A Short History of Fiddling

In 1963, Idaho fiddlers formed a statewide association (Weiser Chamber of Commerce 1973:3). In June of the same year, Grant Spangenberg, an 80-year-old fiddler residing in California, attended the contest at Weiser.  He won 4th place in the Senior division and decided to start a regional contest in California. With a group of friends and from his home in Oroville, this project was started, though because of ill health, Spangenberg moved to nearby Paradise, California, the following year.

Before what eventually became known as the California State Old-Time Fiddlers’ Association was formally organized in February, 1966, there were at least eight families in California interested in fiddling and in preserving it. Redella Calkins and her grandfather Grant Spangenberg were friends with another fiddling family headed by Floyd Chilton.  From Sacramento, Frank Gunn and his friend Delbert McGrath had both attended Weiser in the early 1960s. Kelley Kirksey from Santa Rosa, was a regular follower of fiddle music and went to Weiser annually. Cy Widener, originally from the Weiser, Idaho, area and Jay Belt, both living in Fresno, participated each June at Weiser.  Charlie Waer, the Knotts Berry Farm fiddler, also made it a point to make a regular visit to the National Finals.  Thus prior to 1966, the above fiddlers, with the exception of Floyd Chilton, had met one another at Weiser.  It was from these families and others added later, that the California State Association was formed.

1966

Grant Spangenberg (the “founder”), Redella Calkins (the organizer), and their set of Paradise-Oroville friends began the California State Old-Time Fiddlers’ Association in 1966.  They were a small friendship group that had been meeting now and then in each other’s homes to fiddle.  Redella Calkins was appointed president of the Association and also chairman of the Board of Directors, which included V.F. Royer, Grant Spangenberg, Dudley Whitlock, George Smith, Harvey Menzelaar, Floyd Chilton, Mr. Chapman, and Bud Halstead.  Floyd Chilton, from Missouri, was and still is considered a foremost authority on old-time fiddling by other California fiddlers, because of the number of old tunes he knows. Arlene Lommen was the Association’s first secretary.

Redella Calkins wrote to Weiser for information about their association and its contest judging. In February of 1966, she drew up the bylaws of the “California Old Time Fiddlers and Folk Music Association of the National Old Time Fiddlers and Folk Music Certification and Advisory Board in Weiser, Idaho.” Three purposes of the California Association were listed: 1) to promote and administer the program for the National Old Time Fiddlers’ Advisory Board in Weiser, 2) to promote interest throughout California in fiddling, and 3) to provide a Regional Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest in California. The winner of this contest was to be sent to compete in the National Contest at Weiser. In addition, the California Association was “to provide adequate finances to support the program and otherwise to promote the welfare of the National Old Time Fiddlers and Folk Music Association and to insure the permanence of the program within the certified territory.”

An annual meeting to elect the Board of Directors, officers, and the nominating committee was to be held in January. Monthly meetings, held by districts of the California Association, were to be announced by mail.  The nominating committee was to serve for one year and prepare the single slate of members for election at the annual meeting.  The Board of Directors was to be composed of not less than 10 nor more than 20 members, serving for a three year term. This board was to have no less than ten monthly regular meetings a year.  The board was to act for the California Association between the Association’s meetings. It was responsible for submitting to the National Old Time Fiddlers’ Advisory Board, any material required for certification by that board.  Also, the California Board of Directors had the authority to remove from office any officer or other member of the board.  The officers of the California Association were to be the president, vice-president, secretary, and treasurer.  The president, with the approval of the board, was to appoint annually from the membership of the board, a chairman for each of these committees: finance, selection of judges, membership, public relations, personnel, program, and refreshments.  The members of these standing committees were to be appointed by the chairman of each committee.

Delegates to the National headquarters in Weiser as well as the winner of the annual California State Old-Time Fiddle Contest were to be sent there at the expense of the California Association.  These bylaws could be amended at any regular or special meeting by the majority vote of the voting members (i.e. adults) present.  Regular meetings were to be held the fourth Monday of each month, at the Paradise Recreation Center.

