By Dr. Shane Rasmussen, director of the NSU Folklife Center
NATCHITOCHES – Master fiddle maker Hilton “Hil” Lytle will donate two fiddles to be given free to young entrants (18 years or younger) of the upcoming annual Louisiana State Fiddle Championship. The championship will take place in Magale Recital Hall, which is housed in the CAPA Annex, 140 Central Ave., on the Northwestern State University campus. The championship takes place annually in conjunction with the Natchitoches-NSU Folk Festival, set for July 20-21.
According to folklorist Dr. Susan Roach’s profile of Hilton in Delta Pieces. Lytle was born in Zenoria, Louisiana, and grew up in Jena. By the time he was 10 years old he had learned the names of all the trees in the country, how they grew, and how fast they grew—a knowledge he would use later in building string instruments. As a boy, Lytle made his first cigar box fiddle, with strings from his family’s brand new screen door.
“So I noticed one of the screen wires at the top of the door was loose so I decided I’d pull it out and I’d make my music box using that for the wire to pluck,” Lytle recalled. “So when I pulled that wire out, it come down the entire length of a 6-foot screen door so I had plenty of wire.” He built his first violin in 1970 by consulting Foxfire books. With the help of his late wife, Nancy, he began to build musical instruments. He learned more instrument-building techniques from Doc Savage of Monroe.
Roach said Lytle is now one of the most respected instrument builders in the Delta region and has crafted many instruments, including guitars, dulcimers, hammered dulcimers, Dobros, mandolins, banjos, violas, cellos and, of course, violins (fiddles). His specialty is producing violins with exceptionally beautiful tones using a special “tap-toning” technique that he developed. His skills led to participation as a featured artist at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, Arkansas. He frequently participated in stage shows there, performing his own “Geriatric Blues” with his harmonica and wash tub bass. At the Ozark Folk Center, Lytle demonstrated instrument building as a master craftsman, taught apprentices and helped establish the Music Roots Program to which he has donated over 400 instruments.
Lytle continues his craft to this day, having built in all over 764 fiddles, most of which he has given to young musicians who could not afford to purchase them. Lytle’s instruments have appeared on the Miss Louisiana stage, in the hand of Lauren Ford, the 2011 Louisiana state fiddle champion, and as far away as the concert halls of Nashville. He knows where every single one of his fiddles ended up. More importantly, he is intent on passing down what he’s learned to a new generation of luthiers and has helped many build their own fiddles.
In October 2017 Lytle was honored by Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser as a Louisiana tradition bearer. Roach, director of the School of Literature and Language at Louisiana Tech University, described Lytle as “a true Louisiana folk treasure because of his traditional creativity, his artistic excellence and his generosity in passing on that excellence.”
In celebration of Lytle’s great contributions he will be inducted into the Louisiana Folklife Center Hall of Master Folk Artists.
“We are honored by Mr. Lytle’s induction into the Hall of Master Folk Artists,” said Dr. Shane Rasmussen, director of the Louisiana Folklife Center. “His tireless work mentoring young musicians as he has guided them through the process of making their own instruments has inspired many of them as they have taken up the tradition. Mr. Lytle has helped revitalize fiddle playing throughout Louisiana. We are indebted to his tireless efforts and kindness to so many.”
Lytle began donating his handmade fiddles to contestants of the Louisiana State Fiddle Championship in 2017, with the first beneficiary being the second place winner, 12-year-old Mary Elizabeth Harris of Breaux Bridge.
Observed Harris about the fiddle, “It’s beautiful. And I love the history behind it.” She encourages other young fiddlers to enter the Championship, saying, “You should definitely do it. It’s awesome and amazing and fun!”
In addition to Lytle’s donated instruments, Carl and Joyce Parker of Downsville are also donating a fiddle that Mr. Parker built with Lytle. In addition, bluegrass artist Clancey Stewart plans to donate the fiddle that she received from Lytle to the Grand Champion of the upcoming 2018 Fiddle Championship.
The categories of competition in the Louisiana State Fiddle Championship are Twin Fiddles, Non-Championship and Championship. Contestants in the Twin Fiddles division and the Championship division will compete for cash prizes. The top two fiddlers from each age group in the Championship Division will compete for cash prizes as well as the opportunity to be recognized as the state’s best fiddler. The winner of the Championship Division will be awarded the title of Grand Champion and will play on the Festival’s main stage in Prather Coliseum at 5 p.m. Saturday, July 21. Participants may play in either the Non-Championship or Championship Divisions (not both). All participants may compete in the Twin Fiddles category. The Louisiana State Fiddle Championship is open to all Louisiana residents.
Registration for the Louisiana State Fiddle Championship will begin at noon in the first floor foyer outside the Magale Recital Hall on the NSU campus. To pre-register or for more information call (318) 357-4332, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to http://louisianafolklife.nsula.edu/2018-louisiana-state-fiddle-championship/.
Now in its 39th year, the Natchitoches-NSU Folk Festival is a family-oriented event and wheel-chair accessible. Most events take place in air-conditioned Prather Coliseum, 220 South Jefferson Street, on the NSU campus in Natchitoches. Children 12 and under receive free admission to all events on both days. Tickets can be purchased at the Coliseum. The ticket booth opens at 4:30 p.m. Friday, July 20 and at 8 a.m. Saturday July 21. The Festival features three stages of music and food on both days, and on Saturday the Festival will also include crafts and narrative sessions.
A highlight for fiddle playing festival-goers will be a Cajun fiddle workshop conducted by fiddlers Gina Forsyth, David Greely and Terry Huval, which will take place at 11 a.m. Saturday July 21 in Prather Coliseum. Participants in this interactive workshop will learn and trade tricks, techniques and theories with these master artists.
Participation in the Cajun fiddle workshop will be free for members of the Festival audience.
“The Festival attempts to bridge the distance between artists and the festival patrons, thus breaking the artificial barriers between artists and audience,” Rasmussen said. “Rather than watching from the sidelines, everyone who takes part in these activities will share and engage in Louisiana’s rich culture.”
Support for the Fiddle Championship and the Festival is provided by grants from the Cane River National Heritage Area, Inc., City Bank, the City of Natchitoches, Cleco, the Louisiana Division of the Arts Decentralized Arts Fund Program, the Natchitoches Historic District Development Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Foundation and the Shreveport Regional Arts Council.
More information is available at https://louisianafolklife.nsula.edu/2018-natchitoches-nsu-folk-festival/