Shine on me
Sittin’ in the shade with the old-timers during Oroville’s state fiddle competition
I drove into downtown Oroville on a quiet Sunday afternoon along Montgomery Street, past Ed’s Leisure Apartments, where residents watch the world go by from their front porch recliners, past the Cornucopia Restaurant advertising its chicken-fried steak dinner special, past a number of antique stores and one called Almost Antiques. I was looking for old-time fiddlers.
I’d been told they were coming in from all over California and were camping in RVs behind the Municipal Auditorium next to the river. The 36th Annual California State Old Time Fiddlers Championship Contest was due to begin the following Friday, and this is where the participants would be congregating for a week’s worth of impromptu jams and storytelling.
I walked in the direction of the music I heard and came across a circle of string musicians in folding chairs jamming under a giant evergreen tree. Upon my approach, a tall, older man in a baseball cap rose from his chair and acknowledged me. “Bob?” I asked, having only talked to him by phone at his Oroville home up to this point. It was Bob Hedrick, contest organizer and old-time fiddler. “Go get your bass!” he said enthusiastically.
I spoke with Hedrick for a while before taking the upright bass out of the van. I wanted a little information down on paper before starting to play with these guys. I had a hunch that once I started playing I wouldn’t get much writing done, and I was right.
Hedrick laid out the fiddlers’ week for me—impromptu jams from sun-up to well past sundown, concerts around town and the contest itself for fiddlers “from 4 to 90"—and pointed out the concept behind the California Old Time Fiddlers Association: “Our main purpose is to perpetuate old time [Western] fiddle music,” which is basically defined as a tune that is at least 50 years old (though this is changing) played on acoustic stringed instruments: fiddle, guitar, Dobro, mandolin, upright bass. No amps, no horns, no drums. And no written music. Everything is played by ear.
“Go get your bass.”
I hauled my instrument out of the car and took a place in the circle of men (and one woman) mostly in their 70s and 80s. “Pretty doghouse!” someone called out in reference to my decorated bass. Everyone takes their turn around the circle calling out a tune and the key it’s in. For instance, “C!” and they launch into a version of, say, “Blue Kentucky Girl” or “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” Those who feel comfortable soloing do so; the rest just hop on for the ride.
Most of these guys have been playing since they were kids. Seventy-nine-year-old fiddler Lester Standiford, three-time California state fiddle champion from Olivehurst, started playing at age 10. His dad was an old-time fiddler who used to play at dances in Texas and taught his six sons to play the fiddle.
A woman in her 70s came up behind me and said, “See that man over there?” pointing to 60-something two-time state champion fiddler Ron Anglund. “That’s my little brother. He’s been playing music since he was 4. He used to play the guitar but it was too easy.” And she went on to tell me how they never even had a couch in their living room until she was 16. “There was no room for a couch. We always had a circle of folding chairs for the musicians that played every night.”
“Where’d you grow up?” I asked, imagining she might say Arkansas or Oklahoma.
“North side,” she answered.
“You mean Oroville?”
I spent two hours hanging out and playing music with these lovely people, having an absolute ball. “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Waltz Across Texas,” “Seven Spanish Angels,” “Till a Tear Becomes a Rose” are some of the many, many tunes they know and love. And I have to say that these people definitely play from the heart. You can feel it when you play with them, and you can see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices. I had so much fun that I had to go back for more, which I did two days later, with my guitar- and harmonica-playing husband John and our 3-year-old daughter in tow. The circle of musicians that we walked in on that afternoon was more than happy to have two new players this time around.
These people like to have fun. Standiford, ever the twinkle-eyed joker, said to Anglund at one point, after Anglund had just borrowed his fiddle, “Did you get it tuned up?”
“Your turn, George!” someone yelled out. George got up, did a 360 and sat down. Eighty-something Sacramento guitarist Rags Ragland asked, chuckling, “What key was that?”
Rags and his sweetheart, singer Jodi McGarvey, did some fine and touching duets. McGarvey, who sometimes knits while she sings, did a precious version of “Don’t Send Me No Angels,” and Rags’ rendering of “Faded Love,” of Bob Wills and Patsy Cline fame, was splendid.
A guitarist named Brownie who, according to Hedrick, “is almost 80 … the first one here every year … and he and his wife for 30-some years have been full-time RV,” stood when it was his turn and played and sang a very dignified and touching version of “Keeper of My Heart.”
“John! Your turn!” someone called out. John went into Merle Travis’ “Dark As a Dungeon” in the key of A, and everyone joined in, those who were perhaps a little unfamiliar with the song softly feeling it out until they knew the chord changes. Hedrick placed his fiddle in his lap and sat there and sang along with beautiful gusto. One could imagine that perhaps he had been a miner at some time in his life or that maybe his father was one.
I went back one more time to visit the fiddlers (and guitarists, Dobroists…), on Thursday, Fiddlers’ Day, this time in the morning and without my bass. Again, I walked in on a circle of players who broke up shortly after I arrived because they were due to perform soon down at the stage set up on Bird Street in front of Houser’s Music.
I ended up chatting at length with a 73-year-old fiddler and guitarist named Bill Whitfield from Patterson, down by Turlock, who has been playing since he was 13. Whitfield, who is one-quarter Cherokee, is the son of a father who was “born and raised in Oklahoma, in Indian Territory. He got his first pair of shoes at age 16. He lived just like the rest of the Indians.”
Whitfield’s father, in about 1903, at age 13, got his first fiddle in the mail, the prize for selling the most gold-eyed needles. Whitfield explains that “those Indian ladies loved them needles. They were used to bone needles. … [My father] couldn’t hardly order enough!” Whitfield told me a lengthy and fascinating family history, including how his grandfather, also a fiddler, used to be rich ("He bought 40 acres in Red Oak, Okla., and migrated to Oklahoma from Arkansas"), but then around the turn of the century, after two years of not being able to sell his cotton and watching his cattle get skinny and unmarketable, became poor.
Whitfield himself remembers being poor. He told me the story of how he, in 1935 at age 5, along with his parents and siblings—nine people in all—piled into a 1928 Dodge sedan, some of the kids riding on the running boards, and drove from Beeville, Texas, out to California in August ("That way we didn’t get cold").
“Dad couldn’t pay the last $300 on [his] bottling works and the bank foreclosed,” Whitfield shared, adding that he himself had sold his cat at the family’s moving auction for a nickel, which he lost on the drive out west. “Didn’t spend it. Just lost it.”
It is stories like Whitfield’s that surely every one of these elderly and sprightly musicians can tell. They tell the stories with their music, and if you get them talking, they tell what amounts to their own personalized version of the songs they play and sing.