Corrections or additions?
This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the August 22, 2001
edition of U.S.
1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Fiddlin’ at Howell Farm
You don’t have to be born in an Appalachian holler
to love old-time fiddle music. You don’t even have to be born in
to make old-time fiddle music. This axiom will be abundantly clear
at the Hunterdon Folk Exchange’s 17th Annual Fiddle Contest, presented
at Howell Living History Farm on Saturday, August 25.
This is the fourth year that New Jersey’s largest and longest running
traditional fiddle contest has been held at the Howell Farm, a natural
home for the instrument favored for rural dances and social gatherings
in mountains, valleys, and plains for much of the nation’s early
America’s home-grown fiddle sound may have begun with the Scotch-Irish
settlers, but has drawn into it a myriad of regional, folk, and ethnic
Carol Behrens of the Hunterdon Folk Exchange, who coordinates the
annual event, says the fiddle contest was founded in 1991 but still
has a ways to go before its 20th anniversary year. "We skipped
a year or two since 1991," she says.
The contest was originally held in a church in Flemington and has
traveled to various other spots since that time. It made its Howell
Farm debut in 1998 during the first Amazing Maize Maze celebration
and fundraiser. The maze itself took the form of a fiddle that year,
and the Folk Exchange was recruited to help celebrate the event.
the fiddle contest had previously taken place during the late winter
months, when folk festivals and fiddle contests were not as numerous,
it proved a wonderful setting and a comfortable match, says Behrens.
The Howell Farm challenge, she says, was to find a magic weekend when
musicians, audience, and the crops are all available.
"The first year we were out at the maze, but since then we’ve
moved to the main farmhouse grounds," she says. "The music
stage is a flatbed wagon that is brought in by a pair of horses on
the morning of the contest. Listeners bring their own lawn chairs
and blankets, and the Folk Exchange provides the sound system."
The Hunterdon Folk Exchange has been around for at least 20 years.
It has a small working membership and a mailing list of about 300
participating families. The organization also hosts the monthly Cat
‘n Fiddle Coffeehouse at the lodge at Echo Hill Park in Stanton
(off Route 31). Traditional folk bands and old-time bluegrass bands
from the tri-state area are featured at the location that has,
to Behrens, "a great space, wonderful acoustics, and wonderful
access." Partly funded through the Hunterdon County Cultural
the coffeehouse is held on the third Saturday of the month, from
Twenty-five fiddlers are expected to compete for cash prizes during
the contest which is open to old-time style fiddlers of all ages and
levels of musicianship. Contestants are grouped by age from children
to adult, and each fiddler performs two old-time tunes of varying
tempos with up to two accompanying musicians.
This year’s entrants will include six-year-old Laura Freiwald of
New Jersey, who will be backed up on guitar by Dennis Freiwald (her
dad, who’s both a fiddler and one of her fiddle teachers). A team
of three fiddling judges are charged with selecting the best fiddlers.
Last year’s winners were Steve Uhrik, Lew Gelfond, Ron McVey, and
Opening the fiddle contest at noon will be Behrens’ own band, the
Jugtown Mountain String Band. The traditional old-time acoustic string
foursome features Behrens on upright acoustic bass, Greg Myers on
fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mandolin, Chuck Winch on banjo and guitar,
and Curt Roseman on mandolin. Also entertaining during the day will
be the Chuck Winch and Lisa Wilkins duo and the Golden Age Retrievers,
an old-time trio.
Born a city girl in Jersey City, Behrens is a long-time resident of
rural Clinton. She is an elementary classroom teacher at Clinton
School. The Jugtown Mountain String Band was founded in 1991 by the
late Bill Huber, a fiddle player and Behrens’ partner of 18 years,
who died two years ago. The couple named the band for their home near
Jugtown Mountain, west of Clinton, an old hotel they bought and
Behrens says she met Bill at a student violin recital
— his own — when he had just begun to learn the instrument.
Over the years, as he became an accomplished old-style fiddler,
also learned to clog. Finally she was encouraged to learn to play
bass, her first instrument, which, she noted, sort of made her a
Old-time fiddling traces its roots to the first settlers who arrived
in the Appalachian mountains with their instruments and developed
their own style, largely in isolation. "People didn’t travel much
in those days, but they passed their style on in their own
says Behrens. "You’d find many different regional styles, even
county styles." Right now, fiddle music and Appalachian roots
music in general is enjoying unusual attention thanks to the Coen
Brothers’ musical movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Released
last year, the movie did relatively well at the box office, but the
soundtrack CD is currently enjoying, more than six months after its
release, the number one ranking in sales at Amazon.com.
The new awareness of this traditional music began in 1952 with
Anthology of American Folk Music," Harry Smith’s landmark
of recordings released on Folkways Records. The anthology introduced
the nation to regional performers of the 1920s and ’30s, musicians
who were playing tunes that hearkened back centuries to the country’s
original settlers and their forebears.
"The Anthology" comprises 84 pieces, hunted out and culled
from Smith’s vast collection of 78 r.p.m. discs. It became, in the
words of folk veteran Dave Van Ronk, the bible of every ’50s folk
musician, who has said, "We all knew every word of every song
on it, including the ones we hated." The six-LP set, credited
as the inspiration behind the ’60s folk revival, was re-issued in
CD format by Smithsonian Folkways in 1997.
Smith selected only records made between 1927, when recording
made accurate reproduction possible, and 1932, when the Depression
put a halt to folk music sales. As Greil Marcus observes, "He
wanted music to which people really had responds; records put on sale
that at least somebody thought worth paying for."
Hoyt Ming, Eck Robertson, Andrew Baxter, Uncle Bunt Stephens, and
Prince Albert Hunt are among the old-time fiddlers who may not have
been immortalized by their record labels, but who literally have
immortal as a result of Smith’s inspired effort. Behrens says most
of today’s old-style fiddlers have learned more than a tune or two
from Smith’s "Anthology."
At Howell Farm the fiddle contest ends with a grand finale in which
all the musicians are invited back onto the stage. Behrens expects
that’s the time they’ll play "Soldier’s Joy" and "Ragtime
Annie" — two tunes, she says, that every fiddle player knows.
— Nicole Plett
Farm , Valley Road, off Route 29, Titusville, 609-737-3299. Farm
10 a.m., contest begins at noon. Carriage rides and lunch fare for
sale. Free admission. Saturday, August 25, noon.
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