By Miriam Raftery
Video, above: Open fiddling competition 2016 champion Shira Ellison in her winning performance
May 2, 2017 (Julian) -- Each year, the town of Julian comes alive with the sounds of music—fiddle music, along with banjos, guitars, mandolins and mountain dulcimers at the annual Julian Fiddle and Pickin’ Contest.
This year’s event will be held on Saturday, May 20th at the Julian Town Hall, plus on Friday night a Texas-style fiddle workshop will be led by two-time national grand fiddle champion Matthew Hartz. (For details and a schedule visit www.SanDiegoFiddler.org)
Recently we’re seeing a revival of interest in the art of fiddling and more broadly, a Renaissance in traditional music both regionally and nationally.
Avery Ellisman is the district representative from the California State Old Time Fiddlers Association, which started 40 years ago. Locally, there are now around 60 members, on a mission to enhance appreciation for and involvement in old time fiddling.
He says there’s been a “huge bump in sales of acoustic instruments nationally,” according to the National Association of Music Manufacturers. Locally, two major musical instrument manufacturers, Taylor Guitar and Deering Banjo, are both adding staff. Baby boomers have the money and the time to rediscover the joys of just fiddling around—a pastime that evokes bygone days when life was simpler and the pace of living was slower, with time to listen, learn, and make some music of your own.
Ellisman says of fiddling, “This is the music of the people,” he adding, “One person sits with and teaches another. “ Fiddling is most prevalent in rural areas, also a popular pastime to while away time during inclement weather. It’s what people did for entertainment long before the advent of radio, TV or the Internet, he notes.
“I consider music to be one of the highest forms of human celebration—a celebration of life,” says Ellisman. “ Fiddle music is infectious in a very positive way. The world needs more of that.” Though played on the same instrument as a violin, he adds, “Fiddle music calls you to dance.”
Julian’s Old Time Fiddle and Pickin’ Contest has its roots in a Julian banjo and fiddle competition that started over 60 years ago in this restored gold rush town, a national historical site. For many years, it was run by the Julian Lions Club. But as the club’s membership aged, interest in hosting competitions waned. The focus shifted to entertainment, and eventually the event dwindled.
Ellisman runs the Julian Family Fiddle Camp each spring to teach fiddling skills to the next generation. So he asked the Lions to partner with his group and the state Old Time Fiddlers Association, but the Lions declined. So Ellisman turned to the community, asking the Chamber and local merchants to support a new and revitalized competition.
The community agreed and the competition has grown ever since. It’s now a two-day event, encouraging visitors to spend the night and help boost Julian’s local economy. Ellisman calls Julian the “jewel” of East County, noting that the event draws people from across the west and as far away as Alaska.
The first Julian Fiddle and Pickin’ Contest was held in 2014. Fiddling refers to bowed instruments, while picking is for unbowed instruments such as the guitar, mandolin, banjo and mountain dulcimer.
Ellisman notes proudly, “We have kids from age 6 up to age 86, and they’re playing together. It’s a wonderful way to bridge the generations.”
Before, Julian’s events were not traditional fiddle contests. Now they are. Each competitor must perform three elements, a hoedown, a waltz, and a piece of the musician’s choice, such as a jig, a polka, or something else.
Competitors can compete in age-based categories, or in an open competition that any age can enter. The open competition is considered a “premier” event, with bragging rights for winners who beat all comers.
At the 2016 competition, Ellisman’s 16-year-old daughter, Shira Ellisman, competed for the first time in the open competition category.
Early in the day, youngsters competed. Then in the afternoon, the open picking competition was held, followed by the open fiddling division.
Announcer Dwight Wordon explained that the history of fiddling goes back to the 1700s in America. “Thomas Jefferson was an avid fiddler,” he said. “Fiddling gained popularity in the 1900s thanks to Henry Ford, who liked fiddling so much he had fiddle competitions in all of his dealerships.”
But then fiddling events shifted to “hokum” and show fests, with people playing fiddles behind their heads or beating on instruments with brooms straws. More recently, the pendulum has shifted back to the traditional fiddling styles that popularized the genre to begin with.
In the 1950s, a major competition in Idaho put the focus back on musicianship and the birth of the modern fiddle competition was born . All three pieces must be played within four minutes – and no “hokum” is allowed.
Shira Ellisman opened up the open fiddling competition, playing Sally Johnson for her hoedown entry, followed by Morning Star Waltz and Don’t Let Your Gal Go Down.
The local teenager’s teacher is Luke Price, a graduate of Berkeley School of Music who is also a two-time winner of the National Fiddle Championship.
After Shira completed two more pieces, the announcer exclaimed, “She’s got a future ahead of her!”
The competitive was stiff, with many other talented performers. After the contest, three of the fiddle judges performed: Matthew Hartz and Luke Price, both multiple national fiddle competition winners, and Mable Voght from Idaho.
Hartz told the crowd, “I’m excited to be here and come before a group that’s so supportive. For us to carry this music and artform forward, we need your support,” he added, as some in the crowd offered up donations or purchased CDs.
Hartz performed Festival Waltz and Shuck in the Bush, to a wildly enthusiastic crowd. View Hartz, dual national champion, in action in video below.
Finally the announcement of the awards winners came. First the junior winners were announced. Then the open competitiors. Tom Dillon of La Mesa, who plays with a bluegrass band, took first place in the open picking category.
Then the open fiddling winner was announced – and Shira Ellison claimed the prize, beaming from ear to ear.
Afterwards her teacher, Luke Price, shared with us how he first got interested in music. “My Dad started me on guitar and banjo at three years old,” he said, in between signing autographs from his fans. “I started classical violin at age eight. It took me two years before I started exploring the fiddle genre.”
He’s come a long way since then, passing along the skills and joy of old-time fiddling to a new generation including Shira Ellson, as she commences her own musical journey.
You can learn fiddling and picking skills locally by signing up through http://www.familyfiddlecamp.com/, and listen to the talented local and national competitors at the next Julian Fiddle and Pickin’ Contest by visiting www.SanDiegoFiddler.org.