the Head Couple
Fiddling for the ‘Head Couple’
Fiddling for the ‘Head Couple’
Martha’s Vineyard, August 23, 1997
By Peter Anick (originally published in Fiddler Magazine)
Each August, the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society holds its Livestock Show and Ag Fair. It’s a low key, local event, with oyster shucking, woodman’s competitions, horse pulls, carnival rides, tasty food, and an old-time fiddle contest. The fiddle competition is somewhat unusual in that , thanks to the encouragement of local string teachers, the majority of contestants are juniors, aged between 5 and 16. Many of them are seasoned veterans already, and it has been a pleasure for me, as head judge and emcee, to watch their considerable progress over the years. The judging is done Friday evening, followed by a "winners showcase" the next day that features each of the contestants and then continues with impromptu jamming late into the evening. This particular Saturday, as Ernie positioned the microphones on the small outdoor stage and Nancy helped her students tune up, we all looked forward to another low-key, laid-back evening of music shared among family, friends, and passers-by.
A rumor had been circulating that the Clintons, vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, might be stopping by the Ag Fair sometime this weekend, but I didn’t pay it much mind – until I noticed a pair of dark clad sharpshooters pass the stage, followed shortly by a surge of fairgoers rushing to a nearby livestock pavilion. Packing my fiddle back in the car, I struck out for the barn for what was to be my first (and probably last) experience as a lobbyist for a special interest group…
The stage full of junior fiddlers was sawing through its fourteenth or fifteenth repetition of "Cripple Creek" when the First Couple, accompanied by a huge crowd, finally reached the front of the stage and paused. TV cameras jockeyed for position and security personnel scurried to rope off the area, as the Clintons found a comfortable spot in the bleachers. I nervously improvised a welcome and introduced our first soloist, keeping all the other junior fiddlers on stage to provide mutual moral support. Whether it was the adrenalin, the enthusiastic audience, or the certainty of a presidential pardon for any mistakes, even the most bashful of the youngsters stepped confidently to the mike in turn to fiddle a tune or two. By the time we made it through all the junior categories and reached the adult finalists, I could tell by their smiles that the kids were savoring their unexpected celebrity status in front of the biggest audience they had ever seen.
Traditionally, we keep the music running without a break until 11, but a presidential liaison inquired about an intermission, "just in case someone in the audience needed to leave without creating too much of a commotion." I pondered possible finales, rejecting the politically incorrect "Billy in the Low Ground" for the more upbeat "Arkansas Traveler" and invited all the musicians back on stage for a grand jam. As we turned to leave the stage after this collective musical salute, Secret Service agents beckoned for us to stay put. The Arkansas Travelers themselves were on their way up to greet the musicians. Many handshakes and encouraging words later, the President made what was perhaps his shortest (but nevertheless quite effective) speech. "Give them all another hand," he began. "Weren’t they wonderful?" The pianist broke into "America the Beautiful" and we found ourselves singing and playing along (much to the surprise of unsuspecting friends and relatives who thought they recognized someone familiar singing with the president on the national news broadcast that evening. )
And so a most memorable fiddle contest drew to a close. The First Couple disappeared into the night, leaving a stage full of stunned musicians still shaking their bows in disbelief. But, after a short pause, the jamming resumed and we can only hope that there is a lesson here for anyone contemplating a career in politics - you don’t have to be a head of state or professional fund raiser to get the president’s ear. Just keep fiddling!