Chattanooga has earned many a moniker in its life thus far—from the Dynamo of Dixie to the dirtiest city in the U.S. to the Scenic City—but unbeknownst to many residents, the city on the Tennessee River has a history of deciding the Champion Fiddler of the South.
What: Fourth annual Great Southern Old Time Fiddlers' Convention
When: Saturday, March 9, 12-7 p.m.
Where: 901 Lindsay St.
How much: $5, free for children 12 and younger
This Saturday, Lindsay Street Hall hosts the fourth annual Great Southern Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention from noon to early evening.
The event is a revival of a much older gathering: The Champion of the South Fiddling Competition was a tried-and-true tradition from the early 1920s to the 1940s war era, which was held in Memorial Auditorium.
Chattanooga local Matthew Downer rebooted the festival in 2010 and has worked with the Crisp family to host the one-day event at Lindsay Street Hall each year since.
A musical lesson in Scenic City history
A fiddler and music historian, Downer first encountered mention of the festival in tea-colored articles a friend Ken Parr had preserved from the Chattanooga Times and the Chattanooga News, both predecessors of today’s Chattanooga Times Free Press.
“Reading those [clippings] was like a virtual who’s who of old-time and string band music,” Downer said. “I knew I needed to find a way to make it an annual event once again. It had way too much history and importance to just let it set in the mothballs.”
The competition first appeared on the scene in the early 1920s and thrived until war and fuel rationing curtailed people’s entertainment and travel budgets.
The region brimmed with similar battles of the bows, including musical duels in Alabama, Georgia and other parts of Tennessee. Downer explained that his research has shown that despite the abundance of those competitions, Chattanooga emerged as the designated place to “fiddle it out.”
In 1926, the two-day event pulled in a crowd of more than 5,000 people.
More than 50 years later
Today, the Great Southern Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention attracts a more modest audience of 500 to hear approximately 60 musicians from Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
The Saturday schedule begins at noon and runs until 7 p.m. with contesting in five categories: banjo, dance, fiddle, string band and traditional song.
The program also includes performances from fiddler Brittany Haas and banjo aficionado Leroy Troy.
The Tennessee Aquarium, Fletcher Bright, Rock City, Lone Mountain Music, MoonPie, TerraMae Appalachian Bistro and Dust to Digital are sponsoring the event.
Downer noted that the festival is not only a renewed time capsule of sorts in Chattanooga history but also a rare continuance of a distinctive tradition. The musicians will be playing old-time music only—not to be mistaken with bluegrass, which crowds are now mostly familiar with and which has enjoyed a boost of popularity in recent years.
“Bluegrass came around much later in the 1940s and, to me, is not near as interesting or diverse musically as the old-time music,” Downer said. “With old-time and string band music, there is a wider variety of instrumentation, styles and a much deeper well of tunes, songs and influence.”
The strict rules spell out that no microphones, amps or PAs are allowed.
“You won’t find this anywhere in the world but Chattanooga, Tenn.,” Clark Williams, a festival regular, said. “The microphone robs the fiddle of the glory of its natural sound.”
The genre, Downer explained, is a vital gene in the American musical DNA and highly representative of the individual communities, cities, states and regions from which it hails.
“Anytime you can reach back 88 years and lay claim to a piece of your city’s history, you have to do it,” Downer said.
A few hours later
Following the performances at Lindsay Street Hall, the Folk School of Chattanooga will move the party down Main Street for more music, food and libation.
Taqueria Jalisco will supply the local fare while the Seedy Seeds from Cincinnati, Ohio, begin the evening; T Claw calls square dances; and the Ridges, a seven-piece orchestral folk rock band, also from Ohio, wrap up the night.
Additionally, the Folk School will be holding a series of its own competitions that would only ever be open to the general public during an old-time music weekend.
Attendees can try their hand at the Whistling and Scat Competition, Old-Timey Poetry Slam and Fancy Shoe Competition.
Updated @ 5:19 p.m. on 3/8/13 to correct a typographical error.