Saturday, May 9, 2009

Prairie Fire Fiddles Homestead Style

“I’ve come a long way to file claim to a parcel of land. If you could see your way clear to help me…” He explained his plight.

“You halft’ talk with Jim Bedford, he’s the assistant. Jamisons outta town. He’s the registrar.”

Where do I find this Jim Bedford?”

Strains of “Turkey in the Straw” yanked from the resilient gut of the bango strings competed with the zee-zwa-ing of the two fiddles to be heard.

-Daniel and Agnes Freeman
Homesteaders by Beverly S. Kaplan

Finding ways to introduce the world of the homesteaders to today’s society is a goal of Homestead National Monument of America. One way it does this is by hosting the Monumental Fiddling Championship and Acoustic Band Contest. The competition is geared for all ability levels. The day starts with a free workshop taught by Fiddling Champion Deborah Greenblatt.

Greenblatt is the first woman to win the Nebraska State Fiddling Championship, the first woman to win the Mid-America Fiddle Championship and is a member of the Mid-America Old-Time Fiddler’s Hall of Fame. She especially enjoys the jam sessions. “They inspire and entertain each other on stage and play nicely together in the many jam sessions that erupt all over the landscape,” said Greenblatt. The event is held outside the Homestead Education Center next to the tall grass prairie so musicians can play in an environment similar to that experienced by the first fiddlers in Nebraska.

One of last year’s judges was professional musician and director of bands at Beatrice High School Nathan LeFeber. As a classically trained musician he found the event unique. “Most unique were those fiddlers that were classically trained musicians that have recently gotten involved in fiddling. They had great technique but were working to acquire the right style,” said LeFeber.

The workshop and competition portions of the event are free to the fiddlers. “Fiddlers can get their score sheets with comments after they play which can help them focus their practice,” said Greenblatt. Last year’s event drew fiddlers with under a year of experience to those with many years of playing.

It also attracts families that enjoy fiddling together. Last year Carl Cook from Independence, Missouri, won the Senior Division and his daughter, Cecelia Cook, placed third in the Junior Division.

Following the morning workshop participants will break for lunch and prepare for the competition in the afternoon. It is also free for both participants and spectators. The one rule which makes this competition unique is that all songs must have been written between 1863, when the first homestead was filed, and 1936, when Homestead National Monument of America was established.

Why was fiddling popular with homesteaders? Some say the violin is for singing and the fiddle is for dancing, according to Greenblatt, and the best outlet for performing was probably for dances. For these occasions, simple folk and fiddle tunes work the best.

One definition of fiddling comes from left-handed fiddler Wilbur Foss and he offers another explanation for fiddling popularity among pioneers, “A violin is culture and a fiddle is agriculture.” Participants and spectators also enjoy the link with our country’s past--a tradition rooted in the simple, honest, hardworking lives of the first homesteaders.

The day ends with the announcement of winners. Trophies are given to the top three finishers in the Junior and Senior Division and an Acoustic Band Contest. The winner of a Tune Writing Competition which is held in conjunction with the Nebraska Chapter of the American String Teachers Association is also announced. And the best left-handed fiddler and the youngest fiddler are recognized.

Greenblatt finds the atmosphere at the Monumental Fiddling Championship and Acoustic Band Contest to be inviting and nurturing for all levels of musicians. LeFeber found it refreshing to see the wide variety of music that is made in this country.

It is a day for fiddlers of all ages and experience levels to come together much like they did when the first pioneers arrived in the 1800’s and began settling the prairie. The sounds of fiddlers were often heard whenever homesteaders got together and those same sounds will be heard on May 23, 2009, at the eleventh annual Monumental Fiddling Championship and Acoustic Band Contest.

Doris Martin is a part-time park ranger at Homestead National Monument of America and teaches a course on entertainment journalism at Beatrice High School. She is also the mother of a fiddler.

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