Tennessee Valley Old TimeFiddlers Convention
History of the
Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention
by Bill Harrison, 1996
Limestone County, Alabama (Athens) has always been a hot bed of traditional old time music. Originally the county was largely populated by migrant yeomanry from the mountains of the upper south. These migrants were descended from immigrants from the British Isles with a strong tradition of folk fiddle music; therefore Limestone County, from its frontier days to the present time, has been strongly rooted in a traditional old time music.
This writer was born and raised in the north west section of Limestone County in 1920 and can remember when it seemed there were fiddlers, guitar and banjo players and buck dancers everywhere. Square dances were held almost weekly in the homes and box suppers and other social events were incomplete without one or more fiddle players. My father owned a country store during a time when primitive transportation and bad roads precluded frequent trips to Athens, fifteen miles distant. Saturdays were “trade days” at country stores and large crowds were almost always present, which included fiddle bands. In many ways the Saturday trade days were also miniature old time music festivals. One of the fiddlers who frequented the store kept a log of the fiddle contests that he and his family band competed in. The log covered the period from 1925 to 1940, and numbered forty nine. The list covers only those contests in which he participated, but there were many more held in the county during this period.
The Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention, which celebrates its 30th Anniversary today, could be considered a renewal of a much older annual fiddlers convention which began at the old Agricultural High School 72 years ago. The site is now Athens Middle School. This annual event was organized in 1924 and staged by W.H. Johnson, principal of the school. From all accounts, Johnson loved, respected and understood old time music and the convention flourished under his direction. It was an important event of its time and drew large crowds from North Alabama and southern Middle Tennessee. It is noteworthy that this convention launched the career of the Delmore Brothers who were natives of Limestone County. The brothers won first prize in their category at the 1930 Athens Fiddlers Convention and this win motivated them to seek an audition with the Columbia Recording Company. They were accepted and shortly after joined the Grand Ole Opry and became nationally known radio and recording stars. Alton Delmore wrote his hit song “Brown’s Ferry Blues” for presentation at country fiddlers contests prior to their success in country music.
W.H. Johnson left the Agricultural High School in the mid 30’s and apparently the onset of the great depression coupled with the loss of his dedication caused the event to fold. Fiddle contests and other public presentations of old time music passed into almost total eclipse from the late 30’s into the mid 60’s. Old time fiddlers were discouraged by the lack of interest in their art and many of them retired their instruments to the attics to gather dust. Radios had become more accessible and other types of more sophisticated music were being listened to. It seemed that a lot of people who were raised on old time music were embarrassed to be associated with it. It appeared that old time music was dying.
In the mid 1960’s, it was discovered that a few old time fiddlers in the county had dusted off their instruments and were playing mostly for each other in the privacy of their homes. One of these gathering places was a few miles north of Athens at Sam McCracken’s Elk River home on state highway 99. McCracken, who was born in 1888 and who died in 1972, was a master old time fiddler whose archaic style developed long before the advent of the radio and phonographs and never changed. He is represented in the Archive of Folk Music in the Library of Congress with twenty of his tunes played when he was in his eighties. This courtly old gentleman who had ceased to play his fiddle for more than two decades started to play again and found his skill swiftly returning. It was here at the Friday night fiddling in Mr. Sam’s big living room that Mike Wallis, Ed Christopher, Bob Holland and Bill Harrison and others began to regularly attend and the gathering began to grow and interest to rekindle. Inspired by the skill and enthusiasm of the old fiddlers such as Lester Beck, Paisley Hagood, Dennis McGlocklin, Bill Owens, Rob Garris, and especially the rollicking and driving old time style of Mr. Sam, we began discussing the possibility of organizing a small scale fiddlers contest somewhere in the county just to see what would happen. Thus, the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention was born in Sam McCracken’s living room and he is the spiritual father. An abandoned school house in the Pleasant Point community a few miles west of Athens was mentioned as a possibility to hold this first contest. The community was attempting to raise money to repair the building for a community meeting place. The community leaders were approached, an agreement was reached, and the plan was finalized. In the late summer of 1966 the first bellwether contest was held at the tiny old Pleasant Point schoolhouse. With only word of mouth promotion, there were more people than seats and the crowd overflowed into the school house yard.
