There’s No Time Like the Old Time Social and Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest
Banjos and fiddles and washboards, oh my! The Old Time Social and Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest proved it’s hip to be square-dancing. Taking over some of the most unique dusty locales around, these two events brought together promising practitioners of old-time music and colorful handlebar mustaches. Follow this visual recap of a thriving world most Angelenos don’t know exists, as it visits the Hyperion Tavern, Velaslavasay Panorama, and Farmlab, all the way out to Paramount Ranch, an Old West ghost town and film set in the middle of beautiful nowhere.
This was the 5th annual Old Time Social organized by the band Triple Chicken Foot. The 3-day happening featured some young guns of the string music scene with vets that really seemed like they just walked out from behind a cow. Every event packed its venue.
One of the rising stars would have to be Olentangy John. His charisma without frills and back-porch attitude had the Hyperion Tavern swaying with its eyes closed to the tune of existential Appalachian ballads adeptly plucked on banjo. Some of us have heard of him, but his show-mates Cat Tracks and The Mosby Raiders have never shared a bill with any favorite indie rock folk dabblers — and perhaps they have no interest in that. This first night introduced faces and toe-tapping clog dancers that would become familiar by the end of the weekend. A refreshingly different aspect of this scene experience is that people actually say, “Hello, I saw you yesterday. What’s your name?” as opposed to the usual rock ‘n’ roll “I cannot acknowledge that I’ve seen your face before” cold shoulder.
Friday night’s sit-down concert took place at the Velaslavasay Panorama in West Adams. Sirens went about their business on the streets, but inside this beautiful small theater and garden, people drank homemade beer and Chex mix while Frank Fairfield blew their minds. Fairfield is one-of-a-kind. He was discovered busking on the streets of Los Angeles last year by Matt Popieluch of Foreign Born & Fool’s Gold, who started booking him gigs.
Watching Fairfield play reaches psychedelic levels. He exists between the grooves of an old 78, truly a visitor from another time and place dropped here by old country aliens. He had the biggest audience that night and highlighted the Fiddle Contest on Sunday as well. His voice chokes on the murder ballads he revives and tells as if he just put down the bloody dagger. Whether on banjo, fiddle or guitar, it’s a trippy spectacle.
Joe Wack and friends played sleepy string songs from West Virgina with some education in between numbers. It was hard to stay awake, and that’s not a criticism. The crowd instantly awoke when Triple Chicken Foot got on stage and began a capalla, “Tell me who did Jesus mean when he gave his sermon, please? Was it you or was it me? … He said if you love me, feed my sheep!” The song has that wonderful sinner vibe that gives old-time music its edge, the prayers of rebels who have seen a thing or two, or for innocents who would nail themselves to the cross on a daily basis just in case.
We met up again at Farmlab for a Cake Walk and Square Dance on Saturday night, surrounded by blooming strawberries and tomatoes under the downtown Metro line. A Cake Walk resembles musical chairs, except the winner of each round gets a cake that is later devoured by everyone anyway. The most wonderful thing about square dancing is the mandatory compliance between strangers to be swung around, grabbed, and hugged by each other. This could get creepy, of course, but perverts tend to stay away from jug music. The band Sausage Grinder felt reminiscent of an old Mickey Mouse cartoon.
Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest. Hundreds of musicians littered Paramount Ranch’s corners with endless group jams while contestants displayed their chops on stage. BYOB meant freedom to bring booze and banjos for all. Such a variety of people attended that there’s no question this esoteric music has a valued place in L.A. culture.
Four days’ escape to some wild west folky land, the friendly people and the talented musicians, brings to bear the importance of keeping Old Time music alive. Actually, keeping it alive doesn’t seem to be a problem as society opens itself to more organic living. The soundtrack that suits it best will naturally follow. The reverberations will transcend the niche audience in the near future, just wait and see. You’ll be coming around the mountain very soon, brewing beer and growing bees. That is, when civilization collapses and all.
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