Curmudgeonly grown-ups who tend to think, “Today’s darned kids don’t appreciate tradition, don’t respect elders, don’t have real human contact, just don’t get it,” would do well to check out “Fiddlin’ ” — an inspiring new documentary film that highlights young musicians mastering old-time music.
Show up a little early, at 1 p.m. for the 1:30 p.m. Saturday screening at Vancouver’s Kiggins Theatre, and you’ll even be treated to local evidence of fresh musical passion and chops: a live performance by Fiddlocity, a student group based at the Carter Suzuki Violin and Fiddling studio in east Vancouver.
“Fiddlin’ ” is about a unique event with a long and beloved yet slightly secret history: the Old Fiddlers Convention, held every August since 1935 in Galax, Va. Sisters Julie Simone and Vicki Vlasic used to attend the convention when they were kids, they said — not to play music, just to listen and dance in the flatfoot style that their mother passed along to them.
“There weren’t other kids playing music because everything at that time was rock ‘n’ roll. Kids didn’t think old-time music was cool enough,” Vlasic said.
Fast forward a few decades and the sisters, now filmmakers based in Los Angles, returned to the weeklong Old Fiddlers Convention with a notion that it could be an interesting documentary subject. They were overwhelmed by what they discovered, they said: rich histories, family traditions, abundant talent, tons of positivity — and, maybe best of all, children leading the way.
If You Go
What: “Fiddlin’ ” screening, plus live performance by Fiddlocity.
When: 1 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main St., Vancouver.
“The kids are carrying around instruments instead of cell phones, and they are connecting with their elders and with each other,” Simone said. “That was the most impressive, startling, inspirational thing we saw when we were there.”
“It’s so great that this music is cool again,” Vlasic said.
The sisters realized they had a strong subject on their hands, but they also knew that the Old Fiddlers Convention has repeatedly rejected outreach from Hollywood. People from all over the world are welcomed to the event, but not the movie industry — that is, until 2015, when the sisters and their cameras won the privilege.
“They gave us permission because we were locals,” Simone said. “They knew who our grandpa was. We assured them they could trust us in the way they were portrayed.”
That’s a sensitive issue, the sisters said. “There have been so many negative stereotypes about Appalachians and poverty,” Vlasic said. “There’s still a level of poverty in the community, but the people are resilient and determined to figure it out.”
One thing they’ve figured out is that their music is a tourism draw, she said. “People turn to music because it makes them happy. But they’ve started to rely on it for part of their livelihood too,” Vlasic said.
Making music is what people have always done in hard times, the Rev. Ronald L. Tuck, a former pro football player who now plays the mandolin instead, says in the film.
Slaves brought from the west coast of Africa “didn’t have nothing,” Tuck says. “If they wanted to think about home, if they wanted to think about good times, they always played music. They would make their own music. One of the first instruments that they made was the banjo.”
The very foundation of old-time music is a multi-ethnic melting pot, guitar-maker Wayne Henderson points out: west African banjos meet Scotch-Irish fiddles.
“That’s where the fiddle-banjo business came from,” Henderson says. “It’s been in these mountains here forever.”
“You’ll sit and watch this jam session with the best musicians you’ve ever seen,” Virginia state folklorist Jon Lohman says of the convention. “And it turns out one of them’s the guy who fixes cars in town and one of them works at the supermarket … and when the song is over they’ll trade instruments.”
The sisters wound up with over 100 hours of live footage, and fashioned a narrative arc in the editing room.
“We thought it was going to be primarily history, but once we were there we found such incredible talent, it became a story about these people and their traditions,” Simone said. “We weaved a lot of different stories together.”
Central to the film is the heartwarming mentor-mentee relationship between the graying Henderson, a renowned guitar-maker, and young Presley Barker, an astonishing 11-year-old guitar prodigy who’s also a total Henderson fanboy.
Henderson speaks eloquently in the film about the real value of music to some young people: “I’ve seen absolutely life-saving situations where some kids that have a hard time at school, the other kids make fun of them … if they get up there and start playing their instrument, they become sort of heroes,” he says.
“This is a happy documentary, not a documentary about tragedies,” said Simone. “It can be seen by the whole family. We’ve had grandmothers say ‘I can’t wait to take my grandkids’ and we’ve had young people say, ‘Mom and Dad would love this.’ ”
“Fiddlin’ ” has been a consistent award winner at film festivals. The sisters are brainstorming next steps for it now, they said.
“It has all the right elements for a musical onstage,” Simone said. “I’m thinking about a Broadway show.”