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

Appalachia

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

history.

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

influences.

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.

Although

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

Station

(off Route 31). Traditional folk bands and old-time bluegrass bands

from the tri-state area are featured at the location that has,

according

to Behrens, "a great space, wonderful acoustics, and wonderful

access." Partly funded through the Hunterdon County Cultural

Commission,

the coffeehouse is held on the third Saturday of the month, from

October

through April.

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

Pittstown,

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

Scott Krenitski.

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

Public

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

renovated.

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,

Behrens

also learned to clog. Finally she was encouraged to learn to play

bass, her first instrument, which, she noted, sort of made her a

live-in

backup musician.

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

communities,"

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

"The

Anthology of American Folk Music," Harry Smith’s landmark

compendium

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

technology

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

become

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

17th Annual Fiddle Contest, Howell Living History

Farm , Valley Road, off Route 29, Titusville, 609-737-3299. Farm

opens at

10 a.m., contest begins at noon. Carriage rides and lunch fare for

sale. Free admission. Saturday, August 25, noon.

For the complete calendar of events in central New Jersey, go

to

www.princetoninfo.com/us1evts.html


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