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To those who attend the Old Fiddlers’ Convention, Galax isn’t a place, it’s a state of mind.
When they say, “Do you remember that jam in the handicapped Porta-John at Galax?” they don’t mean the city, they mean the event.
(They not only once had a full band in the Porta-John, they also had dancers.)
And so, to people from the Twin Counties to California to New York to the British Isles, Australia and Japan, “Galax” means playing string music into the wee hours under ballfield lights, seeing old friends and camping no matter the weather.
Now in its 77th year, the Old Fiddlers’ Convention takes place the second week of August in Felts Park, with competition on stage every night from Monday through Saturday.
Seating for thousands is available on the covered concrete grandstand, though many prefer to bring lawn chairs for a spot in front of the stage.
A midway offers everything from pizza to Polish sausages to pinto beans. CD vendors, instrument sellers, T-shirt vendors and more are open throughout the event.
But that’s just half the story.
In the camping area, you might see a mandolin toss — or this year, an attempt to break the world record for most mandolins played at once.
You could see an Autoharp jam or the annual kazoo parade with a Mardi Gras flair.
Bizarre yard décor is fashionable and impromptu music goes on nearly 24 hours a day.
Campers welcome visitors who stroll down the fire lanes, stopping to listen to them jam or warm up for competition.
And still… that’s not all.
The convention started in 1935 as a one-night event and has been growing ever since.
Hotels, campgrounds, bed and breakfasts and area rental cabins fill up during the week. Reservations are recommended several months in advance.
Traditional music is experiencing a resurgence right now, but in this part of the world, it never went away.
No one remembers exactly who first suggested it, as members of the Galax Moose Lodge #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.”
The convention brings thousands of fans and musicians to Galax each August and sparked a year-round tourism industry built around the promotion of mountain music.
Moose member Bobby Patterson, a longtime recorder of traditional music and convention historian, says Galax could have been known 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 soon after its formation in 1933. When Williams became governor in 1934, he called a meeting to come up with something.
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 all these years, 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.
Moose members and their wives went to work advertising and placed posters throughout the community. The convention garnered only a tiny mention on the front page of the Grayson-Carroll Gazette.
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.
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 Herman Williams’ 7-year-old daughter Jean tap danced.
The inaugural event was so popular that a second convention was set for October of 1935 That one attracted 1,300 people.
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.
In 1935, the Moose Lodge gave away a total of $77.50, which included both cash and items donated by merchants. Today, the total purse is $16,900 — closer to $20,000 if you figure in the ribbons, Patterson said.
There have been some interesting and unusual events, like the Stoneman Family returning to Galax to play the 50th convention, Elizabeth Taylor visiting with 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, 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.
In 2000, the convention expanded from five to six nights to add a youth competition that has become increasingly popular. It showcases the new blood that is keeping the music alive.
The city of Galax and the Galax Moose Lodge worked together to build a permanent stage to celebrate the convention’s 75th anniversary in 2010. The big yellow tent that served the convention for the first 74 years is still there, attached to the back of the new stage.
Patterson’s research into the event’s history turned up an obscure piece of trivia, a newspaper article from 1925 about the Galax Volunteer Fire Department’s plans to hold a fiddlers’ convention — a decade before the Moose. He says it’s a classic example of “what could have been.”
The fire department made only $125, and never had another convention.
Patterson chuckles. “If only they had only known...”