The hills will be alive with the sound of music soon in Galax, Virginia for the Old Fiddlers’ Convention.
Each year, the convention draws upwards of 60,000 music enthusiasts from around the world to Galax, a city with a population of approximately 7,000, for six days. Billed as the world’s largest and oldest old-time fiddlers’ convention, it celebrates local music traditions in a variety of forms; old time band, bluegrass band, bluegrass fiddle, old time fiddle, autoharp, guitar, mandolin, clawhammer banjo, bluegrass banjo, dulcimer, dobro, folk song, and flatfoot dance. This year’s convention runs this week, Monday through Saturday.
Although the cash and trophy prizes for the different categories are a big draw, most musicians go to enjoy the camaraderie and learn from fellow musicians.
The Old Fiddlers’ Convention began in 1935 through the work and effort of the Galax Moose Lodge #733 and the Parent-Teacher Association as a way to raise money and publicity for local charity work. The mission of the convention, according to a local newspaper at the time, was “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.”
After a while, the sole organization and running of the convention became the Moose Lodge. The year 1935 saw two conventions held, one in the spring and one in the fall. By the fall date, the indoor facilities had been outgrown and the convention moved to Felts Park, where it has been held since, except for during bad weather. The convention has only been cancelled twice in its 85-year history; once during World War II due to travel restrictions and in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Also marking its debut in 1935 was the start of construction on the Blue Ridge Parkway. When World War II began, approximately 170 miles were available for travel while 160 additional miles were under construction. Today the Parkway is 469 miles long. Along with the Parkway is the Crooked Road: Virginia’s Music Heritage Trail, which is 330 miles and includes 19 counties, four cities, and 54 towns. These two systems help to bring people to the area to learn more about and enjoy the music heritage here.
For six days, people camp, jam, eat, and swap stories and tunes in the park. The main stage is where the competitions occur, but the parking lots and camping areas are where the real magic happen. There, stories and traditions are passed down from one generation to the next, ensuring it can continue on into the future. Many of the late and great musicians have graced the stage there as well as up and coming musicians.
For the sixth convention, held August 18-19, 1939 a special event was planned. An article in the Mount Airy Times for July 28, 1939 stated: “One of the special events featured on the program for the coming convention will be the public marriage of some visiting couple. Officials of the convention cordially invite anyone who is contemplating marriage to be married at their expense and many of Galax’s business houses will express their best wishes by donating lovely gifts to the united couple. Registrations for this event must be filed prior to August 10th.”
Music conventions are so much more than competition. They serve as a time and place to reconnect, bond, and enjoy each other’s company. We are so fortunate to be in the midst of such strong music traditions here.
Justyn Kissam is the director of programs and Education at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History. Originally from Winston-Salem, she has moved around the state for her education and public history work until settling in Mount Airy. She can be reached at 336-786-4478 x 228 or email@example.com