July 29, 2013

Fiddle festival beckons a colorful crowd of fans

Now in its 41st year, the East Benton tradition is supported by the Littlefield family.

By MATT HONGOLTZ-HETLING Morning Sentinel

BENTON - A loud, proud crowd of fiddle enthusiasts gathered at a family farm Sunday to stomp their feet and draw their bows during the 41st annual East Benton Fiddler's Contest, Convention and Bluegrass Festival.

click image to enlarge

Gerry Moody and his sister Angel got up to dance a jig as the Country Choir band performs during the 41st East Benton fiddlers festival on Sunday.

David Leaming/Staff Photographer

The family of co-founder Shirley Littlefield, a mother of nine who died in 2004, is working to carry on a 41-year tradition of warmth, acceptance and willful individuality.

The crowds of attendees have shrunk from their peak in decades gone by, but the unique atmosphere of fiddler culture, characterized by a raucous good cheer, was on full display in the warmth of the early afternoon.

Among the performers was Eric Rolfson, a fixture at the festival for 40 years, wrestling with a giant bass fiddle. To his right, his young granddaughter, Aura, kept time on her own small fiddle, while his daughter, Bridget, blew the harmonica.

Rolfson and his descendants are an example of the power of the fiddle to unite families and generations, said Rosie McManus, Shirley Littlefield's oldest child and the event manager.

McManus spoke from the event headquarters, an old painted bus that, in the '80s, served as the sleeping quarters for oxen and Littlefields at state and county fairs.

The fiddler's festival drew about 400 people in its first year, 1972, after which the number of attendees exploded.

By 1982, there were more that 3,500 attendees, significantly more than last year, when a bout of bad weather helped drive attendance down to about 550.

The popularity of the fiddling scene has ebbed and flowed like the fluctuating intonations of a bluegrass yodeler, McManus said, resulting not in a decline, but in a cycle.

McManus said she wasn't pinning the success of this year's festival, which charges $10 a head and lasts until sundown, on a particular number of attendees.

"I'm happy to see however many come," she said.

Away from the bandstand, those in attendance listened appreciatively as when they laughed heartily at a performer's comment about having spent time in jail.

The men, just as likely to have a beer in their hand as a shirt on their back, never strayed far from coolers, some of them housed in wooden-walled red wagons or wheelbarrows that doubled as seating.

A short row of vendors offered food, drinks and, for $2, terrorist hunting licenses.

Gerry Moody, a young boy sporting a mohawk, stomped out an enthusiastic jig in front of the stage. He was joined for a second round by his younger sister, Angel. While the musicians accompanied them with guitars, banjos, a washboard and tin cans, those watching encouraged them with yodels, whoops, clapping and stomping.

Area resident Robert Mitchell said the number of active fiddle enthusiasts may have gone down, but that, with the support of people like the Littlefield family, it will never go away completely.

"There's always going to be people that like it," he said. "And there's always going to be people that don't like it."

In other words, the size of the gathering doesn't matter, or at least not to this proud, fiercely individual fiddling community that gathers to make music together in a warm farm pasture every July.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at:

mhhetling@centralmaine.com

 

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