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Written by Jim McKinney
The Michigan State Championship Old-Time Fiddlers Contest was first held in October 1985 in Huron Township, Michigan as part of the Huron Township Applefest, a small community-based festival designed to bring folks (and dollars) into Huron Township and to promote the local orchards.
In 1997, a Certificate of Special Recognition was obtained from Governor John Engler?s office, recognizing the fiddle contest?s value to the Detroit downriver area and recognizing that the fiddle contest awards the title of State Champion to the winner. This Certificate of Special Recognition has been re-issued and signed by every governor since then.
The original rules of the contest required each contestant to play a waltz, a hoedown and a tune of choice. Judges were seated in the audience or facing the contestants at a table in front of the stage. The winners the first year were a trio of brothers from the Bowling Green, Ohio area: Wallace DePue, Jr., Alex DePue and Jason DePue. This information comes from a 1985 newspaper article. Records of winners and the tunes they played weren?t kept at that time.
I was a competitor in the Michigan State Championship Old-Time Fiddlers Contest from 1995 to 2005. During that time the contest saw as many as 18 contestants in one year and as few as three.
The fiddle contest has undergone some changes since I volunteered to serve as director in 2006. For my first five years as a competitor, the same fellow won every year and his students were second and third place. The winner was a very highly trained classical musician who started playing at three years old. He was very talented but it always bothered me that tune selections like Lady Be Good and pentatonic improvisations that abandoned the melody weren't consistent with what I imagined old-time fiddling should sound like. I was also bothered that judges were often chosen at the last minute just because they were handy; usually friends and family members of the contest director. One year the judges were the guitar and bass players from a local country-rock bar-band. I can only recall one year when the judges were actually fiddlers or someone with any knowledge or experience with any kind of fiddling.
When the opportunity to direct the contest came up, I decided that I would volunteer and try to re-shape the contest to live up to its title; old-time fiddling that actually had something to do with the state of Michigan. I haven't competed in the contest since 2005.
The difficulty of defining a Michigan "style" was immediately apparent. There are no particular ornaments or bow strokes that say ?Michigan? to a listener and the issue is further complicated by the influence of other cultures that are so common throughout the state. I was aware of New York, Canadian, southern and immigrant influences in the state but couldn't come up with a definition that could incorporate all of them. From my research and experience, the only common thread I could identify was the use of fiddling to accompany dancing. With that as my guideline, I decided that I could define a contest that Les Raber or Ray Shepherd or Bob Murphy or even Ed Lauluma could stand a chance of winning.
I made an executive decision. Even though some Michigan fiddle cultures included solo step dancing, most, if not every culture also included square and round dances. I decided that a contest that displayed a fiddler?s ability to play for square and round dancing could be broad enough to be fair to a fiddler from any tradition in the state and still be specific enough to demonstrate "the way we do things in Michigan."
I tried to create thoughtful definitions of what constitutes good square and round dance music. I changed the tune requirements from waltz, hoedown and tune of choice to waltz, schottische, jig and reel. I decided to use knowledgeable judges in a blind format so that contestants would be judged solely on the sound of their fiddling rather than on any aspect of their appearance. I added criteria awarding points to contestants who played tunes from the repertoires of Michigan?s old-time fiddlers. With these changes, I believed I could create a contest that would give fiddlers from any Michigan tradition an even chance of competing with each other. I also believed that by placing the emphasis on dance experience, I could remove school training from the equation or at least create a more level playing field for a self-taught fiddler who had only the training of their particular tradition. It would be up to the judges to decide whether a Norwegian-influenced fiddler from the Upper Peninsula did a better job at playing their style of dance music than a Henry Ford-influenced quadrille player from the Lower Peninsula did at theirs. Influences from modern recordings of fiddlers from all over the world wouldn't make the judges' job any easier but I felt it would still make a better "Michigan" oriented contest than what we had.
To further promote the Michigan old-time aspect, every contestant since 2006 has been given a book or recording that promotes Michigan fiddling. Michigan Jamboree, An Island of Fiddlers, the Come Dance With Me book and CDs and books of Stewart Carmichael and Clifford Sparks tunes have all been gifts for the contestants.
Since 2006, the fiddle contest has seen as many as 12 contestants in one year and as few as two. Some of the low attendance is due to the time of year the contest is held. It is always the first Saturday in October and it is always held out of doors. Cool weather, mist, rain and even snow are not conducive to enjoyable fiddling and it is believed that some fiddlers choose to stay warm and dry rather than expose their fingers and their instruments to the elements for a chance at the title of State Champion.
The Michigan State Championship Old-Time Fiddlers Contest at the Huron Township Applefest continues to promote the art of traditional fiddling and the unique musical heritage of the State of Michigan. Every year, I get phone calls and email from people wanting to know where to find a schottische. Every year, I send out the same list of tune names, repertoire books and recordings. Some of those folks never come to the contest, but some of them come back year after year, learning, practicing and improving, sharing the tunes they?ve worked on with others. Hopefully, this practice and this event will continue for years to come.
Jim McKinney, Director
Michigan State Championship Old-Time Fiddlers Contest
at the Huron Township Applefest
New Boston, Michigan