LEWISTOWN, Mont. – According to history, fiddle contests first appeared in the United States as early as 1736. The format in those days was simple – fiddlers would show up and play a tune. At the end of the day, a judge would determine who the best fiddle player was.
It turns out, a fiddle contest has been a historic component of the Montana Winter Fair for years, too.
“They had a contest for 10 or 15 years when Winter Fair was in Bozeman and then we have had one every year since the fair moved to Lewistown. So, it has been going on for a long time,” explained Vicki Baumgartner, superintendent for the event.
Held every year at the Eagles Grand Hall, located on Lewistown’s main street, the Winter Fair Fiddle Contest is an event no spectator should want to miss. In 2020, the contest will take place on Saturday, Jan. 25, starting at 9 a.m.
Not much has changed between fiddle contests of yesteryear and today, with one exception – more songs are played. Fiddlers now-a-days must play a “round,” which consists of one hoedown, one waltz and one tune of choice (any style of song that is not a hoedown or waltz). At the Lewistown fiddle contest for example, each fiddler plays two rounds with the top five scoring players advancing to the third and final round, which will begin at 7 p.m.
“We probably have 200 plus people show up to watch the final round every year. It’s good for the fiddle players to get up in front of that many people,” Baumgartner said.
At fiddle contests, players are broken up into age groups. The peewee division is for budding musicians under eight years old. The junior/junior division is for players aged 9-13, the junior division is for those aged 13-18, and an adult division is for players 18 years and above.
Baumgartner explained, the Winter Fair Fiddle Contest is open to any and all fiddle players. It is not uncommon for there to be a fiddle player as young as five competing in the contest and other players who are well into their 80s.
That is the joy of music, it can span all ages.
Fiddlers at the Winter Fair Fiddle Contest will compete for prize money and bragging rights, but mostly, fiddle contests are a gathering, a place where musicians can come together and share their talents with whomever wishes to listen.
Surprisingly, Montana has quite the fiddling population with contests held all across the state throughout the year. Baumgartner says, as long as the weather holds and the roads aren’t bad, Montana fiddlers will travel from far and wide just to compete in Lewistown.
There has always been a connection between fiddles and agriculture. For time immemorial, the fiddle has been associated with dances and festivals and there was no better way to celebrate a successful harvest then with a barn dance. Further, the fiddle was a popular instrument carried across the plains by Texas cowboys as they moved large herds of cattle northward and those cattle were often serenaded at night by the soft melodies of fiddle music.
In fact, agriculture’s influence is still seen in fiddle music today. Popular fiddle tunes like “Hell Among the Yearlings,” “Cattle in the Cane,” “Whoa Mule” and “Cotton Patch Rag,” can often be heard at contests. With that history in mind, it is only natural to have a fiddle contest at Montana’s 75-year-old Winter Fair.
For those wishing to compete in the contest, early registration can be done online at montanawinterfair.com. The cost of entry is $20 for juniors and adults and $15 for peewees and junior/juniors. Late entries will be taken at 8 a.m. the day of the contest.
If you find yourself at the 2020 Montana Winter Fair, be sure to swing by the Eagles Grand Hall. Take off your coat and stay a while because the event is free to attend and foot-stompin’ fiddle music promises fun for all. For more information about the event, please contact Vicki Baumgartner either via e-mail email@example.com or call 406-535-5167.