It actually began in Topanga Canyon, California, thus the name, in Southern California's Santa Monica Mountains, home to writers, artists and lots of music people, a remote pocket of sylvan beauty just east of Malibu and the Pacific Ocean. A few old time and Bluegrass music-loving diehards are still around who can remember the first "Banjo Pickers and Open Fiddling Contest" created by Margot Slocum and Peg Benepe as a fund raiser for the Santa Monica Friends Meeting House.
It was 1961 and the music-only event attracted 26 Five-String Banjo Pickers, Five Fiddlers, Four Judges and more then 500 eager fans to Ian Thiermann's place amid the native oaks known as "Friendly Acres." It was such great fun, everyone agreed the contest was a wonderful idea and the contest would have to be put on again and again.
The following year the event moved to Topanga Canyon's Camp Wildwood, attracting the local folk singing and old time/Bluegrass communities, and in 1963 Mary Ellen Clark replaced Peg Benepe. The Santa Monica Friends pitched in and stayed active until 1981. Almost as soon as it began, the Contest was getting national attention. Net proceeds were going to charitable causes such as the American Friends Service Committee of Southern California's youth activities, various folk and dance music archives and non-profit radio stations that featured folk and/or Bluegrass music. In 1965 Dorian Keyser started to help and after a few years he replaced Margot Slocum as the manager of the Contest. After the 1972 Contest Dorian assumed complete responsibility for the entire event with the help of his wife, Dalia, and Mary Ellen Clark. Due to a new outdoor Music Festival ordinance limiting the size of events in 1969, the Topanga Canyon site could no longer be utilized, so the contest was relocated to U.C. Santa Barbara for one year. For the next 19 years it was held at various locations around Southern California:
1970: University of California, Santa Barbara
1971 to 1972: Sunset Canyon Recreation Center,
1973 to 1977: Santa Monica Community College, Corsair Field,
1977 to 1985: UCLA Soccer field,
1986 to 1989: El Camino Community College
In 1990 the Topanga Banjo•Fiddle Contest moved to its present home at the Paramount Ranch near Agoura Hills, California, close to its Topanga Canyon roots in the Santa Monica Mountains.
While at UCLA a few folk artisans were invited to bring their handmade wares to sell at the event. Today there are around 45 folk arts booths and several merchant booths featuring weaving, ceramics, woodcarving, inlaying, leather craft, metal work, jewelry, needlework, painting, glass and more. Also invited are public service booths providing information and displays of national, state, and local parks, hiking trails, volunteer organizations, environmental groups and the native plants of the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation area.
By the 17th year, the event was attracting around 175 contestants, most of whom performed with backup musicians. A further expansion occurred in 1979 when a second stage was added for dancing: clog, contra, square and Scottish Country dance demonstrations and instruction. Colorfully-costumed teachers and advanced dancers showed their skill and invited onlookers, both timid and bold, to learn some basic steps. Soon a clog dance contest and Israeli dancing were added and international dancing became a popular and permanent feature. Folk arts booths were added in 1982; guitar, mandolin and band contests in 1983 and in 1995, folk song/story telling "workshops" and participative crafts for children. In 1981 the Jewish Centers Association replaced the Santa Monica Friends and the "Topanga Banjo•Fiddle Contest & Folk Festival, Inc." was created as a 501(c) (3) non-profit corporation. By 1988 this corporation had sole responsibility for the event together with the help of personnel responsible for the Paramount Ranch. Starting in 1990 both the Superintendent and staff of the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area, a part of the National Parks System, assumed a key role in making the Festival a continuing success and in 1995 the Santa Monica Mountains Fund became a partner in the event. Today the Topanga Banjo•Fiddle Contest remains one of the premiere old time and Bluegrass events in America.
Throughout the years many people too numerous to list here have contributed their time and talent to make the event a success and to ensure its survival. Numerous stars and musicians have graced its stages, including Jackson Browne, David Lindley, Taj Mahal, John Hartford, Byron Berline, Dan Crary, Frank Hamilton, Eric Darling, John Hickman, Stuart Duncan, Phil Salazar, Pat Cloud, Larry McNeeley, Bill Knopf, Howard Yearwood, Tom Sauber, Steve Martin and more. Many others who became musical headliners got their start as contestants in Topanga's contests; many have gone on to become professional musicians.
