The annual Old Fiddlers Convention marked its 86th year in Galax, Virginia, this summer. It was a splendid week where the nation’s finest musicians and dancers gathered to share talents in a spirit of competition, tradition, and celebration.
In a country that prefers to set its sights on innovation and the future, it is special to find a place where our inheritance – our traditions in American music – hold great esteem and surpass, in our appreciation, those activities that millionaires pursue; things like riding a rocket into outer space. Why put effort into something like space flight when you can see the moon in person during a clawhammer banjo competition?
Oblivious to busy grown-ups and driving melodies coming from mandolins, every child in the grandstands solemnly watched as this year’s Sturgeon Moon rippled across an Eastern skyline until it hovered nearby looking as ripe as a September peach. Moonbeams wider than roadways intoxicated crowds so that strangers sat together in song and, in many cases, gathered to share meals. It was better than a family reunion.
The year 1935 saw the very first Old Fiddlers Convention in Galax. The March 21 Grayson-Carroll Gazette announced the event like this:
An Old Fiddlers convention is to be held in Galax high school auditorium on Friday night under the sponsorship of the local Moose lodge and the Parent-Teachers association… The high school auditorium will accommodate 540 persons and a capacity crowd is expected. Therefore, persons desiring to attend, in order to be sure of getting a seat, are urged to purchase their tickets early.
The front page of this 1935 issue also delivers the headline: “Western Dust Storm Rolling Toward East. Traffic by both Land and Air is Paralyzed. Western Kansas Appears to Be Hardest Hit.” The report continues, “Another major dust storm, causing confusion and widespread property damage, rolled eastward tonight across the Midwest plains.” These were America’s Dust Bowl years. Several seasons of drought sent over 3.5 million Americans packing up and fleeing devastated farmland. Places that had once been called home were now uninhabitable.
The Dust Bowl was magnified by years of economic failure; something known as America’s Great Depression. Our nation – still recovering, in many ways, from the Civil War and our history with slavery – convulsed with tragedy; communities were searching for ways to get through hard times. While collective losses howled through our population with scarcity, class disparity, and racial segregation, the 1930s were also years when we were trying to imagine who we could become: would we become something marvelous together or would we descend into further division and suspicion of each other? It was during these years that some communities like Galax took circumstances into their own hands and organized an event that would bring many from the region together for some old-time music and fun.
Among the families in Galax who were driven to build this idea of a marvelous America was the Perelman family. Having arrived in the United States from Russia in 1897, Louis and his wife, Ray, had made a home in Galax sometime during the 1910s where they opened a women’s clothing store. In 1935 – the same year as the first-ever Old Fiddlers Competition — the Perelman daughter, Mildred, opened Vogue Beauty Parlor at 112 ½ South Main Street. In June, the senior Perelman was appointed District Deputy Grand Master of the local chapter of Odd Fellows, and later that year, on Christmas Day, Mr. Perelman lead a group of men from the organization to distribute food supplies and gifts to the area’s needy families.
Also during the 1930s, Galax saw its population of surviving Confederate Civil War soldiers fall from three to one; a man by the name of Samuel Jackson, who, at the age of 18, enlisted at Wytheville in April 1864 and was assigned to the Wytheville reserves attached to Preston’s Battalion. In 1935 – the same year as the first Old Fiddlers Competition – the Grayson-Carroll Gazette reports that Jackson attended a Confederate Soldiers Reunion in Staunton on June 24.
Imagining How It Might Have Been
Pipers Gap Road intersects Main Street about a mile south of town. Ellis and Alice Leftwich lived in house number 77. He was a janitor at the public school. I imagine that in 1935 after crowds disperse from the auditorium where the first Old Fiddlers Convention was held, Mr. Leftwich files among rows of seats with his broom.
He ascends stairs to a stage and walks quietly back and forth with a dust mop. He finds things that were dropped by the audience and gathers them into a place where they can be found again. Mrs. Leftwich is helping too. She pushes a wheeled bucket across floors in front of auditorium doors and she mops until it glows in the school’s lamplight. She hears Ellis switching off stage lights; she listens as his footsteps retreat from the stage and up an aisle until he brushes through swinging doors to see her standing there leaning against her mop.
They are in their 60s now and they’ve been married for more than half their lives. Together, they walk with the mop bucket through hallways to a janitor’s closet, and then they’ll cross miles homeward on foot and by moonlight. Sometime in the years after this first Old Fiddlers Convention, Alice will pass away. The Grayson-Carroll Gazette will report that Mr. Leftwich donates 10cents to a fundraiser at “A rally held at the colored M.E. Church on Sunday.” In 1937, Mr. Leftwich will give a speech at the Rosenwald-Felts high school at a reunion of Americans who had formerly been enslaved; donations collected at the reunion will go to those survivors, now in their 80s, who endured America’s slavery business.
Today, the Old Fiddlers Convention is what can be called a “living tradition.” I like to think of it as a conversation across generations where one singer – one banjo or fiddle or dancer – is calling out to surrounding generations – back in time and forward to the future. The way we hold our instruments or pick a melody and the way we make steps in dance come from ancestors we never meet, and these ways of ours will stretch beyond us to people who will someday come from us.
