What do you get when you mix a wide-open outdoor space with camping, musicians, spectators, dancing, ribbons, and prize money? You get a fiddlers’ convention…and that’s no joke!
For those who are unfamiliar with fiddlers’ conventions, these events take place all over the United States, and there’s a hotbed of them right here in this region of northwest North Carolina, southwest Virginia, and northeast Tennessee. Basically, a fiddlers’ convention is an event that is sponsored by a community or civic group as a fundraiser for their organization. Often a convention will occur the same weekend each year, so everyone will know when it is and save the date so they can attend year after year. Lots of musicians and music lovers follow the fiddlers’ convention circuit throughout the summer, going to one every few weekends.
Camping is a big part of many fiddlers’ conventions, and the magic of sleeping under the stars amongst a group of like-minded people certainly promotes a greater sense of community among listeners and musicians. The campground is where musicians jam, learn new tunes, and practice to get ready for the upcoming contests, including individual instruments, old-time and bluegrass bands, and flatfoot dance categories. Where there is music at the campground, a good-sized audience of music lovers is sure to also gather to watch the contests, listen to the music, dance, and socialize together. Out in the field of campers is where some of the best music can be heard – an added bonus!
The convention competitions are exciting to watch and also filled with amazing music. Each on-stage contest performance is assigned a score on a numerical scale by a group of judges, all experienced musicians. The judges’ scores are averaged by the convention organizers, and the performances are ranked according to their average score. At the end of the contests on Saturday night, everyone goes to the stage for the presentation of ribbons and prize money to the winning musicians and bands who have earned the highest scores. After the contests are over and the prizes are awarded, musicians go back to their camps to continue playing, dancing, and frolicking late into the night. There’s no end to the good music!
Historically, fiddlers’ contests and conventions have been around for a long time. The print edition of the Encyclopedia of Appalachia notes that the first fiddling contest in America was held in 1736 in Hanover County, Virginia. The oldest fiddlers’ convention in this region is the Johnson County Fiddlers’ Convention, which is coming up this Friday and Saturday, August 24—25, 2018, at the Old Mill Music Park in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee. This year will be the Johnson County Fiddlers’ Convention’s 93rd anniversary!
The largest fiddlers’ convention in this region is the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention, which always takes place the second week of August. The founder was Dr. W. P. Davis, who thought of the idea as a fundraiser for the Galax Moose Lodge and involved the school’s Parent Teacher Association so the school could be used for the location. The first convention was held in April of 1935; this year marked the 83rd annual convention. Since that first fiddlers’ convention, Galax has become well-known as the World Capital of Old-Time Mountain Music, and people from all over the world come to attend the convention at Galax.
Each year, I take vacation time to attend the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention. It is a special time for me – some of my best musical memories and dearest friendships have been made there. The thing I love most about Galax is visiting with friends and playing music with folks that I don’t get to see on a regular basis; indeed, seeing people at Galax is similar to attending a big musical family reunion. And, of course, old-time music is dance music, and I love to see people flatfoot dancing on the small, portable dance boards they carry with them from one jam session to another. I also love meeting people and making new friends, easy to do at any fiddlers’ convention. I’m also realizing now that I’m no longer the younger generation, so I love seeing young folks becoming part of this community and playing music.
This year, my husband Kevin and I made two new friends at Galax who traveled long distances to attend the event: Ulf Lidberg and Marc Menish. Lidberg, who made the trip from Stockholm, Sweden, plays guitar, banjo and fiddle, loves old-time music, and followed the advice of a friend who told him he should come to Galax. Menish teaches Media Studies at Aoyama University in Tokyo, Japan, and he is making a documentary on the history, development, and characteristics of old-time music. When asked why he came to Galax, he said he wanted to video jams and to experience the music in an up-close and personal way – he definitely came to the right place!
In recent years, there’s been a trend to get young musicians involved in the fiddlers’ convention tradition, and so Galax begins on Monday night with a large youth competition. I think it’s an excellent way to give young musicians the experience of playing on the Galax stage and to compete against other youngsters of a similar playing ability so they don’t have to compete against adults unless they choose to do so. Winning a prize in the youth contest helps young musicians gain a sense of accomplishment and provides a lot of encouragement to continue playing music.
Going to the fiddlers’ conventions is one of my all-time favorite things to do as a musician. You never know who you might see or get to play with or what might happen! There’s an excitement in the summer night air that binds people together. If you’ve never been to a fiddlers’ convention, start planning to get to one as as soon as you can!