When Payson holds the Arizona Fiddler's Contest each September, it not only celebrates an honored tradition, but honors the traditional music brought to America from England, Scotland and Ireland. America was graced by the guitar from Mexico and Latin America, but it was the Anglo and Celtic pioneers who brought the fiddle.
As Euro-Americans began to settle in the Rim country, fiddle music was much in demand because dancing was the main social activity. Good fiddle players could keep the dance lively. Children were encouraged to take up the hobby early.
Babe Haught said her dad, Henry, began playing the fiddle when he was 4 years old.
Dances were held wherever people could get together and have a little room. Local school houses often became the setting for Saturday night dances.
At Rimrock or Myrtle, Tonto or Strawberry schools, the dance would last all night. The same was true for Payson, where larger quarters were provided in dance halls and saloons. Fiddlers became proficient with their instruments, and each one would develop a unique, recognizable style.
Ranchers were bound by similar musical tastes, and the guitar often accompanied the fiddle since it was easy to tote to isolated places. After the 1920s, pianos came more into use to accompany the fiddle.
When a Forest Ranger, like Fletcher Beard, could fiddle, it went a long way toward making peace with the ranchers during tense times when the Forest Service began to control grazing allotments. Although there was hostility to the many new regulations, a Ranger's fiddling gave him entry into the lives of the people he had to deal with every day.
In Payson, fiddling became one of the highlights at the annual August Doin's. Charley McFarlane, Fletcher Beard and others spelled each other for the two-step, square sets, polkas and schottisches. By the late 1890s, the waltz was popular, which one reporter called "hugging set to music." Young and old danced every night at the "Doin's." Folks, then as now, needed festivals to break the monotony of every day life, divert their attention from the hardships and exhaust their pent-up emotions.
The folk music of the fiddlers is not learned from written scores, but is the music of heart and soul. It comes from the ancestors, who passed along hits like Maicien's Prayer, House of David Blues, Dance All Night With Your Bible In Your Hands, Orange Blossom Special, Out Over the Waves, Frolic of the Frog, and of course, Turkey in the Straw.
When the dances were going on, many came simply to listen to the music, and it wasn't long before fiddlers began to compete. "Dueling fiddles" often turned into jam sessions that tickled not only the dancers' feet but the listeners' hearts. One time, after the free 4th of July barbecue had to be abandoned because of its popularity, Sarah Lockwood lamented, "Several of us have been trying to have a kind of pioneer day for the people who were here in the early days. Maybe we could combine it with a fiddler's contest."
It was Vertielee Floyd who picked up on that in the 1960s, and formalized all this fiddle playing into Payson's State Championship Fiddling Contest. She was joined by other dreamers, like D. C. Ashby, Don Stevensen, the brothers Githon and Clinton Reid. At first the contest was for local performers, held in the park at Main and Beeline (before the Chamber of Commerce was built). It became the centerpiece for a Fall Festival of arts and crafts. Rhythm was added by the playing of spoons, a little portable piano was brought in, and the stage was the back of a pickup truck. Some old-timers had trouble climbing up there, since years of cow punching had their arthritis pretty churned up. Styles varied, and as the years went by one could hear not only folk tunes but big band Western sounds and modern swing.
One year, the fiddler's contest became the setting for the founding of the Arizona Old Time Fiddler's Association. Other Arizona towns began holding festivals patterned after Payson, but the state contest remained here. World class fiddlers and fiddling groups now join the local old timers, and wandering the grounds one can hear practice times and groups gathering for a jam session.
The late Richard Haught, caretaker for the Zane Grey cabin, and his son Billy were perhaps best known locally for this skill, which recently has gained new popularity.
In 1983, Richard received a letter from Robert Ferrell, an editor of Arizona Highways, which summed up the feelings of many Rim country folks.
"We would like to thank you for your fine fiddle playing, we had the opportunity to enjoy at the Tonto Cowbelle's party. It was wonderful to hear those old tunes played with such skill and feeling. It greatly added to our pleasure and gave us a new insight into the heritage of the Rim country."