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No one remembers exactly who first suggested it, as members of the Galax Moose Lodge No. 733 sat around a coal stove in the old Matthews Hardware building in 1934, brainstorming ideas for a new fundraiser.
At some point, five words signaled the beginning of an event that has become known worldwide — “Let’s try a musical program.”
Today, the annual Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention, which starts this week, brings thousands of fans and musicians to Galax and sparked a tourism industry built around the promotion of mountain music. This marks the convention's 76th anniversary.
Attendance over the week is estimated at 30,000 to 40,000 musicians and fans. They're mostly fans, who come just to listen, to dance or to meet up with old friends at the biggest family/class reunion in the world.
Between 1,700 and 2,000 of them are musicians who pack up their instruments and travel hundreds — sometimes thousands — of miles to Galax.
In the early years, the contestants came chiefly from Carroll, Grayson and adjoining counties in Virginia and North Carolina. Now, performers hail from small towns all over the U.S., big cities, college campuses, foreign countries and every place where traditional American music is loved and played.
Many come from England, but a few diehards travel — literally — halfway around the world to attend, from Japan and Australia. But, when they play, “the tunes are usually the same that have been heard at the convention down through the years,” according to the event's official history on its website, www.oldfiddlersconvention.com.
Oliver and Lachlan Dear of Melbourne, Australia, came to Galax three years ago. They flew about as far as you can fly to reach the city.
The Dears run the biggest bluegrass festival in the southern hemisphere. About 1,500 people attend, but they reckon there are only about 2,000 people in all of Australia who play bluegrass.
The Dears came to Galax because they are big fans of Ralph Stanley and Carroll County’s own Stoneman family.
Down in Felts Park, 15-year-old Oliver found himself playing under a tent with local musicians. He was all smiles as he joined players of his own age to tear through a song in an impromptu jam session.
Half a world away from Australia, Oliver Dear was right at home.
Amy Boucher — former Gazette editor, old-time musician and music journalist — wrote in 2000 about the fiddlers' convention fans:
“To people from California to New York State to the British Isles and Japan, 'Galax' means music and Polish sausage and ball field lights shining into the tent all night and wet hay and mud and a week of less-than-perfect hygiene and meeting up with friends that you only see once a year.
“These are people who take a week’s vacation in the second full week of August every year to steep themselves in the traditional string music of the mountains.”
Dozens of these dedicated fans and musicians arrived a week before the gates opened Sunday morning. A handful were here two weeks prior, parking buses, RVs and vans all over the city.
They come to compete for cash prizes worth thousands of dollars, but as the official history says, “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 mouth harps in pockets to bull fiddles strapped on top of cars. Many of these musicians have played in conventions since 1935, but this group is growing smaller by the year.”
Musicians who participate in the convention don’t have to buy a local souvenir as a memento of their time in Galax. As Boucher wrote, “Every single performer carries away a rosette with 'Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention' and the year on it.
“It’s a badge of courage for getting up on that stage in front of all those people.”
In The Beginning...
Galax could have been known around the globe as the world’s capitol of brass bands, if the Moose Lodge’s original idea had taken off. According to Herman Williams’ book on the convention’s history, the lodge desperately needed money after its formation in 1933.
When Williams became governor in 1934, he called a meeting to come up with something.
Gathered around the stove at Matthews Hardware were Berlin Lineberry, Dr. R.C. Bowie, Charlie Martin, Dr. W.P. Davis, W.T. Miller, Paul Melton and Walter Alderman.
Alderman wasn’t a member of the Moose, but the well-known musician once had a brass band. Dr. Davis managed a string band for several years.
Local music historian and Moose officer Bobby Patterson said the Whitetop Mountain Festival was already established at the time, and featured what he called “old-time popular music.”
After weighing the pros and cons of brass bands versus string bands, the Moose settled on a competition with cash prizes. Lodge members picked the temporary name Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention, until they could think of something better.
After three quarters of a century, Patterson said, the Moose members figure they’ll stick with that title.
Prior to 1935, the Galax Moose Lodge had a group of bands — collectively known as the Moose Melody Makers — who performed benefit shows and traveled the country.
Patterson thinks this experience convinced the Moose that a bluegrass and old-time competition would be a sellout. “They attracted big crowds, and people got enthused about the performances. They knew it would draw people.”
The Moose partnered with the Galax Parent Teacher Association to hold the event in the Galax High School auditorium — now the site of Galax Elementary — because it was the only place big enough for a gathering of that size.
The Moose persuaded chiropractor Dr. R.C. Bowie to be the event’s chairman and his wife served as secretary and bookkeeper. Moose members and their wives went to work advertising the inaugural event and placed posters throughout the community. The convention garnered only a tiny mention on the front page of the Grayson-Carroll Gazette.
A newspaper item from 1935 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 first-ever Galax Old Fiddlers' Convention was held April 12, 1935. Patterson said 897 people attended, and 200 were turned away because the auditorium was full.
Winners of the first convention were Herbert Higgins, fiddle; Edgar Rogers, banjo; Fields Ward, guitar; Ruth Melton, dulcimer; Walter Alderman, folk song; Alex Dunford, folk story; The Bog Trotters, band; and Jack Reedy, flat foot dance. The winning band was the Galax-based Bogtrotters, an incarnation of which still plays.
Rogers, of Stuart, received the award for best individual musician.
The Moose Lodge wasn’t sure there would be enough contestants to fill up the program, so it scheduled some extras. There was singing and a comedy skit, and Williams’ 7-year-old daughter Jean tap danced.
“It started out with a bang,” said Patterson, noting that the inaugural event was so popular that a second convention was set for October of 1935. That one attracted 1,300.