The main goal of the Topanga Banjo•Fiddle Contest has always been to produce maximum participation within an affordable, quality event, one which enables thousands of people, in an outdoor, non-commercial setting, to experience the joy of acoustic music, folk singing and folk dancing. Through volunteer participation and sponsorship, its proceeds continue to go toward charitable causes and the promotion of old time and Bluegrass music activities.
Every year spectator attendance grows. Every year the number of contestants grows. Every year the quality of music and dancing improves. Even if it's a simple version of "Cripple Creek," the level of playing shows there was more practicing done this time in an effort to top last years winners. Every year respected and talented people from the Old Time & Bluegrass community donate their day to judging the contestants. Bluegrass is judged separately from traditional styles and there is always a good representation from both groups.
Unique to the Topanga Banjo•Fiddle Contest is the random mix of beginning, intermediate and advanced players, professional players and string bands. On this program, you never know what's coming next! Each person who enters decides for himself which category he or she belongs in; if they rate themselves as "advanced" but score lower on the judges scorecards, no one need ever know, and if they rate themselves "beginning" and score higher, the judges can bump the contestant up a category or two. Contestants have ranged from age four to 98, and have come from all over the United States, mostly from Southern California with others from Northern California, Arizona, the Pacific Northwest, New England, Asia and Europe.
An important feature of the event is the "jamming" which greatly enhances the festival atmosphere. All attendees to the contest and festival are encouraged to bring their own instruments. In the Western streets of Paramount Ranch, small clusters of hot pickers and fiddlers, perhaps elated youngsters strumming alongside professionals and surrounded by many delighted spectators, can meet and swap songs, strums and licks. Last year's friends can renew acquaintances. It would not be unusual to find "names" such as Byron Berline, Richard Greene, Stu Jamieson, Pat Cloud, Larry McNeely, Barry Solomon, Peter Feldmann, Tom Sauber and John Hickman jamming incognito within the groups. The advantage these musicians have is to play to their hearts content without the limited time constraints of the contest stage or the pressure of competition.
The prizes awarded are modest: music merchandise and gift certificates from local music stores, free meals and beer at local clubs, guitar and violin strings, records and music books from local shops and publishers, donated trophies and cash. The top winners (bands) may walk away with $200 in prize money. However, the honor of winning at Topanga has proven to be noticed in professional circles; not only are the winners deservedly proud, but they may obtain paying work based on a Topanga victory.
The prizes may be small but they are many. In 2007 contestants received over $5000 in prize money and gift awards, which has now been increased to over $7500. This tends to encourage good will and emphasizes the value of competition and participation rather than winning. In these days of increased costs of living, the directors of the Contest have kept admission and entry fees as low as possible in an effort to make it an affordable days entertainment for families and young people. This is made possible both by the generous donations of prizes and the enthusiastic help of many volunteers. People are encouraged to bring a picnic lunch and their instruments. For some it may be their first exposure to traditional/Bluegrass music, folk songs and folk dancing. On a warm, sunny day new friendships are made, old friendships are renewed, musicians learn new tunes and dancers learn new steps; a fun time for everyone.
A dedicated, all volunteer Board of Directors plus an army of volunteers is required to run the Topanga Banjo•Fiddle Contest; as many as 100 are needed for this year. Volunteers, who are admitted free of charge, are needed for posting signs, registration, mailing, typing, contest entries, scheduling, marketing surveys, promotions, stage set ups and tear downs, ticket selling and ticket taking, distributing flyers, soliciting prizes and soliciting folk arts and environmental booths. Other jobs are assisting with childrens activities, judges, contestant hospitality, stage management, sound, calligraphy, photography, video and CD sales, dancing and "I'll do anything." CLICK HERE for more information on becoming a volunteer for the contest.
The Topanga Banjo•Fiddle Contest & Folk Festival sponsors a series of free concerts at
schools and libraries aroung the Los Angeles and Ventura County areas. The school events are for
students but everyone is invited to join us at a library near you.
Click on “Free Concerts” to go to the free Concerts page.
The future is very bright for the Topanga Banjo•Fiddle Contest. In 1999 this Web Site was inaugurated, extending the reach of the organization and providing a place for friends old and new to discover the Contest. This Web site, along with e-mail, are important tools for communicating with our contestants and volunteers. The Web site links all of our activities together in one place. Historical content, original art and photos are published for the enjoyment of the Topanga community. Some new board members have joined, and new ideas are being tried along with our more than 50 year-old traditions. Please come and join us every year on the third Sunday in May, you’ll be glad you did.
