Feature Stories

Alan Govenar to Bring Dallas Its First Fiddle Contest in Almost 50 Years

Alan Govenar has spent the last quarter century focusing on writing books and making movies, but he knows how to put on events. It has been a while though. Before launching his Museum of Street Culture music series with a live performance after a screening of his new film last week, his last event was the Dallas Folk Festival back in 1991. In the '80s and '90s, Govenar put on unique public concerts relevant to countless aspects of street culture. The free events drew enormous crowds and were broadcast on radio and television.

Now that he's back in the game, Govenar has set his sights on a slightly more unusual prize: His next event will bring a fiddle contest to Dallas for the first time in over four decades.

In 1983, Govenar organized the first Dallas Folk Festival, which was performed on City Hall Plaza. By 1986, the Dallas Folk Festival was considered the largest public free event ever planned for downtown Dallas. It was funded in part by the city of Dallas and the National Endowment for the Arts. There were five stages. “I brought people from all over Texas,” Govenar says. “Communities of people.” Over 80,000 people attended the event, which included an outdoor rodeo arena constructed in a lot near City Hall. “It was the first public, free, open-air rodeo in downtown Dallas since the turn of the 20th century,” he says.

The 1988 Dallas Folk Festival was broadcast on KERA for about 20 hours over the course of two days. In 1991, the festival encompassed the entire Arts District, with opening night taking place at the Meyerson Symphony Center. It focused on five recipients of the National Heritage Fellowship. There was step-dancing, blues, conjunto, gospel, Native American music and mariachi bands. Music was performed at St. Paul United Methodist Church, Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Artist Square, the Guadalupe Cathedral and the Dallas Museum of Art.

Recordings from these festivals aired on over 150 radio stations across the country. “Doing those events was challenging,” Govenar admits. Indeed, they required an entire year of planning. “But I deeply believed in them.” After a long hiatus from organizing events, Govenar is now working with the Texas Old Time Fiddlers Association to have the first fiddle contest in Dallas since the late '60s.

World champion fiddler Jim Chancellor, better known as Texas Shorty, remembers performing at the contest, which took place at the State Fair. Most of the fiddle contests he has participated in have taken place in small towns at county fairs or special events. He remembers the event particularly well because Eck Robertson also took part. In the 1920s, Robertson recorded sides for Victor Records that introduced the Texas style of fiddling to the world.

“It’s probably the most popular style of fiddling you’ll hear anywhere in the U.S. and it sprung from Texas,” says Ed Carnes, from the TOTFA. Robertson’s recordings are likely the first to capture the craze of taking old tunes and making them more complex. The dance music quickly became concert or contest music. Fiddlers like Benny Thomasson continued to develop the sound. Bob Wills popularized the sound but also influenced it.

After winning the World Fiddle Festival contest in East Texas a few times in the early 1960s, Chancellor had a successful recording career of his own and was even written about in an essay by Larry McMurtry. “He said my fiddling was like the tinkling of a moderately well-made music box,” Chancellor says, with a chuckle. “He may be a good writer, but he don’t know a damn thing about fiddling.”

The event also references an important part of the upcoming Museum of Street Culture at 508 Park, a historic building perhaps best known for being the site of Robert Johnson’s last recordings, which account for the majority of his recorded output. Govenar is the founding director for the museum, which will be one of the components of the Encore Park project. In addition to an expansion of The Stewpot, a provider of homeless services, there is also an amphitheater and community garden. The expanded Stewpot will now include art programs.

“There will be one division about the roots of Western swing and Western swing fiddling,” says Govenar, about the Museum of Street Culture. He describes this music as a melding of Anglo-American, European and African-American fiddle styles. The museum aims to represent the full spectrum of street culture, including traditions that come from back roads and sidewalks, from everyone from blues singers to fiddlers to corridistas to rappers.

A Texas fiddling contest represents a significant part of street culture, but it is also historically relevant to 508 Park. “Most of the music recorded there was early Western swing,” says Govenar. Bob Wills made his first recordings there. Several hillbilly and hot fiddle bands from the 1930s also recorded in the building.

Texas Shorty and Wes Westmoreland will be judges for the contest and also perform. Westmoreland is also one of the best contest fiddlers from Texas and a swing fiddle player. Back in 1984, the two were featured in Govenar’s film Texas Style, a documentary about how Texas fiddling went from being dance music to contest music.

Fiddle contests are usually associated with rural towns, but they have made their way into suburbs and cities. It’s hard to believe that an event so significant to regional culture hasn’t happened in Dallas in almost five decades.

The idea for the Museum of Street Culture music series is that while the museum will be rooted at 508 Park, it will also get out and interact with living street culture. “Street culture is, for me, the core of American life,” says Govenar. “Street culture is the vibrancy of life. It’s the pulse beat of what’s happening right now.”

508 Park Fiddle Contest: The Roots of Western Swing with performances by Texas Shorty, Wes Westmoreland and Valerie Ryals takes place from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on November 7, at 508 Amphitheater, 508 Park Ave., free admission.
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Jeremy Hallock