Fiddlin' in the Field
At a music festival this spring in North Carolina called MerleFest, a blind boy named Angel was gifted with a handmade fiddle named Lorena. It was a significant and serendipitous occurrence, the kind that is becoming a hallmark of events related to Tioga County’s own Hickory Fest.
“What I’m seeing personally, and my close friends are seeing, is the inspired generosity of folks like Bob Kogut, and the beauty of what’s going on here, and all the cool stuff that just keeps happening since we decided to continue the festival to honor Sue’s legacy,” says Frank Serio, whose life partner, the late Sue Cunningham, was the festival founder fifteen years ago. This year’s Hickory Fest, August 18 to 20 at Stony Fork Creek Campground, is the second one Frank will oversee without her.
And, because he “wanted a little addendum to Hickory Fest,” and because friend and “consultant extraordinaire” Geoffrey Stevens chimed in with the “let’s have a fiddle contest for Sue” idea, the first-ever fiddle contest happens at this year’s event. The free-style competition is geared toward the younger set since, as Frank recounts, Sue was “always supportive of young musicians” and enjoyed taking the time to mentor them.
Frank explains that because the contest is freestyle, the young artists can play whatever they want and in the style in which they excel. Competition will be grouped according to age—five to nine, ten to fourteen, and fifteen to eighteen—with the playing set to start at 10 a.m. on Sunday, August 20.
“You get your bluegrass and old-timey, jazz, gypsy jazz, even classical, and embrace it all, like Sue did,” Frank says. “They’ll be judged according to how well they do.”
Those judges will be Tim Higgins, who played with Sue in the South Ocean String Band in Florida in the early 1990s and who will be on stage at Hickory Fest in the Gatorbone Trio; Tom Cunningham, Sue’s brother, who played in her first band, The Flying Cunninghams, and will perform at the festival with brother Steve as part of a tribute band called Sue’s Brothers; and Megan McGarry, a twenty-one-year-old fiddler who was in a workshop Sue gave years ago on fiddle-playing and was a hit at last year’s festival with her dad, Chris (who will be back with her on stage this year).
So by now you may be wondering just a little about the whole “fiddle named Lorena” thing and how that fits in with the festival. Bob Kogut (he made the afore-mentioned fiddle), who will serve as the contest’s master of ceremonies, is a fiddle maker by trade; he gives each creation a woman’s name ending in the letter a. Lorena, a fiddle he finished this past February, was named for the main character in Find Your Angel, a musical collaboration between Sue, Frank, and their friend, singer/songwriter/guitarist Verlon Thompson, a musician’s musician, who will be at Hickory Fest again this year, too. Find Your Angel is the musical story of love and loss; it features Lorena, a young woman from Vicksburg, Mississippi, who lived through the Civil War. It was the last major work Sue recorded. She and Verlon performed Find Your Angel at numerous venues across the country, including here in Wellsboro. Verlon will perform it solo on August 16 at The Deane Center.
The story Bob Kogut tells is that an older man came to his booth at MerleFest leading the blind Angel and asked if the boy, whom he described as a “musical savant,” could play one of Bob’s handmade fiddles. Of course, was the response, and Angel, reaching out to the table full of instruments, picked Lorena. The music and emotion that followed led Bob to give Lorena to Angel.
And one more interesting aside that gives a little pause—the fiddle Bob made after Lorena is named Valentina, for Valentina Paolucci. She is the 2017 winner of the Sue Cunningham Music Scholarship at the Dreyfoos School of the Arts in Jupiter, Florida, and will be on hand at Hickory Fest to be a presenter at the first fiddle contest and to accept her award.
So rosin up that bow, kids. Registration for the contest, which is made possible in part by J.R. Judd Violin, Williamsport, closes August 1. There is no fee to enter, but those over age twelve must purchase an event ticket. For more information visit www.hickoryfest.com. Proceeds benefit the Sue Cunningham Music Scholarship and the Tioga County chapter of Relay for Life, which last year was the recipient of $9,569 in Sue’s memory.