Galax Old Fiddler's Convention
It is perhaps the longest-running and most successful fund-raising project in the Moose realm. It is also probably the largest and most popular traditional music attraction in North America. IT is the Old Fiddlers’ Convention sponsored by the Galax Moose Lodge #733.
Begun in 1935, the Fiddlers’ Convention is held every August at Felts park in Galax, Virginia, in the heart of mountain music country and the very place were country music got its start.
It was in a barbershop downtown Galax where, in 1924, a group of musicians organized a vocal quartet with string instruments. That group, which took the name “The Hill Billies”, recorded some of its music and eventually went to New York to do professional recording. That was the first major commercial success in what was to become “country music”, and “hillbilly” music was named for it. Due to that significant milestone, the City of Galax rightfully bills itself as “The World’s Capitol of Old Time Mountain Music.”
It it only fitting that the biggest, annual, traditional music event, perhaps in all of America takes place only a long stone’s throw from that downtown barbershop.
The Old Fiddlers’ Convention was originated in the Spring of 1935 when a few members of the then new Moose Lodge #733 needed something to raise funds and promote publicity. In a newspaper item at the time, it was stated that the Convention was dedicated to “keeping alive the memories and sentiments of days gone by and make it possible for people of today to hear and enjoy the tunes of yesterday.” The original purpose is held in the same regard today, and the sponsors feel that, in some measure, this purpose has been accomplished.
Before the second weekend in August each year, lovers of country and mountain music leave their homes in time to be in Galax for the annual Convention. For some this means hundreds of miles of travel, while for others it will be a sort trip from their nearby homes. Mose of these people do not play music and come just for the listening, and renewing of old acquaintances. However, a few hundred come with heir instruments to show their skill and compete for the cash prizes which total thousands of dollars. Most of them would come without the prizes being offered. They want to see and be seen and hear and be heard. The instruments vary from mount harps in pockets, to bull fiddles strapped on top of cars.
Some well-known entertainers have competed in or attended the Convention over the years including Janette Carter, Doc Watson, and Ricky Skaggs.
The success of the Convention is probably “because we are trying to keep alive eat traditional and old time music,” according to the 93-year-old Oscar Hall, a Moose officer and one of the driving forces of the event, having served at the program as Master-of-all-Trades for 56 years. “It’s not this modern bluegrass music. It’s the same music Bill Monroe started.”
Two conventions were held in 1935 but by the last one that fall, the indoor facilities had been outgrown, and the Convention was moved to Felts Park and has been held there each year since, except when weather forced it indoors temporarily. One Convention was omitted during World War II due to limitations of travel. The 2020 Convention was cancelled due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, but members are hoping and planning for the 85th annual renewal to go on this year August 9-14.
The Old Fiddlers’ Convention has grown steadily until now, each year, people must be notified often that standing room is only available in the park and room for parking is filled.
In 1965, a Saturday afternoon program was started to relieve the pressure of competition on Saturday night. In 1967, NBC-TV covered the entire three nights and Saturday afternoon. A few years ago, a Wednesday night performance was added. In 1999, Tuesday night competition was added.
With the advent of a new after school traditional music program called Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) in 2000, a youth competition was started that year, which added Monday night to the schedule. This has become one of the most popular attractions of the Convention.
“One of the missions of the Old Fiddlers’ Convention is to keep alive the tradition of the old time music,’ Hall said, “and one of the really nice things about it is you see all these young kids going out, doing the flatfooting and playing music so it is serving its purpose of keeping the tradition alive.”
“This is Americana. This is America at its best. This is what music is all about. Music keeps America moving and music makes people happy, and its safe to say our musical heritage is in good hands for years to come.”
Another unique aspect of the Convention is the camping area where the musicians rehearse and try to get in tune. Some listeners and onlookers follow these bands around and lose contact with what is happening on stage. Often, dancers and players try out their abilities in the parking lot while they would not dare go on the stage.
Contestants must register in advance of the convention and there is no charge for registration. Some of competitors come from distant states and at times from foreign countries, but when they play, the tunes are usually the same that have been heard at the Convention down through the years.
In fact, the grand prize “Best in Show” winner at the latest Convention, held in 2019, came from Norway. Other countries represented included Nepal, Australia, England, The Netherlands, Argentina, Japan, Scotland, and Chile while nearly every state in the U.S. sent contestants and fans to the tiny Virginia city in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Approximately 1,200 musicians were registered.
The Old Fiddlers’ Convention has received tributes from many sources. President Ronald Reagan, in 1985, sent a congratulatory letter to the Galax Moose Lodge in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Convention.
“I can’t help feeling envy for all you folks feasting on the sound of mountain ballads and basking in the warmth of mountain hospitality,” the President wrote. “When you hear the sweet music left by our ancestors, you know that tradition is the best of their achievements, their loving legacy to us. So let the mountains ring!”
In 1988, the Convention was recognized by the Southeast Tourism Society which covers nine states as one of the “Top Twenty Events in the Southeast.”
An American tradition in itself – The Old Fiddlers’ Convention sponsored by Moose Lodge #722 in Galax, in the heart of Virginia’s mountain region.
(A member of Galax Moose Lodge #733, Donald Trausneck is a retired newspaper editor and volunteer Music Reporter for The Carroll News in Hillsville, Virginia.)