Before radio, before movies or television, and before the Internet, families had to create their own entertainment at home or go out and attend live public performances. Here in Georgia, music was a rich part of Southern culture — handed down from the original British immigrants and passed on through the generations. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, fiddles were family heirlooms, and before the electric guitar came along they were the loudest stringed instruments around. Usually, at least one member of the clan knew how to play one, and as these budding musicians mastered their instruments, it was only a matter of time before fiddle competitions sprung up.
According to author and historian Wayne Daniel, who penned the book Picking On Peachtree: A History of Country Music in Atlanta, Georgia, fiddle conventions have been taking place in Georgia as far back as 1885. But it wasn't until 1913 that one of these loosely organized gatherings solidified into the formal Georgia Fiddler's Association, setting up a network with guidelines, rules, and a mission aimed at providing opportunities for fiddlers to peddle their wares, spread information to remote communities, and promote music. Naturally, being the largest city in the state, Atlanta set the stage for the annual battle of the bows.
One hundred years later, Georgia State University has organized the Old Time Fiddler's Convention Centennial Celebration to commemorate that fateful 1913 competition. According to GSU Popular Music and Culture Archivist Kevin Fleming, the Centennial Celebration will be "a combination of the educational component — history of the conventions, etc. — and of course live performances by the Georgia Crackers and the Skillet Lickers."
The centennial will feature history lessons and anecdotes from historians and authors dedicated to preserving this chapter of American musical history, and a fiddle contest will be re-enacted before the day is through.
Georgia Crackers fiddle player Mick Kinney, who will be performing at the event, describes the ongoing appeal. "People realize the value of local historical stuff, and our emphasis is on conservation of the music," he says. "We are revivalists that re-enact the performances of the recognized luminaries of the era, and we do historic music in the style of the period."
Preserving the history set forth by the likes of such early fiddle players as Anita Sorrells Wheeler, Fiddlin' John Carson, and Gid Tanner, who started the Skillet Lickers in the early 1920s, is an essential component of the Centennial Celebration. But over the years, some aspects of the music have changed with the times — specifically the racist undertones found in some of the songs, which have been mostly purged. It's difficult to ignore the offensive bent of such dicey song titles as "Run, Nigger, Run," a number that was recorded by many acts, including Fiddlin' John.
It's important to note that racially themed songs were not all created by Georgia fiddlers, but go back to minstrelsy, around the early 1800s. Regardless, much of this material has been modified, or addressed honestly as part of a broader social context. "We don't perpetuate that. It was part of that era, but it is not important today," Kinney adds.
Fleming addresses the issue of race with a balanced perspective. "In many cases, American popular music serves as a reflection of society. [These songs] were so popular that even black songwriters capitalized on the fad."
Due to such societal changes as the Civil Rights Movement, the songs were dropped from some entertainers' repertoires, but not completely. Many of these songs and their melodies persist as instrumental fiddle tunes. Country artist Jimmy Driftwood rewrote "Run, Nigger, Run" as "Run, Johnny, Run," and an obscure version called "Run, Boy, Run" is also still performed on occasion. Fleming and Daniel chose to remove many of the more offensive song titles from the exhibition panels. "While these songs are part of music history, we did not want to offend anyone and deter from the main focus of the event — the fiddlers," Fleming says.
While modern acts such as Old Crow Medicine Show, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and the Hackensaw Boys continue spreading the music to larger audiences throughout the country, it's all rooted in family tradition, and it's showing no signs of slowing down. "It's still being passed down through generations," says fiddler Barbara Panter-Connah of Atlanta Cajun band Hair Of The Dog and the Rosin Sisters, who performs in the fiddle competition on Saturday. "When I was 8 years old my Grandfather gave me his fiddle, and now my grandchildren have been bitten by the bug."
Paying tribute to this long-standing chapter of Georgia's musical history is what the Old Time Convention is all about.