Contests and Conventions

Updated: February 28, 2011

Although often thought of as an isolated place populated with stubbornly self-sufficient people, Appalachia has in fact produced a human culture that has long valued harvest celebrations, barn raisings, camp meetings, political rallies, community singings, dances, and family-oriented play parties.

Although often thought of as an isolated place populated with stubbornly self-sufficient people, Appalachia has in fact produced a human culture that has long valued harvest celebrations, barn raisings, camp meetings, political rallies, community singings, dances, and family-oriented play parties. The practice of mixing pleasure and work has led to a tradition of fiddlers’ conventions and gatherings featuring both recreational and competitive singing and playing.

The first documented fiddlers’ contest in America was held in Hanover County, Virginia, in 1736. Such contests soon became widespread and have been a popular part of Appalachian culture for more than two centuries. Among the best known of the regularly held fiddlers’ contests in the region was the Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention staged annually in Atlanta from 1913 to 1935. Each year’s first-place winner received a monetary award and was named Georgia state fiddle champion. In addition to the fiddling contest, these events featured noncompetitive entertainment by singers, dancers, comedians, string bands, yodelers, and virtuosos on banjo and guitar. The Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention provided a launching pad for the careers of such commercial country music pioneers as Fiddlin’ John Carson, Gid Tanner, Clayton McMichen, and Riley Puckett.

The oldest Appalachian fiddlers’ contest still being held at the beginning of the twenty-first century is the annual Old Fiddlers’ Convention of Galax, Virginia. The first Galax convention—sponsored then, as now, by the local Moose Lodge as a fund-raiser—was held in 1935. In addition to awarding prizes to winners in the fiddling contest, the first convention also named winners in banjo, guitar, dulcimer, folk song, storytelling, band, and flatfoot dance competitions. Other categories added in subsequent years include clogging, square dance, novelty, bluegrass banjo, bluegrass band, mandolin, autoharp, dobro/resonator guitar, and bluegrass fiddle. The first convention, a one-evening affair held in the local high school auditorium, filled the house, with several hundred people being turned away. By the late 1990s, the Old Fiddlers’ Convention, expanded to a weeklong event and moved to a local park, where it drew more than fifty thousand people a year.

With the increasing popularity of bluegrass in Appalachia and with the evolution of more accomplished styles on other instruments, contests ceased to focus on the fiddle. For example, the Georgia Official State Fiddlers’ Convention, held each year in Hiawassee, features competitions in all individual bluegrass instruments as well as in other traditional country instruments and styles.

Historically, some Americans looked upon the fiddle as the “instrument of the Devil” and upon fiddlers as his pawns. For Appalachians who share this view, gospel singing provides an outlet for musical expression. Two different groups of gospel singers have employed local, state, and national conventions as a means of popularizing and preserving their musical styles: the four-shape-note singers, also called fa-sol-la or Sacred Harp singers, and seven-shape-note singers, some- times referred to as do-re-mi singers. Sacred Harp singing conventions date back to 1845 and the formation of the Southern Musical Convention in Harris County, Georgia.

The oldest of the surviving Sacred Harp conventions is the Chattahoochee Convention, started in 1852, also in Georgia. In its early days, this convention attracted an annual attendance of as many as eight thousand people. Over the next century, Sacred Harp singing fell out of popularity. The last quarter of the twentieth century, however, showed an increase in enthusiasm for Sacred Harp singing compared to the immediate post–World War II years, and several local conventions dating back more than one hundred years, as well as a number of newly formed conventions, were meeting regularly. In 1998 statewide Sacred Harp conventions were held in Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, and Mississippi. Still, the attendance at individual conventions barely reaches triple figures.

Singing conventions utilizing the more recent seven- shape-note method are more numerous and more heavily attended. While many local seven-shape-note conventions predate it, the oldest statewide convention is the Alabama State Convention, started in 1931. At the close of the twentieth century, Appalachian states holding a statewide convention included Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. The national convention of seven-shape-note singers was organized in 1937 as an outgrowth of the Alabama convention.

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MLA Style

"Contests and Conventions," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2017, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 24 Sep 2017 <http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=58>

APA Style

"Contests and Conventions." (2017) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved September 24, 2017, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=58

Alleghany County Fiddler’s Convention