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Kazoos, Mandolins, And The Back Paths Of The Galax Fiddler’s Convention

A contestant performs at the International Kazoo Competition
A contestant performs at the International Kazoo Competition in Felt Park. Costumes, bribes, and headwear are encouraged. (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM)

Continuing VPM's series on country music in Virginia, we visited the Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax attended by tens of thousands of old time and bluegrass music fans every summer. The competition takes place in an amphitheater in Felt Park. But as Ben Paviour reports, there’s also a vibrant scene in the sprawling campgrounds, where musicians play, dance and celebrate until dawn.

Transcript:

Man: Get the kazoos in tune. Is everyone get their kazoos in tune, please?

Crowd: Buzzzz

Galax Fiddler’s Convention has been going on for more than eight decades. Less widely celebrated is the 38th annual International Kazoo Competition. It opens with the national anthem.

[National Anthem on kazoo]

The kazoo competition takes place at a campsite at the Fiddler’s Convention. This year, there’s a guy wearing a mascot-sized panda head. It’s officiated by a man wielding a blue pool noodle. The rules are strict.  

Man: Number six: All participants must be present in order to attend.

Crowd:  All participants must be present in order to attend.

Man: Is--Is everyone present?

Crowd: Yes! No!

Man: Are you present?

People looking for an authentic slice of Appalachian music might want to look elsewhere.

[ “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor, on kazoo]

Dancers strut their moves alongside the main stage in Felt Park.
Dancers strut their moves alongside the main stage in Felt Park. Many carry their wood planks from jam to jam, adding a percussive note to the music. (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM)

But the kazoo competition captures the mood, if not the sound, of the fiddler’s convention. Appalachian music grew up on front porches rather than the big stages. It’s casual and loose. At the Galax Fiddler’s Convention, the campgrounds are where people to go to soak it up -- to jam and dance and see old friends. 

It’s in that spirit that Mary Edna Thompson set up the kazoo competition all those years ago. 

Thompson: It’s just a fun thing to do. It was like, ‘What are we going to do?’ It was like, let’s do kazoos.

Thompson has helped spawn several campground traditions, like the black tie dinner and Fiddle Off.  

 The soup kitchen’s fiddle off takes place every year after the kazoo competition.
The soup kitchen’s fiddle off takes place every year after the kazoo competition. (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM)

It all grew out of a free soup kitchen she runs out of a tent that opens around midnight. It started in the 70s, when Thompson was up late jamming.

Thompson: Then I just said ‘Well Lord, if somebody just had a pot of soup or a pot of beans, I’m sure it would help a lot of people, including me.’

Thompson gets help from people like Ralph McGee, who is cooking soup when I stop by the school bus that marks his campsite. McGee is the mastermind behind another campground tradition: the mandolin toss.

McGee: We were a bunch of idiot teenagers over here in the early 90s. 

The toss started when McGee’s friend couldn’t get his mandolin in tune and chucked it across a few campsites. It emerged unscathed.

McGee: So then we tried it with my mandolin. And then we were surprised at how durable these things were if you threw them.

The mandolin toss wasn’t held this year because McGee couldn’t find anyone willing to contribute an instrument. But there are YouTube videos from past years. Here’s one from 2009.

[Video: Toss it! Throw it hard! Toss It! Throw it on the ground!]

Downtown Galax
Downtown Galax (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM)

The campground isn’t all fun and games. There’s also music. So much that if you get bored with one jam, all you have to do is walk a few feet.

Andrew Carter and his friend Robert Clemmer made their first trip to Galax from Staunton. He says they’ve had a few false starts joining jams.

Carter: We show up, we kind of play half of one song, and then the jam stops. And so we’re like, I guess we’ll go somewhere else. 

This year, they stayed at an Airbnb. Next year, Clemmer wants to be in the thick of it.

Clemmer: We’re talking now as if we’re coming back next year and years after. Talking about renting an RV and coming out here.

They’ll have to contend with the downsides of the campground -- the heat, the ground that turns to mush after a big thunderstorm. But it takes more than rain to put a damper on the fiddler’s convention -- and the international kazoo competition. After a 20 minute downpour, participants parade through the campground.

 The International Kazoo Competition ends in a parade through the Felt Park campgrounds.
The International Kazoo Competition ends in a parade through the Felt Park campgrounds. (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM)

[Music: “When the Saints Come Marching”]

By the time they make it back, the soup kitchen campsite has already been taken over by fiddle players. But the sun hasn’t even gone down yet. In the campgrounds of Felt Park, the music is just getting started.

*A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed "I Will Survive" to Aretha Franklin.