Thanks to you all, I am fulfilling a 25 year old dream...to play the banjo. So 25 years and 5 daughters later my girlfriends and I went to the event this year (2001) and met up with the Blue Ridge Pickin' Parlor - only 5 blocks from my job (100 miles from my home). I am taking lessons from Bill Knopf and feeling really good about taking the step to reach a dream of mine so long in coming. The first time I got through the song I was learning, I shouted for joy and my daughter hugged me and listened to me play. Without the Topanga event, I would still be wishing I knew how to play. To all who put the event together, THANKS and We'll be BACK!! Cynthia Crothers Moreno Valley California
" Iwas in Naval training in San Diego in 1966 when a classmate told me about Topanga. I had been playing the banjo for four years by then, so I was hot to go. I believe Topanga was the first occasion I ever attended where more than a couple of banjoists were playing... back then, the banjo was an instrument that was being heard a lot, thanks to the folk revival, but 5-string players were few and far between.
I'm from Idaho, and learned on my own. I entered the contest fresh from winning a fleet talent show (the first prize was a steak dinner at a restaurant in Mission Beach), so I thought I'd give Topanga a try. idn't stand a chance- the L.A. players were so good I was wiped right off. As I recall (it's been a long time), David Lindley won that year. I loved the whole experience. It was the first time I ever heard all the different styles of banjo playing, and a lot of the music went right over my head then, but as the years passed, I would hear one tune after another that reminded me of the event. Maybe I can get away this year and try it again! It sure was a lot of fun." Mike Stanger
I was a junior in high school, a boarding school, and an alumnus named Jim Griffith came back to visit the
school. He was a wonderful entertainer and loved everything about the banjo. I had been a fiendish
woodshedder since I had taught myself to play four or five years earlier. Jim heard the banjo playing from
my room and followed the sound to find me. He was impressed with my style - three-finger with a heavy
Larry McNeely influence - and told me I really ought to come to the Topanga Canyon contest, and that I could
probably win it.
Well, I decided to just do it, and so I just showed up. I believe this was 1972, and I'm pretty sure it was at UCLA. Anyway, I guess Jim talked to somebody and I got put into the line-up as the very last banjo player. I registered in the Intermediate class for lack of any idea what the others were like. I had worked out a wild, original version of Groundspeed to play. I sat in the audience for 9 hours waiting for my turn. As I got up to the stage and was next in line, some very nice guy asked me if I knew Pony Express and I said I'd never learned it. He showed it to me and I got so involved in that that I forgot to be nervous. As I took the stage, a pulse of good judgment seized me, and I realized that I just hadn't practiced the Groundspeed as much as I'd wanted, and I decided to play an original version of Shuckin' The Corn based on Weissberg/Brickman/McNeely but with a lot of my own licks too. I knew I could play that in my sleep and flawlessly. I got a standing ovation, and was bumped up the Advanced Class which I won. That was a great moment that I will never forget. I played a fair amount of music after that, have done a number of sessions for the TV Soap 'Opera', but I eventually went to medical school and now practice psychiatry in New Haven, CT. I still play the banjo and guitar though. I like to think my playing has matured, and is tastier than ever, but I'm not sure I'll ever have the pure speed and cleanness that I had back then.
The next year, I now remember that I entered a contest at UC Santa Barbara, which Pat Cloud, among others, judged. That time I won the whole thing with an original arrangement of Dixie Breakdown. That was my last contest (1973) - I guess I quit while I was ahead. Anyway, thanks for your interest, and I hope to see you at the 40th Anniversary. Great website, by the way ..."
" Winning the Topanga Banjo•Fiddle Contest (Professional Bluegrass Banjo Category) five times is the most rewarding event of my musical career. Winning the contest has opened many doors for me as the Topanga Banjo•Fiddle Contest has become such a widely respected acoustic musical event. In 1982, I had set a goal to play in the contest and have fun. Well, I won the contest that year! Then, I thought it would be fun to win just one more time. Next, I thought it might be fun to win maybe just one more time, well, you get the picture, it became an obsession for me. Finally, the rules committee decided that I had won enough times. All the practicing was worth it, and some 18 years later I'm so glad that I put in the effort and practiced. After winning the last time, I took up playing bluegrass fiddle. Now, I can't say that I can win the Bluegrass Fiddle five times, but someday I'm gonna try!" Happy Pickin, "Banjo" Bob Cox