1416The Yarra Junction Fiddler’s Convention has been running for 23 years on a bush block about an hour’s drive from Melbourne. Fiddle enthusiasts camp for the weekend to drag horsehair over wire to produce the unique form of music that only bowed instruments can create. Last year at the 2005 Convention I witnessed 4 double basses clustered in a tight circle thumping out a faced paced bluegrass beat. Lachlan Dear was conducting a double bass workshop. Music was coming from all directions, a fiddle workshop was being held in a nearby shack and string band music wafted through the trees. But this was a soft sound, one that only comes from un-amplified music. And this is where the fiddle is at home, being played outside, perhaps next to a fire, the music raw, and unfiltered. No sound system or electronics to get in the way. Small pockets of musicians teamed up and swapped tunes at informal sessions. The fiddling rolled on all day and carried on into the night. The Fiddler’s Convention is hidden from the public because the site can cope with only a limited number of campers. I recently asked Ken a few questions about the festival.
Q. How long has the Fiddler’s Convention been running?
Ken McMaster It started in 1983 as soon as I discovered Camp Eureka. Just before Xmas Mike O’Rourke and I decided this was the place for the festival we had always wanted to run. There also were historical links between the early folk scene and Camp Eureka. We found a Camp Eureka Songbook, which was completely full of Australian traditional songs. Stuff like Joe Hill’s songs, a lot of American Left-wing songs, like Woody Guthrie, stuff like that.
Q. What was Camp Eureka?
They talk about it as being an organisation of the Left but the reality is it was a Communist Party front. They would have anything up to a thousand young teenagers up there in the 1940’s and early 1950’s and it started to unravel after the Hungarian Uprising (1956) of course when people deserted the Communist Party in droves. Certainly the people who associated with Camp Eureka were the first people who went up to Nariel Creek. They met with Con Klippal, Ian Simpson and others and organised the first National Folk Festival. This was in the early 1960’s.
There was a band, the core of which was Mike O’Rourke on fiddle, myself on banjo. I was given a week to learn banjo but it actually took 10 days. I haven’t improved much since then. I play 5 string frailing style. John Caldwell was on guitar and pretty soon Norm Adams (fiddle) joined us and we are still going after all these years. We have got a gig doing a dance next month at Flowerdale. What we were after then was basically organising a band and hopefully a festival. We wanted to get Old Time American music into the fiddle session. It was being dominated back then by the Irish and Scottish scene. But within three or four years I would pull out a banjo and people would start playing along with American tunes.
There was only Kevin O’Connor (former Privacy Commissioner) playing this fiddle style back then and not much of it. Then there was Ian Simpson on Old Time banjo and Rod (fiddle) and Judy (banjo) Jones up in Sydney. Back in 1999 Craig Woodward and I together with Andrew Scott the double bass player, he played guitar back then, went over to the Galax Old Timey Music Festival over in America. Craig won eighth prize in fiddle and he had only been playing for about four years. That was just absolutely astounding. We got disqualified in the band competition at Galax because we had a didgeridoo player instead of a double bass player. We knew we would be disqualified but we were determined to do it. I won fourth prize in autoharp out of about 100 competitors.
Q. How many people turned up to the first Fiddler’s Convention back in 1983?
Rod and Judy Jones were guests and about 130 people came. We have barely changed anything since it began. We had an outline which was to have just have sessions Friday night, workshops Saturday morning and a concert Saturday afternoon and an Old Time dance on Saturday night. This was resisted pretty firmly especially by the bluegrass people who were most upset we weren’t having a headliners concert. Not many people danced at the first one but we persevered because what we play is dance music. We wanted people to dance to it. There would be probably 8 or 10 fiddler’s getting up and playing on the Saturday night. The music we play is pretty much what is called twin fiddle music. The only thing we have changed since then is putting on a Bluegrass Concert on the Saturday night, after the dance. We generally try to start the dance about 8.30pm and the Bluegrass Concert about 9.30pm.
Q. Who are the guests who have featured at previous Fiddle Conventions?
The only one we have funded to come down have been Eileen McCoy. Eileen is down in Gippsland and into her seventies and she is a fantastic fiddler. She played a bit with her husband who was a country singer and she also played for local dances but she also lived for many years next door to a French Canadian fiddler. She is quite influenced by the French Canadian style. While she is considered very much a traditional Australian fiddler you see that style coming through. Two years ago she was one of the main headliners at the National Folk Festival. We were the ones that probably brought her to prominence a bit. We also paid for Mike O’Rourke to come down from Queensland every year until he died otherwise he would never have been able to afford to come down. We have had Ian and Di Simpson last year and they held a workshop on the Nariel dances. Here is one of the ironies, we banned accordian players and Ian is a very good accordian player.
Q. Who are some of the players who have conducted workshops at the Fiddler’s Convention.
Andrew Claremont has flown back from Spain to be at the Fiddler’s Convention. He is working all over the world with different bands but always makes sure he will get to the Convention. He has done the sound for the last few years which definitely helps. Two years ago he had a gig in Adelaide on a Saturday night. He left the Fiddler’s at about five o’clock, flew to Adelaide and was back by eleven o’clock the next morning.
Q. What about the food?
Ken McMasterWe have two people doing food up there. Originally we had a kitchen going and we could feed 200 people at a time. It was fantastic and a Fiddler’s Convention cookbook came out and sold in excess of 100 copies. All this finished about 8 years ago when the new health restrictions came in. The kitchen there had wood stoves and mud brick walls that no longer met requirements. So there are two food vans up there this year. Richard Klein who is a fantastic Cajun fiddler living in New Zealand now, he will be over for the festival and he will be giving a workshop in Cajun fiddle, he is threatening to cook up a Gumbo on the Saturday night. One of the stalls up there is doing pancakes Gumbo is a traditional Cajun spicy dish with usually sausages, chicken and all sorts of other stuff in there. Quite spicy.
Q. How many people attend the Fiddler’s Convention?
Probably about 300 people camp every year and about one or two hundred others. We don’t publicise it and people complain that they can’t find out about us, that we haven’t got a web site. If we had more people we couldn’t cope. People will find out through word of mouth, through the community.