The foregoing bylaws were accepted at the February, 1966, regular meeting in Paradise. In March, California Governor Edmund G. Brown accepted the Honorary Chairmanship of the California State Fiddlers’ Association. Redella Calkins and her friends, in the first few months of 1966, had been actively promoting a drive for new members as well as a Nationally Certified Contest to be held in April in Paradise.  From her living room, she sent out news releases, both about the upcoming contest to be held in conjunction with the Gold Nugget Days Festival and about the need for sponsors for this contest.  Business people throughout Butte County were contacted. In return for a sponsoring donation, businesses got an ad included in the souvenir program sent out to advertise the contest. Real estate offices, motels, restaurants, and bars (split up about evenly) accounted for most of the sponsors, primarily from Oroville and Paradise.

On April 23rd, there was a jam session and Miners Stew for the fiddlers after they had participated in the Gold Nugget Days afternoon parade.  The next day, the California State Contest preliminaries and finals were held in the Paradise Recreation Center. The contest was limited to fiddlers 18 years and older.  The rules were the same as those at Weiser since the contest had been certified by them: contestants were required to play a hoedown, a waltz, and a tune of their choice (other than a hoedown or waltz) at each appearance; no tune was to be repeated by a contestant in the contest; and all tunes played in the contest had to be at least 50 years old. At this California State Contest, however, the tune of choice was to be played first instead of last. The five judges were Mrs. Harold Weatherman, Sam Phipps, Bill Jacoby, Harold Waltman, and Arnold Lommen. The Sacramento Fiddlers came up to take part in the contest, including Frank Gunn and Delbert McGrath. Floyd Chilton of Oroville won first place ($100, a trophy, $100 towards a trip to the National Finals in Weiser, and his picture in the Hall of Fame), DudleyWhitlock of Oroville won second ($50 and a trophy), Frank Gunn of Sacramento took third ($25 and a trophy), and Raymond Krogstead of Castro Valley took fourth place. George Smith and Grant Spangenberg were also in this contest.

In May, the Sacramento Fiddlers put on their first fiddle contest at Fair Oaks during the Fair Oaks Fiesta Days celebration. Jay Belt of El Sobrante won first place, Frank Gunn of Fair Oaks took second, and Andy Jaborski of Gold Run was third. The Sacramento Fiddlers by this time included Delbert McGrath, Jim Hall, Jess Hall, Roscoe Keithley, and Frank Gunn, together with their families. The O’Neals were also active in this group. As far back as 1964, the Sacramento Fiddlers had organized a club and appointed Delbert McGrath as president.

June is the month that fiddlers head for Weiser. In 1966, California was the host state at the National Contest. CyWidener of Fresno, a former Idahoan, was appointed chairman of the California host group. Emblems signifying membership in the California State Association were available to those who went. California fiddlers who attended included Floyd Chilton, Charlie Waer, Delbert McGrath, Grant Spangenberg, Del Baker, Frank Knight, Frank Gunn, Dean Trammel, and others.

A small contest was organized by John Ardans at Little Joe’s Tavern near Ukiah in July. Raymond Krogstead of Castro Valley won first place. New at this “fun” contest was a “No Holds Barred” division for trick and fancy fiddling. One “local yokel” knew only one tune (“Raggedy Ann”) and he played it three times for his three tunes. Later, in August, the California State Old-Time Fiddlers’ Association had a potluck style picnic followed by a variety show with fiddlers and folk musicians in the afternoon. Afterward, there was a dance in the Memorial Hall next to the Paradise Recreation Center. Those who drove farthest to attend were Cy Widener, Raymond Krogstead, Frank Gunn, and Bob Riley. Arnold Lommen was the Master of Ceremonies.

By September, the California State Association had decided that Board of Directors meetings would be held at Redella Calkins’ house on the first Monday of each month, and the jam sessions on the fourth Monday of each month at the Paradise Recreation Center. Kelley Kirksey, a retired Los Angeles policeman and ex-fiddler who now was blind and lived in Santa Rosa, began to put together a Fiddlers’ Contest Judges’ organization. He wanted to standardize all old-time fiddle contest judging.

On September 3, 1966, in conjunction with Paul Bunyan Days, a fiddling contest was held at Fort Bragg. The Sacramento Fiddlers put it on together with an old-time dress contest. Frank Gunn won first, Delbert McGrath second, and John Ardans third. Mrs. McGrath’s sister won the dress contest. Also at the contest were Frank Knight and the Lommens.

