In the the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Atlanta’s Municipal Auditorium was the site of the Old-Time Fiddlers Convention. The annual event had been going on at least since 1885, but its 1913 incarnation was a special one. That year, the musicians officially formed what was called the Georgia Fiddlers Association. The organization ran the convention consistently until around 1935, when urbanization, radio and mobility changed the way Americans entertained themselves.
This spring, in honor of the association’s birth, Georgia State University’s Special Collections and Archives will present the Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers Conventions Centennial Celebration, just around the corner from the festival’s original site.
Once upon a time, fiddlers conventions were popular social and entertainment events, bringing both the performers and their kin to urban areas and attracting folks who had previously left rural settings and moved to the city. In Atlanta, the conventions were also frequented by blue-collar workers who lived in Cabbagetown, Scottdale and other factory-centric enclaves. These events generally consisted of two days of showcases and a widely anticipated competition on the last day. Winning the contest was a boost both financially and professionally, pushing forward the careers of performers such as the legendary Fiddlin’ John Carson and Gid Tanner, both well-known Georgians who went on to achieve national success.
The significance of the 1913 Convention is best described in the first chapter of retired GSU Professor Wayne Daniel’s informative 1990 book Pickin’ On Peachtree: A History of Country Music in Atlanta, Georgia. Daniel—who will be delivering a presentation at the centennial celebration—reflects on the roots of old-time music and the factors that influenced the unique sound of Georgia’s fiddlers. “At the original conventions, “he says,” most of the contestants were from north Georgia, the Appalachians. This was a hotbed of settlement of the Irish, Scottish, and English immigrants who brought their instruments and music with them.
“Certain environments affect the styles of the music,” Daniels continues, dissecting regional differences in fiddle styles. “In the South we have the Appalachian influences, and the music was based on the traditions of Scottish and Irish music, so Southeastern country music tends to retain some of those structures. Out West, there were different cultural influences, and that’s where Western swing and honky-tonk country music originated. I think that if Bob Wills was raised in north Georgia, his playing would be a lot more like Fiddlin’ John Carson’s. Bluegrass was more Kentucky-based and even today is more similar to old-time music than what popular country music evolved into. Bluegrass stays closer to the original sounds from Kentucky, where a lot of old time musicians came from.”
Tulane University faculty member Keith Fontenot—who along with Patrick Huber has co-edited a forthcoming book called North of the Ohio: Northern Fiddlers and String Bands of the 1920s—is also fascinated by the regional and cultural aspects of fiddle styles. Fontenot will also present at the centenntial celebration, though he has a somewhat different perspective of the music. “Southern fiddle conventions had a fairly clear distinction over the Northern counterparts,” he explains. “For example, in the South they were open to all age ranges, and were non-exclusionary. In the North, they [only] wanted players over 50 years old, which maintained a sense that this music was an old tradition done by old people. This difference seems to have been the inspiration for the development of country music, since the South was cultivating younger players [and] passing on the legacy. Also, there were more ethnic influences in the Northern events—Hungarian fiddling for example. This suggests the South maintained a more common sound across the area.”
Considering the impact of the 1913 convention and the creation of the Georgia Fiddlers Association, Fontenot points out some significant issues. “The formation of the Georgia Fiddlers Association … legitimized the profession by establishing a stage for the players to compete and show off their prowess, which in turn helped the music to become an art. People would come to see the performance, not to dance to background music. The competition then compelled the musicians to become better, and provided a resource for the record companies to select from a group of artists. … These events provided a forum for people who were very good at their craft, had very strong character, and were very competitive. Gid Tanner was a showman!”
And showmanship was as much a part of the event as performance skill. Daniel recalls the drama stirred up when females first demanded the opportunity to compete. “The controversy over allowing women to enter might have been egged on a bit by the press,” he says,” just to stir up the audience and to have something to write about. It was just another form of showmanship.”
Atlanta fiddler Barbara Panter-Connah, who performs frequently in the region with her bands Hair Of The Dog and the Rosin Sisters, befriended convention-era musician Anita Sorrells Wheeler Mathis during the ’90s and for several years visited her retirement home, discussing the past and playing fiddle together. She recalls Mathis’ account of the conflict over women playing in the competition. “I was 15 years old and playing in my family string band,” Mathis told her, “and the family demanded I be allowed to compete. Some players were ok with it, but others were saying ‘No girls!’ I think Fiddlin’ John Carson was the loudest opponent, but he was just a big old bag of wind!” Mathis took second place in her convention debut and was the first woman to win the competition outright in 1931. She also added a second win in 1934.
What is it that’s so appealing about the old-time fiddlers conventions, and why do they continue to be so popular? “Nostalgia, for one thing,” Daniels says. “Listening to old-time music is the equivalent of antique collecting, like a T-Model appeals to car fans. People my age and younger like to have a piece of history, and the folk roots appeal to music fans. We like to be reminded of the way things were in the good ol’ days.”
Panter-Connah—who will perform a fiddling competition demo at the centennial celebration—offers a similar explanation. “For me, it is a connection to the past,” she says. “My Grandfather gave me my fiddle when I was eight years old, which pretty much changed the path of my life. He told me about these gatherings and they sounded like a lot of fun. This music is such an important aspect of the social community—it is so joyful to play. And people enjoy taking part, either by playing or listening. Expressing yourself musically is a good thing, and these traditions have been passed down through generations. Now I am sharing it with my grandchildren and godsons, who have been bitten by the bug.”
James Akenson—an education professor at Tennessee Tech who will lead a workshop at the celebration—says that there’s a worldwide fascination with Southern culture. “Old-time music, while not exclusively Southern, has particularly strong Southern roots, and greatly influenced popular culture in a variety of ways. Like the Civil War and Civil Rights, the many elements of Southern culture keep being analyzed [and] presented in … film, documentaries, box sets, etc. Within a constantly changing, evolving culture, the old-time music component offers a chance for connection to the past.”
This connection of past to present remains strong thanks to our ability to access historic music. “ Old-time Music has increasingly been the object of discographies, preservation efforts by organizations such as Atlanta based Dust-to-Digital, groups such as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and musical festivals,” says Akenson. “There is a preservationist subculture that even includes Facebook walls, plus the music is discussed at academic conferences and in articles and books. Changes are probably most dramatic in that the technology of social media, websites [and] iTunes have made it possible for the old-time music sub-culture to establish easy access, visibility, [plus a] sense of community and legitimacy.”
(All photos courtesy Special Collections & Archives, Georgia State University)