Encouraged by the success of the Pleasant Point contest we started thinking about a second contest in a larger venue. At this time the Salem community in West Limestone was raising funds to complete a small hospital left unfinished by the death of the only physician in that area who was an authentic country doctor and a fiddler. We selected the West Limestone High School Gym which had a stage and a relatively large seating area. Then we launched a modest promotional compaign in the local Athens newspaper. The word spread. Reporters from area newspapers picked up on the story and articles appeared in the Huntsville and Decatur newspapers and as far away as Birmingham and Nashville. The West Limestone event was held on February 18th, 1967. The gym was packed with standing room only and several hundred people had to be turned away.
The success of both the Pleasant Point and the West Limestone fiddler contests led us to the conclusion that there was extensive latent interest in old time music represented by an amazing cross section of people in widely divergent social strata. Further, we decided there was a need to dispel the false image of old time fiddling almost always graphically portrayed as an overalled, goateed farmer in a tattered straw hat sitting on a bale of hay holding his fiddle. While we knew a lot of farmers who were fiddlers, and good ones too, we also found that traditional old time music held the interest of a wide variety of the population – professionals as well as blue collar workers, shopkeepers and business executives, and even holders of high public office. Burl Ives, the late fold singer, once observed that the most lucrative place to collect folk songs is the city. He said that most of us have a rural background and when removed from that scene remember the old sounds more vividly and nostalgically. Thomas Jefferson was a fiddler as well as an accomplished classical violinist. When he ran across old fiddle tunes he liked he wrote them down in his notebooks. It has been reported that the old fiddle tune “Grey Eagle”, still heard frequently at fiddlers conventions, was one of his favorites. Fiddlin’ Bob Taylor who was governor of Tennessee from 1886 to 1890 and again from 1896 to 1898 was a cultured, educated man and a dedicated old time fiddler. He made national headlines by entering fiddle contests while he was holding the governor’s chair. Out of office he wrote an eloquent and moving tribute entitled “To the Fiddler” datelined En Route April 24, 1899.
After several discussions, we concluded that an organization was needed to activate the interest in old time music and to provide the opportunity for old time musicians to be heard and appreciated by large audiences. This organization would also provide an information network to keep musicians and fans involved. In the summer of 1967 the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Association (TVOTFA) was formed. The two main objectives of the TVOTFA was to sponsor an annual fiddlers convention and contests and to publish a newsletter on a regular basis. The overwhelming success of the West Limestone contest proved we needed more space and additional facilities to meet the potential of an annual event.
Bob Holland and Bill Harrison approached the officials of Athens College, then a private institution, and proposed that the college host the annual TVOTFA convention with the net proceeds going to the college scholarship fund. An agreement was reached and planning began.
The anvil shoot kicked off the first annual Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention on Saturday, November 4, 1967 in the big Athens College Gym. The weekend saw torrential rain and when Saturday night arrived the temperature had plummeted to 24 degrees. While the bad weather had an adverse effect on attendance, the event was a modest success and netted $52. Contestants and spectators came from four states. Bill Mitchell, then sheriff of Lee County Mississippi (Tupelo), was crowned the first Tennessee Valley Fiddle King and E.A. Cope of Birmingham was the runner-up. Media coverage was encouraging. Radio station WVNA, a CBS affiliate from Tuscumbia, Alabama was on the scene and Jack Voorhies, program director of the station, recorded a portion of the convention which included an introduction, music and interviews with contestants. Voorhies sent the tape to the CBS network headquarters in New York and the network aird it on their “Weekend Dimension” show and the following week it was broadcast again on the “Mike Wallace At Large” show. The annual Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention was off and running.
