Fiddlin' in the Park

One of the longest-running old-time fiddle contests in the country honors one of its own this weekend.

With the success of the soundtrack album from the Coen Brother's film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", old-time music has gotten renewed national attention. Tucson has one of the longest-running old-time fiddling contests in the country.

Ray Blumenstetter will be honored during this year's 62nd Fiddler's Contest on Sunday, February 17, at Reid Park. Blumenstetter is not so much being honored for his fiddling but what he's done for the Southern Arizona Old-time Fiddlers Association. But having said that, this 79-year-old will also be taking the occasion to make his debut as a contest fiddler.

"This is the longest-running fiddle contest that we know of, especially in the West," said long-time fiddle enthusiast Bob Renney of the contest that began in the 1940's. It's the oldest such competition in the state.

Renney, a past president of the Old-time Fiddlers, has been frequenting the contests since it was held at its first site, downtown at Tucson's Armory Park, and he fondly remembers the days as being held in conjunction with a big-beard contest. "You'd go down and sign up (in advance) with a clean face and at the contest whoever had the longest beard would be declared the winner and get a hundred dollars. Then you'd have to shave it off."

But the fiddling contest lost its sponsorship; to preserve the contest, the City of Tucson's Parks and Recreation Department took it over. Parks and Rec moved the contest to Reid Park and appealed to the Southern Arizona Old-time Fiddlers Association for assistance in organizing the contest.

But by 1991 the Old-time Fiddlers' play dates were few and their meetings were limited to a potluck once a month.

Blumenstetter remembers joining then because the Fiddlers Contest had reunited him with an old friend. "One day I went down to the Fiddle Contest in Reid Park, and lo and behold, there's Jim up on stage playing the fiddle. . . . He invited me out to his house and says, 'Our club is having a potluck out there this weekend, why don't you come on out?' So I went out there. I played harmonica and guitar at that time. I says, 'You mind if I go out and get my harmonica and play with you?' He says, 'Hell I didn't know you played the harmonica.' I says, 'Well I didn't know you played the fiddle.'"

Shortly after joining the club, Blumenstetter was nominated as its president. The nomination prompted him to think, "Well, if I'm gonna be president of Old-time Fiddlers, I better learn how the heck to play the fiddle."

As Blumenstetter's first order of business, the Old-time Fiddlers secured a hall for jam sessions at the Southwest Community Center that Blumenstetter wasn't sure they could afford. But within the first two years the hall's exposure allowed the Old-time Fiddlers to double their membership. "And the treasury," said Blumenstetter, "just went out of sight." The money from the increased memberships allowed the Fiddlers to triple the prize money for the Fiddle Contest and the jam sessions became public performances.

Blumenstetter served four terms as president of the club and always felt, "I had enough to do without getting up on stage as a contestant ... but this year ... I'm going to get up there and be a contestant for the first time. I talked myself into it."

A sequestered panel of three judges the Fiddlers Contest. Contestants must play three numbers each: a hoe-down, waltz and a tune of choice that is usually neither a waltz nor a hoe-down. "It can be a polka or any kind of thing you want to do ... [but] it's got to be those three categories," says Blumenstetter.

But when asked to define a hoe-down, Blumenstetter concedes, "That's a difficult thing to do. I've seen paperwork on that and it's kinda like the same thing when people say, 'old-time fiddling.' I've never been able to have anybody define it yet and tell me what 'old-time fiddling' was. Somebody told me it's fiddling that isn't copyrighted ... and other people said if it's got words to it then it becomes a tune, it's not a hoe-down anymore and you can't use that. There's nothing concrete about it."

But this intuitive science has made old-time music what it is. "You might be playing 'Red Wings' and you play it the way you heard somebody play it. And he plays it the way he heard somebody play it.... When you play by ear and pick up tunes that are 100, 200 years old and [the songs have] come down from the Appalachians to the West over generations, you're gonna have variations.... There's no same way to play [a song]. It's just a matter of how a person responds to it and how he feels he wants to play it."

Whether or not old-time music can be defined by your intellect doesn't matter; your ears will be pleased, says Blumenstetter. "You'll hear some good fiddling. Boy these little kids you meet, little peewees as we call them, are amazing. Gosh, you see some of these 5-, 6-, 7-year old kids that blow you away. I started too late. I started when I was 69."

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