The 51st Annual Topanga Banjo-Fiddle
Contest and Folk Festival

If the Circle Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It!

By Joel Okida

Topanga_Banner Off a soon-to-be-crowded two-lane road leading into Topanga Canyon, and despite early morning watery skies and crisp winds, Apollo, the Greek God of prophecy and music, begat a sonorous Sunday. Or it was someone like him. If you had a banjo on your knee and you weren’t sleepy, this was the place you were going to: Paramount Ranch in Agoura Hills. The crossroads for many grinning pickers, be they young, old, or somewhere in between, is the Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest and Folk Festival. This annual event rounds up those who’ve turned off the TV, put down the cellphone and turned to wood and peg, gut and hair, (okay, a little steel and nylon) and let their fingers do the talking. This is not to say that words get in the way. Out on the porch of the Railroad Stage, singers showed off a wide range of vocal styles that might cover a familiar Joni Mitchell tune, a near forgotten sacred harp song, or some gospel harmonies. And in and out of the many jamming circles that indeed jam the movie backdrop western town, the distinct puff and bleat of a harmonica elbowed in between the bowing of a fiddler or a mandolin riff- all hell bent on getting their fair share of the modal pie.

In addition to the many contestants vying for over twenty awards, each of the five stages presented a variety of entertainment from local professional musicians. Some embrace the old time and bluegrass roots philosophy while others push out the folk music boundaries and broaden the genre, for better or for worse. Your decision on that! Keepers of the flame like the Salty Suites play bluegrass and add a jug of mountain music for added flavor. Frank Fairfield throws all his weight into his banjo, fiddle, and guitar and is a one man army in the old time revival scene. The Dustbowl Cavaliers are anything but cavalier when they cover, I Wanna be Sedated, an old Ramones punk hit that, amazingly enough, transfers well over to bluegrass tuning and picking. Over at the Pavilion Stage you could have heard L.A.s post-modern tandem, Fur Dixon and Steve Werner, bringing it all back home with songs of the folk troubadour tradition. Susie Glaze and the Hilonesome Band rode in with some country as well as folk bluegrass songs, including originals as well as standards. The classically-skilled members of the Haberdashery Ensemble were a dramatic reach out of the tried and true, but the crowd welcomed the cross-over group especially during their furious flights into gypsy and tango numbers and after some feverish fiddling by Paul Cartright, who also appeared with the Salty Suites. See, it’s like that.

For good measure a pint of the Scottish Fiddlers and a dram of the Celtic Slow Session that followed, ended the day over in the Eucalyptus Grove.

This year, the event seemed to attract a bigger crop of players, enthusiasts, dancers, and maybe people who just wanted to enjoy a beautiful day on the grass, be it blue or green. Along with the canyon gusts, people blew in to fill each stage area and queue up for food trucks that could not work fast enough to feed them. Late arrivals were turned away!

The rise of interest in traditional music over the past decade may still owe some debt to “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”, the Coen brother’s 2000 film which featured or referenced the music of Ralph Stanley, Flatt and Scruggs, the Fairfield Four and others, while the fictitious Soggy Bottom Boys sold it with corn pone and voice-overs. However, this festival has held steady for 51 years without Hollywood help, maturing gradually from its very humble beginnings. The recent flourishing of old time(y) music has also fomented a renewed interest in square dance which, like its heyday in the 1920s and ‘30s, is a revival of the communal experience. Perhaps it’s a reaction to today’s isolationist trappings: ATMs, pay-at-the pump, and who knows how many solitary hours spent in the presence of electronica. It’s a question that begs for more investigation.

Local Old Time-cum-square dance bands Triple Chicken Foot and Virginia based Old Sledge kept the kids, the parents, and retro doggers moving with do-si-does and allemande lefts in the dusty Dance Barn. No one stopped smiling during each dance. Seasoned hoofers, nervous beginners, and confused kiddies all obeyed the caller’s commands, in some fashion, and laughed their way thru ‘til the end. If you were a skill above the square dancing, you took a spin with Bee Knees playing for the earlier contradance.

Ricardo Aguero

(Shameless plug alert! Guilty, but with an explanation, your Honor!) This year, the festival’s Music Legend Award went to FolkWorks' own Steve and Leda Shapiro. The award is bestowed upon the individual or organization that has made an on-going contribution to folk or traditional music in Southern California. The publishers and editors of the on-line publication have provided the much needed source for all things traditional yet with an open mind for what has grown out of that classification and sensibility. As a younger generation learns to play and sing the songs of generations past, FolkWorks has offered the information to lead them back to learn and then lists the options to move forth. These are different times than Pete Seeger’s 1955 stand against the HUAC, there is no bluegrass growing in San Fernando, you need a permit for a campfire now (if you can have one at all), and protests are often done thru online petitions. Still the sense of community that music and dance brings, gives some credence to the belief that the family that plays together, stays together. We can only try.

With that in mind, see why Steve and Leda and the Topanga Fiddle-Banjo Contest had such a good idea. Check the calendar right here for a dance, a concert, a festival, or maybe a jam session. Get in touch with your inner human being! Dust off your banjo! Take a lesson!  Turn off the flat screens! Learn three chords on a ukulele. Play three notes on a pennywhistle. You’re good to go! Next year, you’ll be in a workshop, a jam or on stage at the festival. Call your sister, your aunt, or your neighbor and get ready to hold hands at a square or contradance. Keep your squares straight!

And let the Circle be unbroken.

Joel Okida is a struggling artist, struggling writer, and struggling musician. It occurs to him that life is all about the struggle. Fortunately, he did not take up acting. However, he's not half-bad as a zydeco dancer and the ability to make a mean gumbo and lovely walnut tortes has gotten him by.