One of the items discussed in our post convention critique meeting was the need to establish a permanent date of the event. it was felt that early November was too risky from a bad weather standpoint, which was experienced at our first event. We decided that an earlier date was desirable and that a look into the weather records would be made to try to settle on a warmer and drier date. The weather records indicated that the first weekend in October was the most favorable and that date was selected as the permanent date. With few exceptions, good weather has been the rule with remarkable consistency for the past twenty nine years. Year by year, the convention steadily grew and national publicity, beginning with the CBS radio exposure, continued. The TVOTFA newsletter with regional circulation was expanded into a full fledged journal/magazines for traditional fiddle players and named The Devil’s Box. Nationally known writers on the subject began to contribute to the magazine. Significant contributions to the TVOTFA, its convention and The Devil’s Box were made by Dr. Stephen F. Davis and Dr. Charles K. Wolfe. Steve Davis, psychology professor at Emporia State University and noted collector and published writer on old time music, became the editor of The Devil’s Box in the early 1970’s and was the convention judging chairman until 1982. (He continues as editor of The Devil’s Box which is still being published under the aegis of the Tennessee Folklore Society). Charles Wolfe, professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University is one of the world’s most respected and prolific writers on American traditional and popular music. He is the author of more than a dozen books on the subject. Over the years he has generously contributed more than fifty articles to The Devil’s Box. His latest book, The Devil’s Box: Masters of Southern Fiddling, will be published in a few months by the Vanderbilt University Press. With invaluable support such as that given by Charles Wolfe Steve Davis The Devil’s Box quickly attained national and even international circulation and it consistently promoted the convention. We began to see participants and spectators from a wide area of the U.S. and even foreign visitors.
The event was selected several times by Discover America Inc., a national travel organization, as one of the top twenty events for the month of October. In 1976, the United States Bi-Centennial Commission selected the convention as one of the top twenty events of its kind. Articles in regional and national magazines began to appear and the growth accelerated. With each event, the big college gym was increasingly packed with standing room only and it appeared that there were as many people on the grounds outside the gym unable to get inside. Lack of seating was not the only problem with the gym. On warm days, the heat inside, increased by the packed bodies, became unbearable. The only recourse to cool the gym down was to stop the proceedings and turn on the big exhaust fans to clear the air. Due to the structure an acoustic problem existed that could not be remedied. The gate receipts were limited to the gym capacity. In 1978, a decision was made to stage the convention outdoors and to secure the area with a fence. The site selected was the area around Founder’s Hall, the oldest building on the campus, with the stage extended from the front porch of the stately and beautiful antebellum building. The seating area would be on a wide expanse of lawn shaded by centuries old trees. The weather for the following straight years was unseasonably cool but the attendance held with perhaps a slower rate of growth. When the weather returned to normal, attendance rose dramatically. At the present time the attendance is approximately triple the crowd size of the early and mid 1970’s. A record crowd of 15,000 representing 33 states and two foreign countries showed for the 29th event in 1995.
The TVOTFA was disbanded in 1982 and the sponsorship of the convention passed to the Athens State College Foundation and the Athens-Limestone County Chamber of Commerce. Under the capable and hands-on direction of Ewell Smith, Dean of Financial Affairs, and his dedicated and responsive group, the convention has continued to thrive. Ewell has been actively involved almost from the very first convention in 1967. His fiddlers convention group executes each event year after year with the precision of a well oiled machine. The arts and crafts portion has grown to a very significant degree but this growth has been controlled to prevent encroachment on the music which has remained dominant. To avoid a flea market atmosphere, the arts and crafts exhibits are carefully screened to insure their products are in keeping with the theme of traditional old time music.
For the first fifteen Years, Bill Harrison opened the Annual Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention with the thunderous boom of the anvil shoot. The shoot, like old time fiddling, is a sound from Americas pioneer past and is made by pairing two heavy blacksmith’s anvils with a black powder charge in between and then touching off the charge with a fuse. This results in a cannon-like roar hurling the top anvil high into the air. After a long absence the anvil shoot returns to celebrate the 30th anniversary.
Contact Rick Mould at 256-233-8215 for more information about the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention.