by Marc Michael (www.chattanoogapulse.com):
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.