With funding from the Tennessee Arts Commission, what is being billed as the First Annual Upper East Tennessee Fiddler’s Convention will be held April 29 on the grounds of the old Flag Pond school.
Patterned in the fashion of the musical contests that drew many of the country’s most celebrated fiddlers to the area a century ago, the event will offer $3,000 in cash awards to the “fiddlingest fiddler,” “top banjo picker,” “hottest string band,” “dancingest dancer” and “finest singer.”
And with the cash will go some distinctly traditional prizes — “one decrepit hammered dulcimer,” “one peck of fine potatoes,” “one plump laying hen,” “one pair of galluses,” “one bushel of apples and one cake of soap,” “one pound of Unicoi County roasted coffee” and various other sundries to recognize the competitors’ talents as well as their personal attributes.
The best-dressed fiddler, fiddler with the longest whiskers, oldest fiddler and tallest fiddler will all go home with prizes, as will the winners of a “special prize of choice, talking gramophone discs,” to be awarded to four fiddlers who can “simultaneously play a different tune in a different key without commencing to chuckle, or discontinuing play.”
All the rules, more details and a complete list of prizes are laid out at the event’s website otfiddlersconvention.com, which also explains the purpose of the convention and what organizers hope the musicians will take away.
According to the website, the convention is a celebration of “not only the early, influential musicians who made recordings … but also the those who played informally for the love of music and fellowship with one another.”
“Each musical competitor will come away with the satisfaction of knowing they have done their part in breathing vivacious revitalized life into the melodious strains of our mountain fiddle tunes.”
The website also offers the following insight into the role Rocky Fork and “the gateway mountain counties” of Unicoi, Carter and Johnson played in the introduction of mountain music to the world that come to embrace it:
“The story of the music here is one about the movement of people, both in and out of these highlands, and a story about people playing music, from generation to generation, in their chosen community.
“Upper East Tennessee has long been a land of deep musical traditions. Englishman Cecil Sharp knew this in 1916 when he selected Rocky Fork in Unicoi County as his first stop to collect ballads. And in 1925, the famous Mountain City Fiddlers Convention attracted a who’s who of southern Appalachian fiddling, and reminds us just how varied and unique this region’s music is.”
A founding father of England’s 19th century folk music revival, Sharp traveled through the mountains of Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee, recording the region’s music. Several of the earliest stars of the genre emerged from the Mountain City convention.
Fiddler JD Harris of Flag Pond was one of them and a collection of his recently discovered unreleased recordings will be availed at the April convention in his home community.
The old Flag Pond School is located at 4399 Old Asheville Highway off Interstate 26. Food truck vendors and primitive camping with shower facilities at the old school will be available.
Volunteers will receive free admission and free camping. Anyone interested in volunteering during the event may email [email protected] for information.
More information about the convention is also available on Facebook at www.facebook.com/otfiddlersconvention or may be obtained by contacting Rocky Fork State Park Ranger Tim Pharis at [email protected] or Roy Andrade with the ETSU Department of Appalachian Studies at [email protected]
Email Sue Guinn Legg at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.