The year was 1924, and according to Calhoun Times, such a crowd gathered at the courthouse to witness a traditional Fiddler’s Convention, a contest to determine the best fiddlers, banjo and guitar pickers, string bands, buck dancers and French harp players.
Fiddlers won up to $25, with other prizes reportedly $2 worth of Ford accessories from J.C. Fox Garage, a $1.50 rug from Starr Furniture, a 5 pound bag of sugar from C.H. Hufstetler’s Market, and a pair of sock supporters from S.Z. Moore.
The list of prizes and their sources are most interesting, in that the many sponsors of this
Fiddling Convention have many relatives here, some still in the same business. Also, interesting is the fact that the host, Paul Guinn Post 47 of the American Legion, used proceeds from this and other conventions to fund the War Memorial Arch at Hwy 41 and 156.
This was popular music of the time; Calhoun and Gordon County was ground zero for its early development, with the Georgia Yellow Hammers and Andrew and Jim Baxter representing pioneer recording efforts that literally became country music as we now know it. Every nationally known string musician of any importance had some connection to Calhoun during this time: Champion Fiddlers Fiddling John Carson, Earl Johnson, Clayton McMichen, Lowe Stokes and Gid Tanner, phenomenal guitar player Riley Puckett and celebrated banjo stars Fate Norris and Uncle Dave Macon all were here on numerous occasions, as this was a kind of “Nashville” before Nashville was “Music City”.
These great gatherings, mostly promoted by Bud Landress and assisted by Bill Chitwood of the Georgia Yellow Hammers, came to an end with wartime gasoline rationing in 1940, but a very small group of music and history lovers recognized the cultural importance of this great heritage, and after years of work, brought it back as the Georgia String Band Festival in 2007.
Although performances by such great groups such as the Carolina Chocolate Drops overshadowed these small contests early on, that great heritage has roared back as the Gordon County Fiddlers Convention is set to be underway. The convention will take place May 12 at the Northwest Georgia Fairgrounds, beginning at noon and ending at “dark thirty”. This is all part of the Georgia String Band Festival, which we hope will grow into a multi-day event, much like MerleFest in Roxboro, N.C., which started small as well, to celebrate the Appalachian Mountain picking of Doc and Merle Watson.
Last year, MerleFest brought in between $12 and $15 million dollars to the town, which consists of 4,000, and continues to increasingly improve the quality of life for that rural part of North Carolina each and every year.
It is hoped that this convention will create an event like this in Calhoun, as MerleFest has expanded well beyond traditional music, and Calhoun has the heritage and history to give old time
music a permanent home. The community can celebrate its music pioneers, and greatly profit from historical/cultural tourism, if the will and intent to support this would manifest.
The community is free to attend, sponsor, volunteer and contribute ist time, ideas and expertise to this worthy effort.
This year, in addition to contests of fiddle, banjo, string bands and buck dancing, it has added a contest in singing old time style songs. Generous cash prizes and traditional medal-ribbons will be awarded to the winners of instruments, dance, and singing, with the excitement and drama rivaling any modern “American Idol”.
Calhoun has much heritage to celebrate, and it begins Friday, May 11 at 8 p.m. with a performance and heritage presentation by Frank Lee of the Freight Hoppers, premier banjo player with one of the top old time outfits in the country. He will be joined by Mick Kinney, legendary Old Time Fiddler recently inducted into the Georgia Music Hall Of Fame, and fiddler for the Georgia Crackers, who play regularly at the festival.
Patrons are encouraged to come early to the Harris Arts Center for this free performance, as The
Smithsonian New Harmonies Exhibit is currently on display, celebrating all types of precious roots music, from Shape-Note to the Blues, with so much in between. These two Friday Arts Center events are presented at no charge.
Saturday, May 12, the Northwest Georgia Fairgrounds will host the Gordon County Fiddler’s Convention, with great food vendors, jamming by many groups of Old Time musicians, buck dancing and a lot of fun from traditions that served Calhoun’s ancestors for many decades.
Admission is only $10, with kids 12 and under admitted free. There is no charge for parking.
For more information, contact the Harris Arts Center at 706-629-2599.