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Fancy Fiddlin


In a well-known Charlie Daniels Band song, the devil goes to Georgia to make a deal with a young fiddler. We all know the young fiddler, Johnny, out-played that old devil, but what we don’t know is that it was a good thing the devil went south looking for a challenge, because he would have found himself “in a bind and way behind” had he shown up in Williston on this date in 1933.

It was the second annual “Oldtime Fiddlers Contest,” and participants gathered from all over North Dakota and Montana for what was deemed “the biggest winter party in the country.” The fiddlers played all day in a contest that judged them on their entertaining, bowing, tone, their old-time appearance and style as to old-time fiddling. Fifty nimble-fingered participants gathered in Williston to compete for the reputation as the best fiddler and over 3,500 people came from all over to hear them saw on the fiddles. Unfortunately, not everyone could fit into the Williston High School auditorium, and 500 guests had to go listen to the folk singers or watch the traditional dancers.

These fiddlers didn’t exactly play for a fiddle of gold, but a modest $25. Ben Anderson of Wolf Point won the contest, followed closely by Dan Cavanaugh of McGregor and Jene Ohnstad of Bonetraill. Winning the competition, however, wasn’t about the prize or even the honor. For many gathered at the auditorium, it was to pay homage to the many aspects of America’s folk culture. Pioneers of the Upper Missouri country were also honored at the program and had front row seating on the stage and according to the Press, “The audience paid homage to those remaining settlers who are the backbone of the country by a standing salute.” And, the fiddlers paid homage to their own heritage. “Tunes which have been an inheritance of western people and those which brought enjoyment in covered wagon days were revived by fiddlers. There was ‘Turkey in the Straw,’ ‘Life on the Ocean Wave,’ ‘Money Musk,’ ‘O Susanna,’ ‘Leather Breeches,’ ‘My Wild Irish Rose,’ ‘Virginia Reel,’ a number of cowboy songs, several native Scandinavian selections and even Irish folk music and Scotch reels.”

The fiddlers and their tunes had certainly come from all over the world to represent the heritages in both North Dakota and the country, but in many cases, their fiddles had become most representative of the diversity present at the contest. Champion Anderson won the contest with his 150-year-old fiddle, while John Simpson of Ray had a Scotch fiddle. Andrew Desjarlaise, a Chippewa from Trenton, played a 100 year old fiddle that was probably made in France, while Olaus Tveden stroked the strings of a fiddle brought from Germany. Several others’ fiddles had traveled with the homesteaders or their families from Europe, while others were made from the wood of America. Ole Langseth played with an eight-string made from cedar that grew in Williams County. But the fiddle that proved the greatest rarity was a double bass fiddle owned by C.M. Sager of Flaxville. His fiddle was boasted as the oldest double bass in the United States and was at least 200 years old.