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"Let's try a musical program." With those immortal words in 1935, the Galax Moose Lodge launched a legendary annual event that has grown to the world's largest gathering of bluegrass and old time musicians and fans.
Fiddlers' conventions have branched out to other areas over the years, but Galax is still revered as the oldest and largest convention in the world.
Earlier this year, the Galax Old Fiddlers' Convention ― now in its 78th year ― was the focus of a presentation at the city's Crossroads Institute. The retrospective was part of the Bluegrass Gravy and River Quilts program, a series of free presentations offered to help locals get in touch with their area's heritage.
The long history of the convention was detailed by Harold Mitchell, the convention's long-time emcee, and Bobby Patterson, a local recordist and preservationist of traditional music.
Mitchell and Patterson both have a long history with bluegrass music, and they offered stories to the audience about their personal experiences with the convention.
To them, the gathering isn't just a musical competition, it's a family reunion.
"The music creates a bond that is hard to break," said Patterson as they looked back over the years of gatherings.
The convention began back in 1935, when a few members of Galax Moose Lodge #733 needed an event to raise funds and promote publicity. It was stated back then 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."
Mitchell recalled that the first-ever convention drew 200 people, which was impressive for a first year back then. "It took off from there," he said.
Today, 30,000 to 40,000 people attend over the course of a week.
Before rules and regulations changed in later years, Mitchell and Patterson remembered that it was a common practice to sign up to get on stage ― even if the person didn't have a band.
"They would make one up, then when they got there, they would get together with other players and perform together on stage," Mitchell said. "It created something special, because most of the time, this would be the only time they would play together.”
Fortunately, when the Moose Lodge began recording performances at the convention back in 1960, some of these rare moments were captured.
One of Mitchell's favorite things about the convention is the wide scope of talent that it draws to one area from around the globe.
"I think it's the greatest music in the world," he said. "There are all kinds of talent, and they have two and a half minutes to show the audience what they've got."
And since even the most seasoned players are sometimes prone to stage fright, both Mitchell and Patterson agreed that some of the best music they had ever heard took place backstage.
Both Mitchell and Patterson recalled several great musicians that they had the opportunity to play along with over the years. Older bands were mentioned, such as The Bedsaul Brothers and the Highwood Spring Band, and living legends of the area like guitarist Wayne Henderson.
Waiting on the sidelines during the discussion, several winners from past conventions were tuning up for the second portion of the program, which Mitchell called a "mini fiddler's convention."
Following a short break, several musicians performed live for the audience, including Wayne Henderson, Eddie Bond, Spencer Strickland, Marcia Todd, Donna Correll, Erynn Marshall and several others.
Following individual performances with instruments like clawhammer banjo, mandolin, guitar, folk song and flatfoot dance ― all competition categories at the convention ― everyone joined together for a group performance. Cameras flashed, and several audience members got up to dance right along to the music.
In addition to the presentation, guests were also able to observe several posters that detailed the history of the convention. A table by the door was full of merchandise, along with a donation jar for anyone who wanted to give a little back to the Bluegrass Gravy and River Quilts program.
Crossroads Institute Executive Director Oliver McBride three other events were held in the series this year, including “Old Home Remedies and Recipes,” “Jack Tales and Ghost Stories” and "Civil War Era in the Twin Counties.”
As an added benefit, local teachers who attended could count the classes as credits towards their recertification, McBride said.
McBride thanked Kathy Cole for her help with orchestrating the events, Felicia Hash for her event photography and Amanda Bourne and Ray Kohl for their hand in making the series possible.