Though mass media has started shriveling the country into a common culture, there are still those disparate ways of life that continue to hang on, which is only possible because of the strong grip they had to begin with. And nothing holds on quite like music, assuming it’s the good sort. Using a large fiddler’s convention in Galax, Virginia as its entry point, Fiddlin’, directed by Julie Simone, takes a moment to celebrate the titular skill, the old-time music it’s a major player in, and the culture that old-time music itself is a major player in.
As the movie explains, old-time music falls under the umbrella of folk music, but is distinct from bluegrass, even though both use the same instruments and, to the layman’s ear, sound largely similar. Based upon the testimonies of players, it seems that old-time music is more reactionary, like “kick off your shoes and let it all out” type stuff. Bluegrass, on the other hand, is more jazz-like, in that it’s flashy and studious—academic, in a one-room schoolhouse sort of way. Whichever flavor you choose, American folk music doesn’t put on airs. It’s homemade in the best sense of the word, whether it’s the raw emotion of old-time music, the craftsmanship of bluegrass, or the rich storytelling of songwriters like Woody Guthrie.
“…takes a moment to celebrate the titular skill, the old-time music it’s a major player in, and the culture that old-time music itself is a major player in.”
Simone’s approach to exploring these topics is to spotlight certain notable attendees of the festival in Galax, tell their stories, and expand from there. These handful of human interest segments are enjoyable, particularly the way in which they show the age-spread of the festival’s players. One guitar player is only eleven years old, yet plays like he cruised passed his 10,000 hours about 10,000 hours ago. He even sleeps with his guitar, because “it doesn’t deserve to be on the ground.” That guitar he keeps warm at night was made by Wayne Henderson, a master guitar maker and another of the movie’s subjects. His daughter followed in his footsteps, well enough for Doc Watson himself to personally request a guitar from her, though he died before it was finished.
While the characters and the poking around of folk music are intriguing enough, the movie does suffer a bit from a mundanity. There’s a cable TV, time-filler quality created by the movie’s by-the-book manner of documenting the festival, shifting from sympathetic talking head to colorful talking head, and back again. One of the reasons Les Blank’s short documentaries on folk and blues from fifty years ago (The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, Hot Pepper, etc.) are still so fun to watch is that there’s a sense of freedom. Blank was open to capturing the world around him however it presented itself, as opposed to cramming the world into a predetermined documentary format.
All that said, Fiddlin’ still throws together some great footage of live folk music, as well as some hope that new generations will continue to see its value as a method of expression. In a hundred years, will there be festivals celebrating the history and the young talent of disco or electronic dance music? I don’t think so. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.