Ask Hamilton – Chattanooga’s Old-Time Fiddlers’ Conventions

Photos Courtesy of Ken Parr/Old Time Fiddlers’ Conventions in 1920s Chattanooga Facebook

Dear Hamilton,
I recently attended the Great Southern Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention that was held in March, and I heard a rumor that it was a revival of a famous Southern fiddlin’ championship held back in the day! As a novice fiddler myself, I’d like to know more.
Fledgling Fiddler Fanatic

Members of ‘Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers,’ the most famous old-time string band, included (L-R) Bert Layne, Lowe Stokes, unknown, Clayton McMichen, and Claude Davis. Lowe Stokes (considered one of the greatest old-time fiddlers), Bert Layne, and Claude Davis all lived in Chattanooga.
W. G. Keith, Gid Tanner, A. A. Gray, and Henry West pose on Umbrella Rock, Lookout Mountain, TN.
Anita Sorrells Wheeler from Atlanta fiddler, Chattanooga's Old-time fiddlers' convention

Anita Sorrells Wheeler from Atlanta attended the March 1926 competition in Chattanooga. She later was a big winner in Atlanta in 1931 and 1934.

Dear Fiddler,

Yes, it’s true! Before Riverbend, before Moon River Festival (new to Chattanooga this year!), and before 3 Sisters Festival and the summer Nightfall series, we had old-time fiddlers’ conventions in the Scenic City. Apparently, Chattanooga was the site of some great fiddle contests from 1925-1929, featuring the best fiddlers and pickers from Alabama, Georgia, and, of course, Tennessee.  Not only were there conventions and contests several times a year, but Chattanooga also hosted the All-South Championship annually for a time.  Big names of the day, heard on the radio and signed to record labels, entertained Chattanooga crowds at these conventions; entertainers included Lowe Stokes, Clayton McMichen, Bert Layne, and Gid Tanner from the Skillet Lickers, Ahaz A. Gray, Riley Puckett, and Earl Johnson.

These competitions included what is known as “old-time music.” Originally a front-porch-style entertainment and way of passing along folktales and oral history within a community, old-time music is led by a fiddler and can also include plucked string instruments like the banjo, guitar, and double bass. Regional styles could include other instruments as well, but the fiddle was the most important.  Old-time music predates bluegrass, lacking solos or breaks commonly seen in bluegrass, and is played unplugged without any kind of amplification. Square dancing, clogging, and buck dancing were also common accompaniments to these old-time music competitions. The best fiddler often won the largest cash prize, but banjo, guitar, string band, dancing, and several other categories received awards as well. A truly communal style of music, complete strangers would meet at these contests and play together – but there was also a lot of competition (and smack talk!) between participants from neighboring cities and states.

For example, after a recent regional competition in December 1925, J. H. Gaston, president of the Chattanooga Association of Old Fiddlers, issued a challenge to the car magnate Henry Ford, who had recently taken fiddler Mellie Dunham on tour across the country. Along with announcements in newspaper articles, Gaston sent a telegram saying that if Ford and Dunham tuned in to WDOD at 9:30 p.m. central time, they would hear the East Tennessee Fiddling champion “Sawmill” Tom Smith and some “real fiddling.”

"Sawmill" Tom fiddler Chattanooga's Old-time fiddlers' convention

“Sawmill” Tom was reported to have said he could play for 24 hours at a stretch without repeating any tunes.

At the same time, there was a dispute going on regarding who should have actually won that  regional competition and been able to challenge Ford’s champion. A Chattanooga News article, published in January of 1926, reported: “Letters have been received by the Chattanooga Radio Company and by The News, in which Jesse Young is championed in preference to [“Sawmill” Tom] Smith.”

A tri-state competition was held in March of 1926 at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium, where thousands could be in attendance, to settle the continuing debate about who was the best in the region before the All-South Championship in the summer. In the running up to the competition, the paper reported that female fiddlers were joining in the smack talk, “The fairer sex claims that they will not be outdone, and a number of ‘fiddlettes’ will be present.” Local “Sawmill” Tom Smith again came away with first prize.

I hope this whets your appetite to learn more about the fiddle contests in Chattanooga. Local fiddler Ken Parr has documented Chattanooga’s place in the history of old-time music in “Early Fiddle Contests in Chattanooga, 1925-1929,” a collection of newspaper clippings from the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga News. A copy is available at the downtown public library. And, of course, you know that local Matt Downer and other fiddle enthusiasts have held the Great Southern Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention here annually since 2010 to revive these contests. 

Hope this helps!
Hamilton Bush
Resident History Hound

ad for all-southern fiddlers' contest Chattanooga's Old-time fiddlers' convention

A Chattanooga Times article published July 30, 1926 reads that, “The trio, Sawmill Tom Smith and the Reed brothers played a whirlwind number in triplicate, fiddles being handled with startling dexterity behind the backs of the players, then two behind backs of the other holding his fiddle over his head and playing it, then crossing arms and one fingering for his mate while the other plied the bow – these and other near-acrobatic changes being accomplished without missing a note or disturbing the harmony in the least.”

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