Save March 15th on your calendar for the best pickin’ around.
When I first announced my intention to move to Chattanooga more than two decades ago, a friend of mine, a lifelong Chattanooga native, sent me a postcard. On the back it said: “What’s the difference between Chattanooga and a cup of yogurt? The yogurt has an active culture.”
This was 1992 and my friend was being facetious. Chattanooga was, at that time, in the early stages of a modern cultural renaissance that has bloomed over the course of the last two decades, but the city already had a long history of significant cultural contributions. The Chattanooga Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention is one such example and it all started with a perceived slight.
In 1925, auto magnate Henry Ford, a fan of “Old Time” music, had been hosting fiddlers and square dancers at his home in Michigan for some time. This attracted a fair amount of talent, including Mr. Mellie Dunham of Maine who was soon being hailed as the “champion fiddler” of the U.S. Tales of a Northern usurper claiming such a title without first having faced the best of what the South had to offer incensed local promoter J.H. Gaston, who was quoted in the Chattanooga Times as saying, “How can a Yankee claim to know as much about fiddling as a ‘born fiddler’ from here in the Tennessee Valley where the art of old time fiddling originated?”
Gaston’s plan was simple. He would sponsor a competition to determine the best fiddler in the South and then send him up against Mr. Ford’s boy from Maine. That first event was held at the court house and Harrison resident “Sawmill” Tom Smith emerged the victor. Soon after that, Gaston dispatched a telegram to Ford asking him to tune in to local radio station WDOD at a particular time and date to hear Smith and learn what “real fiddling by a real fiddler” sounded like.
Ford’s reaction to that may not be known, but the local reaction was nothing short of astounding. A mere two years later the event had grown to more than 5,000 attendees and moved to the newly constructed Memorial Auditorium. By this time, the event had been renamed the All Southern Championship and was essentially THE contest of note, the big daddy of them all. The winner was crowned Champion Fiddler of the South and the biggest and best names of the day made it a point to attend and compete.
The event continued for more than a decade until the fuel rationing of World War II put an end to it and events like it across the country. That would be the end of our story if it weren’t for the efforts of a fellow named Matt Downer.
Matt is best known as half of local duo The Old Time Travelers, reviewed in this very column some months back. At the time, my impression of Matt and his partner Clark Williams was that they were nothing if not authentic, the living embodiment of the music they play. I stand by that assertion and if the proof is in the pudding, then here’s a particularly large helping of it: In 2010, Matt took it upon himself (in partnership with the Crisp family and Lindsay Street Hall) to revive the Fiddlers’ Convention here in Chattanooga. The feedback from the community (including scholars, historians, musicians and listeners) has been wonderful.
The event continues to grow annually, attracting more and more spectators and competitors every year. True to his nature, Matt has taken great pains to ensure the event is as faithful to its historical predecessor as possible. There are no amplifiers, no electrified instruments; the playing styles and tunes must be “old time.” Competitions will be held for fiddle, banjo, string band, dance and traditional singing.
Doors open at noon on March 15 at Lindsay Street Hall and admission is $10. In addition to the competitions, there will be performances by special guests Leroy Troy and Mick Kinney as well as the inevitable impromptu jam sessions (pickin’ on the porch?).
Regardless of your pedigree and whether or not you are a picker or a listener, there is something here for everyone, including a healthy dose of civic pride when you realize that 90 years after that first convention the best in the land are once again coming to our town to prove it.
With that, I’d like to leave you with a few words from Mr. Downer himself: “There is no other event like this anywhere. It is all old time music presented in an unfiltered, undiluted state. No microphones, no amplification, just some of the best old time musicians from the Southeast coming together to whoop it up and celebrate old time music and our local heritage.”