In the early morning hours of Thursday, November 11, the traditional music world lost a very important person. Mary Edna Thompson may not have been famous in the sense that a pop star would be, but her influence on so many people in bluegrass and old-time circles are hard to calculate or fathom. For around 40 years, she amazingly worked all day, every day at the Galax Old Fiddlers Convention (and at a few other festivals that she regularly attended) to make yummy, healthy soups to feed hungry festival folks in the late-night hours at her festival soup kitchen and campsite.
The idea of The Soup Kitchen was born very late one night at the festival many years ago, when some friends were hanging out and were exhausted and hungry after long hours of making music and merriment. She said could make some soup if some people might have a few ingredients that she could throw together. One person maybe had some garlic, another some potatoes, etc, and she whipped together the various ingredients that were contributed, and that was how the idea was born. She saw a wonderful opportunity to bring happiness, comfort, a place for friends to gather, and, of course, to supply food to hungry pickers after all food vendors were closed, and options for finding hot food were mostly gone for musicians picking way into the night.
The Soup Kitchen was so much more than just a place to get a meal or snack. During the day, she had a rotating crew of folks who might show up to volunteer to help make the nightly feasts. If no one came by she would plunge in herself, chopping and cooking to make sure the soups would be ready. Those workers would range anywhere from 4 years to 100 years old. They were all warmly welcomed and made to feel like their contributions were huge, and that they were helping to make the magic happen. Anyone who wandered into her campsite was always recognized and well received.
Coming alone to a big festival might make you feel awkward or shy, but that watering hole where people from many backgrounds would gather for fellowship, jamming, and for meeting new folks, was the magic space that Mary Edna had named The Soup Kitchen. The soups at her campsite were largely made up of foods that people would bring as donations. People would bring some potatoes from a store, others carrots from their garden, others might bring deer, or rabbit, or other game they had caught themselves. Mary Edna would sincerely thank each person for their contribution, and knew how to take a fresh rabbit, chicken, bear meat, or what-have-you that was handed to her and turn it into a delicious soup. She always had a vegetarian soup option each night as well, because everyone was to be fed and welcomed.
I know if she was reading this, she would say it was not her soup kitchen, but that it was always a community effort and that it belonged to all of us. Many people did contribute in many small ways, but it was her grace and personality, and her hours upon hours of hard work, that always pulled it together.
Many a person will tell you that their love of traditional music was sparked, or rekindled, at The Soup Kitchen of Galax. There were small and large jams of varying styles and ages, day and night. Quite often there was literally jamming until the sun came up or beyond at Mary Edna’s Soup Kitchen. It was a place that one could comfortably bring a small child, or a grandmother, or your crazy party buddy, and people would be on good behavior and making it fun for everyone. Mary Edna took her time on plenty of occasions to talk to people having a hard time or feeling lost. She spent a whole day every year setting up her humble little party palace into which all levels of pickers would be drawn to make some of their most memorable musical moments of the year.
Not only did she tirelessly run the Soup Kitchen through the week of the Fiddlers Convention, but she also hosted extra events that were a favorite part of the Convention every year for those would came. The Soup Kitchen was officially opened each year with a worship service and bluegrass Gospel singing and jam each Monday at 1:00 p.m. Then there was the annual Kazoo Contest on Saturdays at 3:33 p.m., where every person who entered won, and where “no fun was not allowed.” It was a contest that celebrated everyone with silliness and fun, without a competitive spirit. Mary Edna made the awards for the kazoo contest every year. In 2021, we had the 39th annual edition, which was always followed by the Fiddle In at 4:44 p.m. each Saturday of the annual festival. The Fiddle In initially was all fiddlers amassing to a giant fiddle jam, including all levels and ages of fiddlers, and eventually became an inclusive jam for anyone who wanted to join in.
Mary Edna had a large impact in her own way on the traditional music communities in our region. Her Soup Kitchen, with its openness and kindness and acceptance in the space she provided, had a positive impact on many people, and brought such light and happiness to those who were lucky enough to experience it. As fiddler Chris Sexton of Nothin’ Fancy said about Mary Edna after hearing of her loss, “We loved her comforting presence that was as spiritually nourishing and hearty as her delicious soup.”
Mary Edna taught many of us by example. I suspect (and hope) that many of us who saw the magic of her and her campsites will take with them the goal of trying to at least sometimes be kind, encouraging, and to create friendly spaces where people can make friends, music, and memories. She will live on in the music, in the musicians, and in the kind and generous gestures that the rest of us continue to do in her spirit. Mary Edna had said that when we see a rainbow during a fiddlers’ convention it is the pickers of the past years who have passed on coming back to check in, say hi, and smile upon us. Every time I see a rainbow at a fiddlers’ convention, I will add her to the folks I think of who are there saying hi and smiling at us carrying on the traditions.
R.I.P., Mary Enda Thompson