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It's good management, hard-working people and tons of planning that ensures the world's oldest and largest fiddlers' convention grows each year, as thousands of people pack Felts Park in Galax.
Once the Galax Old Fiddlers' Convention is over this year, about 25 committee members of the Galax Moose Lodge will begin working for the next year to see that the 2011 event goes off without a hitch, said Bobby Patterson, trustee of the Galax Moose Lodge, a committee member, musician and music historian. Members immediately start talking about what went right and what went wrong, and each member is assigned to a particular job.
And another 300 volunteers, including Moose Lodge members and other groups, sees to it that the event happens as it should.
“After the gates open and crowds start coming into the convention, it starts taking care of itself,” said Patterson. Fans and musicians come to watch the show, compete, form their own jam session or just to camp out. The annual convention, which is being held this week, is sponsored by the Galax Moose Lodge, which uses the proceeds from ticket and camping space sales to support community needs.
Most volunteers are veterans, and the new ones that come in to help learn quickly.
“It has perpetuated and has grown to the caliber it has today,” said Patterson, noting the growth from 897 people that attended the first one in the auditorium at the Galax High School — now the site of Galax Elementary — to the 40,000 fans and musicians expected to attend the 75th Galax Old Fiddlers' Convention throughout the week in Felts Park.
It generally takes three days to set up the large, yellow tent that the Moose Lodge began using in honor of its 50th year, the golden anniversary. This time, a permanent stage just constructed in Felts Park will mark its 75th year, the diamond jubilee, and the big, yellow tent will be placed behind the stage to be used as a holding area for participants.
“After the stage and tent is set up, it's Sunday morning and that's when the line starts forming to get into the park,” said Patterson. “One lady has been fixing a big pot of soup for 30 years to give to the musicians. She waits in line to get in line.”
Moose members work check-in and security and take care of judges. A group of Shriners handles tickets. Local and state law enforcement polices the area and Laurel Search & Rescue spends all day after the week-long event cleaning up Felts Park.
“Many Moose Lodge members come together for one sole purpose: to put on [the event] without glitches and make visitors feel welcome,” said Patterson. “When we hold our last meeting [before the convention], we cover everything that could be imagined. The Moose is to be commended for what it has done over the years. We want to make it a place for people to come back and enjoy.”
The local economy has prospered because of the Old Fiddlers' Convention. Even though the event takes place for only one week out of the year, people travel from all over the world throughout the year to the small city “to see where the convention takes place,” he said.
Patterson, who has been recording the convention's music for the past 35 years, showed a CD, “Galax International,” with music recordings from the 1980s, featuring participants from nine countries, including Britain, Sweden, The Netherlands, Australia, Italy, Japan, Denmark, Switzerland and the U.S.
“This represents what the Moose and the fiddlers' convention has done,” said Patterson. “It shows how much the convention has grown and how it is looked upon throughout the world and how it has brought countries together to experience music.”
The convention has led to a sharing of cultures, and the sharing of the Galax culture, which some may have never experienced before, said Patterson.
“When you share songs and music, it's more binding than a casual conversation,” said Patterson. “These people want to be a part of it, and until they speak one word, you don't know they're not from here because they strive to play the music just like we do here.”
Patterson joined the Moose Lodge in 1985, when his friend Fred Williams asked him to. Patterson had been recording the shows with Williams 10 years prior to joining, so he thought, “I might as well join the Moose,” he said.
Before Williams, many of the recordings had been lost. Patterson saw a need to preserve the music and worked out a deal with Ferrum College and the Moose Lodge. All the tapes are now preserved by Ferrum.
“I don't know whether musicians have gotten fancier or better,” Patterson said with a laugh, noting how the music has changed. “But because the music keeps getting better and has changed, it has allowed the convention to grow.”
Music has progressed with commercial bluegrass, he said. And when old-time bands play, the music stays true to the original sound.
Back in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, hundreds of convention participants competed in two days. A few years ago, it went to four days.
Patterson and local musician Willard Gayheart “wrote a song called 'Four Days in August,' and it wouldn't long before we had to change the name of the song,” said Patterson. “We used to have to get up early in the morning and stay late at night, so we just decided to keep adding days.”
As the list of participants grew, a week became adequate.
“I remember leaving out there at daylight many times,” said Oscar Hall, who joined the Moose Lodge in 1965. “We had so many participating, it took a long time to get through the bands.”
When the convention first started, there were no categories. Over the years, categories were added, allowing participants to compete in dulcimer, dobro, banjo, Autoharp, old-time band, bluegrass band, youth, bluegrass banjo, old-time banjo, bluegrass fiddle and old-time fiddle.
“We wanted to give everybody a chance to play the style they were best in,” said Hall. “So we had to divide it up, especially since there was two kinds of music,” bluegrass and old-time.
Back in the 1950s and '60s, most participants and attendees were locals, but during the 1970s, the hippies started coming in.
“It introduced more people to the music and brought people from foreign countries,” said Patterson. “Back then, we didn't have the police we have now, and it had gotten to where people were afraid to bring their families.”
The infamous Stompin' 76 bluegrass festival in Carroll County — which brought more than 150,000 people from everywhere and lacked proper crowd control — was a wake-up call for organizers of the fiddlers' convention, said Patterson.
The convention was then heavily policed by local police and became, once again, a place where people could bring their families.
“After the convention changed, the music became important again, and people began enjoying fellowship and people came and introduced their kids to traditional music,” he said. “The convention takes a lot of law enforcement and security to make sure it is kept clean.”
Even though the convention has evolved throughout the years, there are some things that haven't changed that make the event what it is today.
“We judge on traditional old-time and bluegrass, and try to keep it like was in years gone by,” said Hall. “We've done a lot of hard work out there to make it the biggest and oldest fiddlers' convention in the world, and it has been a challenge. It takes a lot of dedicated people.”
As soon as one convention is over, people are already talking about coming to the next one.
“It makes me feel good to know that I've done something good and have helped to keep things going,” said Hall. “Just the name of the Old Fiddlers' Convention is known all over the world, and it's a privilege for many to play and participate in it.”
Hall said the youth who have joined in to help out with the convention will keep it going.
About $20,000 in prizes, including specially designed 75th anniversary medallions, will be awarded to winning participants on Saturday.