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Fiddlin' Around : Fans of traditional American folk music cross the generation gap as they prepare for the annual Old Time Fiddle Contest.

March 05, 1992|ROBYN LOEWENTHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Forget rap or reggae. And the heck with hip-hop dancing. If you enjoy traditional American folk music, the Oak View Community Center is the place to be this Sunday for the 6th Annual Old Time Amateur Fiddle Contest.

Sponsored by the local chapter of the California State Old Time Fiddler's Assn., this year's contest again promises to be lots of fun. Last year, contestants ranged in age from 5 to 87.

The children's competition, ending at noon, will be followed by the ladies, men's, seniors and twin-fiddle divisions. Charl Ann Gastineau, a violin teacher from Camarillo, said each contestant must play a hoedown, waltz and tune of choice within four minutes. This year, she required each of her 23 participating students, ages 6 to 17, to write an original waltz for the event.

Two weeks ago, I visited a regular meeting of the Old Time Fiddlers where 9-year-old Michael Thompson was practicing while Old Timer Ches Willis, 68, played back-up guitar. Afterward, 88-year-old Otis Chamberlain tousled the youngster's hair, telling Gastineau, "if you can teach me to play like that, I'll enroll."

But many of the members do not need lessons. Rae Huffman, 69, a former "State Ladies Fiddle Champion," began playing classical violin in school orchestras when she was 10. But Huffman said she did not start "fiddling around" until 1977 when she met current State Fiddle Champion (Senior Senior Division) Marv Johnson, 79. The two hit it off musically and later won the state twin-fiddle trophy. Both said they may enter the state contest in Madera in May.

"I love it here," said Gastineau, "because the old-time fiddlers set a wonderful standard for the children. And they are like second grandparents to them."

It is indeed a wonderful setting where different generations share the joy of spontaneously creating music. And the sight of an old-timer's gnarled hand helping a child set bow to strings is pure poetry.

Founded in March 1974, the local chapter, one 13 statewide, encompasses Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. Four of the six state board officers for the association reside in Ventura County, including the president, vice president, secretary and editor of The Soundpost, the organization's bimonthly publication. All four belong to the local chapter.

When they are not hosting contests, fiddlers and fans usually gather twice a month to play and sing. Amid a casual atmosphere of country camaraderie, you can dance to lively acoustic music in the auditorium. Or step into an adjoining room and check out the electrified band.

On the covered patio, you might learn a few toe-tapping licks jamming with owners of a fiddle, banjo and stand-up bass, while a few feet away a pensive Joe Hunsinger, the group's president, plays a melancholy theme from America's Civil War era. And under the trees out back, you may find some folks playing infectious bluegrass music.

Most country music players play several stringed instruments, said Truman Bridges, 66-year-old banjo player in the group's Old Time Trio. But Hunsinger is content to just play the fiddle. It symbolizes the attainment of a goal he set for himself seven years ago.

Last year, the 54-year-old corporate vice president played at UCLA's Christmas party for heart-transplant recipients--of whom he is one. "As soon as I got well, they made me president of this organization," he added with a smile.

Hunsinger stressed the importance of the fiddle in perpetuating the musical tradition of reels, jigs and ballads brought from the British Isles. "But you will also hear mainstream country tunes by Hank Williams Sr. and Bob Wills at the meetings. And also a favorite of the children called 'Bile Them Cabbages Down," he said.

Besides the ubiquitous fiddle, there are several guitars, banjos and even a stand-up bass at these functions. But Floyd Cecil, 81, plays the most unusual instrument of all. His 32-string ukelin, made about 1900, is a cross between a violin and ukulele.

Cecil may well be the most hard-core supporter of this music on the planet. He drives to gatherings around the state in his truck, which is more like a traveling museum. It contains tapes and autographed photos of fiddlers he has met along the way.

"The main thing is to preserve and perpetuate old-time music," said founding member Ben Chapman. To that end, the association's rules require that a fiddle player be included in any group taking the stage. Nevertheless, Chapman said that probably a majority of the district's 400 members do not even play an instrument. "We call them 'enthusiasts,"' Chapman said. "They come to listen and dance."

* WHERE AND WHEN

District 8 of the California State Old Time Fiddler's Assn. presents the 6th Annual Old Time Amateur Fiddle Contest and Entertainment on Sunday, at Oak View Community Center, 18 Valley Road. The public is invited to this free, family-oriented event from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The group normally meets on the second and fourth Sundays of the month from 1:30 to 4 p.m. in the same location. The annual membership fee is $12 per couple, $10 for individual and $2 for those under 18. For information about the contest or the CSOTFA, call (805) 486-8744.

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