Limestone County, Alabama (Athens) has always been a hot bed of traditional old time music. Originally, the county was largely populated by migrant yeomanry from the mountains of the upper south. These migrants were descended from immigrants from the British Isles with a strong tradition of folk fiddle music; therefore Limestone County, from its frontier days to the present time, has been strongly rooted in a traditional old time music.
This writer was born and raised in the north west section of Limestone County in 1920 and can remember when it seemed there were fiddlers, guitar and banjo players and buck dancers everywhere. Square dances were held almost weekly in the homes and box suppers and other social events were incomplete without one or more fiddle players. My father owned a country store during a time when primitive transportation and bad roads precluded frequent trips to Athens, fifteen miles distant. Saturdays were “trade days” at country stores and large crowds were almost always present, which included fiddle bands. In many ways the Saturday trade days were also miniature old time music festivals. One of the fiddlers who frequented the store kept a log of the fiddle contests that he and his family band competed in. The log covered the period from 1925 to 1940, and numbered forty-nine. The list covers only those contests in which he participated, but there were many more held in the county during this period.
The Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention, which celebrates its 30th Anniversary today, could be considered a renewal of a much older annual fiddlers convention, which began at the old Agricultural High School 72 years ago. The site is now Athens Middle School. This annual event was organized in 1924 and staged by W.H. Johnson, principal of the school. From all accounts, Johnson loved, respected and understood old time music and the convention flourished under his direction. It was an important event of its time and drew large crowds from North Alabama and southern Middle Tennessee. It is noteworthy that this convention launched the career of the Delmore Brothers who were natives of Limestone County. The brothers won first prize in their category at the 1930 Athens Fiddlers Convention and this win motivated them to seek an audition with the Columbia Recording Company. They were accepted and shortly after joined the Grand Ole Opry and became nationally known radio and recording stars. Alton Delmore wrote his hit song “Brown’s Ferry Blues” for presentation at country fiddler’s contests prior to their success in country music.
W.H. Johnson left the Agricultural High School in the mid 30’s and apparently the onset of the great depression coupled with the loss of his dedication caused the event to fold. Fiddle contests and other public presentations of old time music passed into almost total eclipse from the late 30’s into the mid 60’s. Old time fiddlers were discouraged by the lack of interest in their art and many of them retired their instruments to the attics to gather dust. Radios had become more accessible and other types of more sophisticated music was being listened to. It seemed that a lot of people who were raised on old time music were embarrassed to be associated with it. It appeared that old time music was dying.
In the mid 1960’s, it was discovered that a few old time fiddlers in the county had dusted off their instruments and were playing mostly for each other in the privacy of their homes. One of these gathering places was a few miles north of Athens at Sam McCracken’s Elk River home on state highway 99. McCracken, who was born in 1888 and who died in 1972, was a master old time fiddler whose archaic style developed long before the advent of the radio and phonographs and never changed. He is represented in the Archive of Folk Music in the Library of Congress with twenty of his tunes played when he was in his eighties. This courtly old gentleman who had ceased to play his fiddle for more than two decades started to play again and found his skill swiftly returning. It was here at the Friday night fiddling in Mr. Sam’s big living room that Mike Wallis, Ed Christopher, Bob Holland and Bill Harrison and others began to regularly attend and the gathering began to grow and interest to rekindle. Inspired by the skill and enthusiasm of the old fiddlers such as Lester Beck, Paisley Hagood, Dennis McGlocklin, Bill Owens, Rob Garris, and especially the rollicking and driving old time style of Mr. Sam, we began discussing the possibility of organizing a small scale fiddlers contest somewhere in the county just to see what would happen. Thus, the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention was born in Sam McCracken’s living room and he is the spiritual father. An abandoned schoolhouse in the Pleasant Point community a few miles west of Athens was mentioned as a possibility to hold this first contest. The community was attempting to raise money to repair the building for a community-meeting place. The community leaders were approached, an agreement was reached, and the plan was finalized. In the late summer of 1966 the first bellwether contest was held at the tiny old Pleasant Point schoolhouse. With only word of mouth promotion, there were more people than seats and the crowd overflowed into the schoolhouse yard.
Encouraged by the success of the Pleasant Point contest we started thinking about a second contest in a larger venue. At this time the Salem community in West Limestone was raising funds to complete a small hospital left unfinished by the death of the only physician in that area that was an authentic country doctor and a fiddler. We selected the West Limestone High School Gym, which had a stage and a relatively large seating area. Then we launched a modest promotional campaign in the local Athens newspaper. The word spread. Reporters from area newspapers picked up on the story and articles appeared in the Huntsville and Decatur newspapers and as far away as Birmingham and Nashville. The West Limestone event was held on February 18th, 1967. The gym was packed with standing room only and several hundred people had to be turned away.
Below are a series of articles that were recently published by the Athens News Courier. They are part of a series of articles remembering five old-time fiddlers important to Limestone County’s fiddling tradition by Jim Holland, guest writer.
August 25, 2011
A History of Fiddling: Discovery, Archaeology and Fiddling