention. Unlike pop music, which is specifically designed by its “industry” to generate large revenue streams, or the world of “classical” music, descended from art music supported by the church and royalty and evolving into receiving support from corporate largess, primitive and traditional “folk” musics are left mainly to find their own way through the world without financial backing. As mentioned in our previous column, our connection with the Department Of Arts & Lectures at UCSB was instrumental in establishing the convention on a solid basis. We set admission pricing to cover our costs: facilities, advertising, security, and professional staff, but intentionally kept ticket costs down to attract as many people as possible.
This was a labor of love to all participants, and we were spreading the word about a wonderful American musical form that was — and in some cases remains — little known to the average citizen. That the response was enthusiastic was heart-warming and reward enough to make it a worthwhile, yearly effort for us. It is ironic that, even with low admission prices, A&L did generate enough revenue to enable them to present extra classical music programs with old time fiddlers’ funding!
Our MCs and judging staff, working at a minimal honorarium, provided a lot of help to contestants, many of whom had not been on a stage in front of thousands before. Mary Katherine Aldin, music researcher, blues enthusiast, and radio programmer (KPFK) is still with the event to this day. Professor D.K. Wilgus, at UCLA Folklore MC’ed with a dry wit that added enjoyment to his vast storehouse of knowledge about the music being performed. D.K. was also very helpful in lining up participants and presenters in our weekend music lectures and workshops connected with the event. Local musician Todd Grant also did yeoman MC work when DK was unable to continue, and once earned a special award for “best legs”.
Our staff of judges, knowledgeable and sometimes long-suffering, were crucial to the success of the convention. John Zehnder, of McCabe’s Guitars in Santa Monica, acted as “Chief Justice” for many, many years. He was joined by Jack Aldrich, Carole Miller, Steve Parker, Linelle Glass, Peter Tinker, Michael Mendelson, — and more recently — Ross Landry and Harley Tarlitz . . . we had dozens of fine judges . . . I hope others can add more names in the “comments” section. I do recall we made an effort to provide the judges with good lunches, since we wanted to keep them in a good humor for the sake of the late afternoon contestants. Scoring was based on musicality, performance skills, timing, and also a demonstration of knowledge of the tradition from which the piece came. Early on, we established a rule that each contestant had a maximum of three minutes of time to play their piece, and that the tune or song chosen was at least fifty years old. This “fifty-year rule” was established, not to discriminate against bluegrass pieces (as some have claimed), but to avoid the danger of having the convention being taken over by singer/songwriters pushing their own material. Indeed, at the second annual event, I found a film crew setting up cameras and reflectors near the front of the stage — blocking the view of dozens of attendees. I inquired about their purpose in doing this and was told, very confidentially, that a Hollywood TV Starlet was going to appear later in the day to perform her own song against the backdrop of the convention to enable her to further her career. I told them that her career would have to look elsewhere and that their crew had ten minutes to remove their equipment or our own security staff would take care of it.
We worked with various sound companies to provide as good a public address system as possible. It was an especially demanding job for any sound person, since the performance lasted three minutes, and microphones had to be set very quickly between different contestant appearances with a minimum of fuss. Sound checks were not feasible, due to time limitations. I recall that Geoff Cooke was one of the first sound men we used, and that he did a commendable job under difficult circumstances. His concept made use of arrays of small, 4-inch speakers, at least 200 per cabinet, all linked in parallel.
Setup began around six in the morning, with the distribution of waste bins, stage decoration, the sound system speakers and control panel, and the setup of entryways and ticket tables. People began arriving by 7:30 in the morning, and jamming started forthwith. On one of the early years, we were joined by guitarist Rick Cunha and banjo player Doug Dillard, who hung around long enough to help set up the PA, then drifted off in a northerly direction, not to be seen until several months later. The competition began at 10 AM, and continued until a 30-minute lunch break at 12:30 — when an invited band performed. The contest then continued until 5:00 or 5:30.
Following that, an impromptu and ad hoc string band convened on stage and played for a square dance while the judges added their scores and decided on winners. Winners received small cash prizes, award ribbons and certificates. For the second annual competition, several potters from the UCSB Art Department fashioned stoneware jugs inscribed with the Fiddlers’ Convention logo, which were awarded to winners.
On a later year, I was able to acquire a pint of genuine East Tennessee White Lightning, which was awarded to the best fiddler. Special impromptu awards were designed on the spot by inspired judges, and given out on special occasions, such as the “Paganini Award”, given to Jim Sitterly for playing his favorite single note for three minutes.
After that last prize was awarded, we heaved a collective sigh, began stage breakdown, collected trash and headed for home, weary but full of fond memories.
Copyright 2011 by Peter Feldmann