This event welcomes talent from every level of experience and a warm crowd offers heartfelt applause for everyone. Amateurs can feel comfortable trying out skills in front of thousands and still feel like they’re performing in front of loving grandparents. And much of the talent is, indeed, superb and spell-binding. Hairpin pivots maneuvered by a handful of musicians playing bluegrass or an Appalachian reel are breathtaking. Groups like the Twin Creeks String Band from Galax spur the audience to their feet with a such spirited skill that it’s hard to believe the musicians will stay on the ground except for the suspenders holding them in place.
The week holds competition categories for old-time fiddle, dobro, mandolin, bluegrass fiddle, dulcimer, bluegrass banjo, clawhammer banjo, autoharp, guitar, old-time band, bluegrass band, folk song, and flatfoot dance. Monday features a sampling of these categories set aside for youth talent. The youngest member of The Brothers Five – a half-pint lad who informs me that he’s six – from Bloomingdale, Georgia, masters a mandolin like a seasoned Ricky Skaggs. His brother corrects him, “You’re seven now.”
“Oh yeah,” he laughs and looks up at me, “I’m seven.”
Lawn chairs blanket a field underneath the stage. Concrete benches built into a steep hillside form a grandstand. If you bring a folding chair, you’ll get close to the stage but you’ll take your chances with the rain. This year, near stage right, plywood boards lay in sandy dirt beyond the lawn-chaired audience. It is on these boards where anyone can join professional cloggers and flatfooters to learn steps whose roots wind back to places like Ireland, Scotland, and the African continent. The last day of the convention includes a flatfoot competition where contestants sometimes number in the hundreds.
“A Legendary Flat-Footer”
Brenda Jones is from Stewart, Virginia, and she learned to dance from her mother. Anything that came across radio waves would inspire her mother to dance. It wasn’t until Ms. Jones was an adult that she realized that her mother’s footwork came from a dance style with traditions in old-time string music. Today, Ms. Jones has her own dance board that she carries with her everywhere during the convention. She sets it down beside the dance area near the main stage and kicks up her heels. Her cowboy boots expertly float above the worn board in time with a reel. I visit with her when she returns to her lawn chair and ask her what she enjoys about coming to the Old Fiddlers Convention.
“I enjoy all the old time music and bluegrass music; meeting up with my friends year after year.” Brenda’s brown eyes sparkle when she gestures toward a man shuffling on the main dance board in sneakers. She says, “That man over there is Mr. Mitchell. He’s a legendary flat-footer. He’s one you will want to talk to.”
Mr. Mitchell picked up flat-foot dancing when he was about 14 years old. The way he describes his training is that he learned a couple of the basics and the rest was “inspiration.” He tells me that a father from Richmond recently called to ask him to teach his little boy how to flat-foot. The family made the trip to Galax so the son could spend time with Mr. Mitchell and learn some steps. I asked Mr. Mitchell what it was like to teach the dance tradition to a new generation.
“It is an honor and a privilege to teach an eight-year-old. It breaks the heart…”
Mitchell places both hands on his chest over his heart and pauses.
“It warms the heart, you know? Teaching little boys and girls to dance…” his voice breaks off. He continues, “You know things are so different now. People these days talk past each other; they don’t talk to each other.” There’s a moment in our conversation when we share an understanding that we want fellowship with each other as Americans; a place where we have faith in each other and where we trust each other. We agree that gatherings like this one and our willingness to talk to each other can help build community.
The sun has long disappeared over the mountain and ribbons of cool air emerge from wooded hillsides. I wander with my family through lanes of campers where musicians and dancers gather in smaller groups away from the main stage. I see Brenda Jones and I wonder if she’ll recognize me when I say hello to her next year. Banjo music taps through the evening to remind everyone that it comes from an ancient civilization on the world’s second-biggest continent: Africa. Fiddles answer and dancers stir. A Sturgeon Moon warms this basin called Felts Park.
Like the Leftwiches in 1935, there will be those who clean up during the event and after crowds disperse for another year. Golf carts with cleaning supplies amble up and down lanes of campers. Volunteers from Galax and a neighboring countryside will steer carts from one garbage can to the next, pulling out shiny trash bags full of food-packaging waste and replacing them with fresh ones. The volunteers laugh and visit with passersby and familiar faces. At the end of the week, as the last caravan lumbers away toward Main Street and Highway 58, these volunteers will gather again to wrap up another year of the convention. Cleaning and packing up is tedious and slow work; just like mopping the floor in the school.
The 86th Annual Old Fiddlers Convention continues a tradition that started in 1935. Today, it is a celebration where everyone belongs – a chance to choose to trust one another and to be marvelous together.
Be well, country… and be in touch.
Sara June Jo-Saebo is the curator at her history organization, Midwest History Project, and author of a book called “I Have Walked One Mile After Dark in a Hard Rain” which is coming soon in paperback through www.midwesthistoryproject.org