NOTES ON THE BERKELEY OLD TIME FIDDLER'S CONVENTION
From the Folkways LP "Berkeley Farms"
notes by Rita Weill
...the place where it all converges is at the Berkeley Old Time Fiddler's Convention, created as a group effort, by the musical community for the musical community and of the musical community,
Conceived in the back of a Volkswagen bus, on the way to a party in Marin County, by a group of people who wanted to retain the good music and interplay they'd witnessed at Southern fiddle-banjo contests, without the competition and corruption extant there. They wished to avoid the effects of regionalism that decreed there was a right way to play a tune and a wrong way, as well. After all, they felt, who could pinpoint one tradition for Berkeley? So it happened with but one rule, "No fair electric instruments." Our first one was "The 35th Annual." At the sign-up tables, people asked "Who's sponsoring this?" The answer given was, "Nobody! We're just having it, that's all." The judges were chosen for their musicianship and their inherent sense of the absurd. Bribes were openly solicited, the judges preferring a particular brand of booze. First prize was 3 lbs. of rutabagas, second prize was 5 lbs. of rutabagas. This tactic, in addition to the judges being encouraged to render arbitrary decisions, was designed to deflate competition and tension. Naturally, everything was free. In fact, one year, so many people gave us money to help defray costs, that the board (everyone who wanted to be on it) quit because it didn't have the slightest idea of what to do with it. Everything had been volunteered by the participants.
The Berkeley Old Time Fiddler's Convention is held in Provo Park, bounded by the Police Department, City Hall, Jail and Berkeley High School. If a newcomer arrived here on the right day, there would be no faster, more accurate way for him to understand where the Berkeley music scene is at, in every way. It's fun to see who catches on to the spirit and who doesn't. It's simply that music, here, is artistic and social communication rather than a consumer commodity.
Here are some anecdotes that have taken place since 1968 (35th Annual), 1969 (22nd Annual), 1970 (17th Annual) at our yearly get together.
1. First prize went to a regular on the folk scene, who was in Geneva, Switzerland at the time, teaching mathematics. The judges ruling: "We felt the ultimate thing a banjo player could do, in terms of good taste, was to be at least 8,000 miles away."
2. Another prize went to someone because he had traveled the farthest to attend. But he lost points because he was from New York City.
3. So many musicians kept re-forming instant bands, that Will Spires won the Face in the Crowd Award, and Hank Bradley won Best Supporting Actor.
4. Another instant band of 40, calling itself "The Family Cow," played Phil Marsh's Motown arrangement of "Catch a Falling Star and Put It in Your Pocket" with folk instruments, culminating in a solo of Dynamite Annie's expression on an alien instrument to her - a fiddle, all while an 8 month pregnant band member twirled a baton and did a belly dance. They were disqualified for unlawful assembly.
5. Jean-Paul was disqualified for dropping Chinese yen in the judges' bribe box.
6. Boom-Boom Shubb won for playing Arkansas Traveler on the bass fiddle.
7. Sue Draheim won for her good legs and traditional hip action.
8. Jody Stecher won 5 points for every fret missing on his fretless banjo. His prize, a normal looking custard pie, when cut open, revealed a multi-colored psychedelia inside.
9. Dave Polachek impressed the judges with his Uncle Dave Macon sweatshirt and by never once looking at the audience while picking.
10. One year a fourth prize was included because the judges felt that at least one prize should be awarded for quality. No one remembers who won it!
11. Sandy and Jeanie Darlington won with "The Lone Pilgrim", because "they have soul."
12. The anecdotes could go on forever, but my favorite concerns a consummate musician with "The Golden Toad," who got onstage with a 3-string violin of ancient ancestry, and gave a dissertation as to its lineage and evolution. He ended his remarks by noting that it was probably the only true fiddle at the convention. He then played an exquisite mediaeval dance tune that enthralled everyone. He was disqualified for not having a real fiddle.
As of this writing the Berkeley Old Time Fiddler's Convention has become such a legend that the City Chamber of Commerce (missing the entire point) urges us to continue, several television stations and the Canadian Film Board are making plans to film this year's event.
We just may not hold our convention this year because of it. If a community function becomes too large, then rules must be made. None of us wishes to change the character or function of our traditional party.
However, we have promised Mike Seeger, that when he comes out west to our festivity, we will name it The First Annual Berkeley Old Time Fiddler's Convention, so he won't feel as if he had missed anything....
July 27, 1971