Decades ago, Peter Feldmann, one of the main architects of the S.B. music scene, did something subversive: He gathered in the UCSB quad with a group of fellow musicians and fiddled away. The year was 1972, and with the memory of murder still lingering after the Altamont Free Concert, school officials were leery of any kind of music gathering, even with a genre as traditionally uncontroversial as old-time music. Thanks to the power of music education and a little bit of charm — Feldmann happened to be giving fiddle lessons to the daughter of the detective captain of the SBPD, who put in a good word to the UCSB police — the authorities allowed it, and thus began Feldmann’s gradual subversion (as he likes to put it) of the S.B. music landscape with the power of old-time music.
Several decades and leadership rotations later, the Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention & Festival — as it was deemed — still endures, hosted by the Goleta Valley Historical Society (GVHS) at the Stow House in Goleta. Now in its 45th year, the ongoing veneration of American heritage music will continue the spirited occasion born at UCSB where all things old-time and heartfelt are celebrated. This year’s festival includes the time-tested traditions of festivals past — fans can expect many jam sessions and competitive play-offs with instruments like fiddle, banjo, and guitar, and workshops in fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and flatfooting — plus new additions, like beginners’ jam training sessions and, excitingly, an instrument “petting zoo,” where kids can try their hands at a variety of instruments without adult intervention. Festivalgoers can also expect a tantalizing raffle full of old-time goodies like banjos and fiddles, original artwork by the great Texas/Kansas old-time artist duo Spencer & Rains, and a package of 56 old-time CDs by the great old-time music label the Field Recorders Collective.
And there will be, of course, lots of good music: traditional songs from Peter Feldmann and the Very Lonesome Boys (joined by the Convention’s artistic director, David Bragger); early blues and jazz singer Meredith Axelrod; legendary father-mother-daughter band Thompsonia; San Diego’s Kentucky-style old-time duo The Darling Brothers; L.A.’s hard-driving fiddle outfit Echo Mountain; S.B.’s much-enjoyed traditionalists the Salt Martians; and the ragtime jug band Sausage Grinder.
Stepping in to helm this year’s festival as artistic director is UCLA ethnomusicologist and Tiki-loving old-time music preservationist David Bragger, who runs a concert series, the Old-Time Tiki Parlour, wherein celebrated old-time acts perform in his island-themed studio. This year, Bragger and the GVHS have worked to revive the spirit of conventions past. “Over the past several years, it seemed that there was pressure to turn it into a money-making affair rather than keeping it as a charitable cause for the community. Attempts were made to bring out performers that were not part of the old-time genre in hopes of selling more tickets, and there was also a great de-emphasis on the contest,” Bragger said.
Feldmann said the conventions serve to remind attendees of life’s most elemental joys and most organic forms of entertainment. “It was built on the foundation of days long since gone, when they didn’t have a lot of entertainment so they entertained themselves by grabbing a banjo,” he said. In our smartphone era, a non-electronic art form is a welcome reminder of other means of enjoyment.
The convention is all about community, continuity, and cohesion — the comforting binds of music and experiences passed down, Bragger said. The 45-year institution gives old-time musicians a chance to “meet, play, learn and participate in something meaningful and traditional. Traditional art forms can only stay alive if people keep them alive,” as they “spread the gospel to the community and to other musicians.”
And thus, Feldmann’s gentle insurrection in ’72 lives on, with Feldmann offering this simple encouragement to all: to “keep on fiddlin’.”
The Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention & Festival is on Sunday, October 9, at Rancho La Patera & Stow House (304 N. Los Carneros, Goleta). There will be a pre-festival jam on Thursday, October 6, 5-7 p.m., downtown at Casa de la Guerra and Storke Placita. Call (805) 681-7216 or visit goletahistory.org.