According to the Moose history, by the last convention that fall, the indoor facilities had been outgrown and the event was moved to Felts Park. It 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.
Between 1946 and 1965, attendance grew from 2,500 to 15,000.
More and more people showed up over the years, with the event hitting its current level of 40,000 in the mid-1970s. “The music really started to get popular in the '70s,” Patterson said, with folk songs getting increased radio airplay and exposing a new generation to the old style.
The prize money increased along with attendance. In 1935, the Moose Lodge gave away a total of $77.50, which included cash and items donated by merchants. Today, the total purse is close to $20,000 if you figure in the ribbons, Patterson said.
Putting on the convention takes the combined efforts of an estimated 300 volunteers, including 100 Moose members, Shriners, church groups, rescue squads and other volunteer groups.
A Show Within A Show
The fiddlers' convention has played host so some interesting and unusual events, like the Stoneman Family returning to Galax to play the 50th convention, actress Elizabeth Taylor visiting with Sen. John Warner and banjo picker Bobby Lundy tying the knot with sweetheart Chris Karakul in an on-stage ceremony officiated by the Rev. Raleigh Amburn, a renowned guitar and bass player.
Longtime convention-goers remember the old wooden grandstands in Felts Park, the muddy ruts in the campsites and the infamous “Galax Hilton” — the old horse stables where campers used to stay. “Back then, they’d decorate the stables and have a kazoo parade every Saturday morning,” Patterson recalls.
There have been other organized — and sometimes disorganized — events that have become legend, such as the flaming mandolin toss, the Autoharp jam and the infamous Port-A-Jam, the goal of which is to see how many musicians you can stuff in a portable toilet and still play a tune.
The event's vast campground in Felts Park is almost a show in itself, with fans and musicians camping in everything from primitive pop-up tents and lean-tos to opulently appointed tour buses that easily cost five times more than the total amount of prize money.
A lot of attendees spend the whole six days in the 900 campsites in the park.
“Most of us camp in primitive conditions, on 16-by-30-foot rectangles in a city park, so that we can use a good 20 hours out of every day listening to music, playing music, learning music and visiting with friends,” Boucher wrote.
Wandering those grass-and-mud lanes, visitors can hear musicians rehearsing and trying to get in tune. “Some listeners and onlookers follow these bands around and lose contact with what's happening on the stage,” says the Moose's online history. “Often, dancers and players try out their abilities in the parking lot when they would not dare go on the stage.”
Bizarre yard décor is everywhere and impromptu music goes on nearly 24 hours a day.
“For a musician, it’s kind of like being the exhibit in a zoo, as convention visitors stroll up and down the fire lanes between the campers, watching, listening and videotaping,” Boucher wrote.
Most musicians will do their best to play a request — unless you ask an old-time band to play “Rocky Top.” That's a rookie mistake to the uninitiated — it's actually a bluegrass song.
Which brings up the age-old question: How do you tell the difference? “The old-time bands are the ones whose outfits don’t match,” Boucher offers.
Change — And Dollars
The convention started with only three days, Thursday through Saturday.
In 1965, a Saturday afternoon program was started to relieve the pressure on Saturday night.
(In 1967, NBC covered the entire three nights and Saturday afternoon.)
A few years ago, a Wednesday night performance was added.
In 1999, competition expanded to Tuesday night.
A highly successful youth competition started in 2000, adding Monday night to the schedule and bringing the event to a total of six days. “The fact that many of the contestants are youngsters is encouraging, and we feel that the future of folk and country music is secure,” the Moose say in their online history.
In the past decade, many of the kids who competed that first year have grown into fine solo musicians in their late teens or 20s, or have teamed up to form bands. And every year, a new crop of brave youngsters take to the stage to saw on fiddles and pluck banjos
In recognition of the convention's 65th anniversary in 2000, the Galax Moose Lodge was named one of nine winners of the Governor’s Award for the Arts in Virginia.
The event is also a major venue on The Crooked Road, Virginia's heritage music trail.
The convention's main icon, the big yellow tent and wooden stage, got a major makeover in 2010 to mark the event's 75th anniversary, a birthday present to the event that put it on the world stage.
The Moose Lodge and City of Galax built a permanent stage in Felts Park, for the convention and other performances. Purists shouldn't worry — during the convention, the big tent is still attached to the back of the stage.
The event has become a major money-maker, both for the Moose and the community.
The lodge doesn't disclose how much it takes in, but they estimate an attendance of 35,000 throughout the week. If you multiply that by estimated tourist spending of $60 a day, you get $2.1 million in revenue for the area.
Some of the money the Galax lodge takes in goes to the national Moose organization, but the Moose make substantial donations in the community. The Lions Eye Clinic; an annual Christmas program for needy children; after-prom parties; a trestle on the New River Trail State Park; scholarships; and improvements to Felts Park are just a few of the causes the lodge has helped over the years.
Merchants benefit, too. Retail sales get a boost that week, especially in the food and fuel sectors. Hotels, motels, cabins and campsites in Galax fill up quick, as well as those in neighboring Grayson, Carroll and Wythe counties.
(Galax motel managers recommend making a reservation by March — June at the latest.)
What Could Have Been
In the Moose Lodge's extensive archive is an obscure piece of trivia that Patterson points out. It's a newspaper article from 1925 about the Galax Volunteer Fire Department’s plans to hold a fiddlers’ convention — a decade before the Moose.
Patterson says it’s a classic example of “what could have been.”
The fire department made only $125 and, presumably disappointed, never had another convention.
Patterson chuckles. “If only they had only known...”
Additional photos and information in this article were provided by the Galax Moose Lodge No. 733 and former Gazette editor/writer Amy Boucher.