Early in November, an old-fashioned box supper was held at the Paradise Recreation Center. The individual box suppers were auctioned off and a jam session was held afterwards. This jam session was held Weiser style in which each fiddler plays three tunes, then it is the next person’s turn. This enabled more musicians to take part. A few days later, the first regular Board of Directors meeting of the California State Association was held in Redella Calkins’ living room. On the 19th, Kelley Kirksey was in charge of the judges at a fiddle contest held at the Great Western Exposition and Livestock Show in Los Angeles.

11 thoughts on “A Short History of Fiddling”

  1. This article is very interesting to me since some of my ancestors and other acquaintances are mentioned. I am the grandson of Mac O’Neal. Al and Nellie O’Neal were Mac’s brother and sister in-law. That generation of the O’Neal family was all about old-time fiddling. At family gatherings, the guitars and fiddles would invariably come out, and anyone present who could play an instrument was welcomed to play a tune or two. My interest here was sparked by my mother recently giving me two of the record albums cut by groups of the local fiddlers in the 1970’s. I have since transferred them to MP3 files to burn CD’s for my kids.

    The “Sacramento Fiddlers” album was from about 1970 and features my aunt Nellie O’Neal on guitar Frank Gunn and Delbert McGrath on fiddles, Roscoe Keithly on guitar and Gary Gunn on bass. Mike Bibby is the featured fiddler on two tracks. The second album is titled “California Champs 1974”.

    Mac O’Neal taught me to play guitar and “second” for him for a few years until his death in 1972. Playing these albums brought back a flood of memories of the songs we played.

    Of the old time fiddlers of the day that came to our homes and family functions, Frank Gunn was my favorite; his rendition of the Kelly Waltz on the Sacramento Fiddlers album is just beautiful. As I remember back some 40-odd years, he could really make that fiddle “talk” on the Orange Blossom Special.

    1. My name is Jerry Anglin My family has been in the CSOTFA since it began in Paradise Ca. My family was one of those from Oroville not mentioned in the article I was probably the youngest fiddler at the time and I could barely play just make noise on a couple of strings there is a news paper article with me and my fiddle with Grant Spangenberg he was 80 and I was 5 the club was originally called “The California poppies” and everyone wore white shirts with a poppy painted on front I still have my tiny shirt .My Grandfathers name was Fred Wilson Anglin 1918-1977 he played guitar usually accompanying My Father Ronald Wilson Anglin who just passed away days ago 1940-2016 he played fiddle for over 50 years and won the senior division State Championship 3 times I knew Frank Knight as a kid he played Bag Pipes a lot and we went to each others homes for jams also missing from this article is Ray Giles who was present at the beginning he played fiddle. I am still a musician a guitarist playing Rock,Blues etc. but I lived the CSOTFA growing up and know it’s history well we also hung out with Floyd Chilton who was not only a Great Fiddler of the time but made fiddles he made my fathers first fiddle that he really played sounded rough because it was made from Oak and my dad stained it Red! my dad Ron and Mom Carol were given Life Memberships in the Club. and I hope eventually articles such as this will include our family because we were truly part of the clubs history thank you! ……. Jerry Anglin

    2. My grandparents were Algy and Nellie O’Neal. So many memories from all the family gathering. This is a great article about the Fiddler associations and the contest. Went to many of these events. So many of are family are gone now and miss the jam sessions. My name is Debbie Walker my mom and Bud and Jimmie.

  2. I am Marilyn Cunningham and would love to hear from anyone who has recordings of our jam sessions from the 60’s or early 70’s. If anyone responds to this request I will let them know how to contact me.
    My grandfather was Fiddlin’ Van Cunningham, father was Jack, and sister Vicki played the piano. We played often with Scottie Ward, Delbert McGrath, Nellie O’ Neal, Mr. Mosier, and many others. It was great fun. I probably was most well known for my rendition of Mockingbird.

    1. Hi Marilyn, I would try to connect with Bob Snyder for anything like that. Not exactly sure how you get in touch with him but you might try looking for Adrienne Jacoby and or Tex Ash on Facebook.

    2. I met your grandfather sometime in the 60s.He was playing at my grandfathers house in Weldon ca.I remember he used some bands on his fingers.My grandfather was Red Williams .I have a casette recording of them from the 70 s.
      Michael williams

  3. I’m looking for Billy Warwick of grants pass Oregon if someone could help me locate him l would be greatfull as I am a friend from the past from Santa Rosa cal.
    Thank you 707-953-4913 Mark Heald

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