The Meese fight back against electric bass

Galax Old Fiddlers Convention 2008This week marks the 74th annual Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, VA. Held each year on the week leading up to the second weekend of August, the festival is one of few that offer no stage show of any kind, consisting entirely of amateur competitions in banjo, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, dulcimer, autoharp, vocal and dance.

Brance and I have attended many times, and have a great many friends there this week. It’s a festival where you will find a fascinating mix of both old time and bluegrass musicians, with top artists regularly involved in the legendary late night jams.

While the event is primarily marked by fellowship and harmony, the one bit of tension that exists is sometimes found between the Galax Moose Lodge that runs the festival and the attendees who feel as though their dozens of years of consecutive camping and competition gives them a quasi-ownership stake in the annual festival. The old timers will grouse each year about rules changes, and “how it was done back when,” but we’ve just received word about some unpleasantness that occurred on Monday night (8/3) that I don’t think has happened in the past.

Here is a report from Tracy Burcham, a friend of both Brance and mine, who is a bluegrass musician of long standing in southwest Virginia and a 21 year veteran of the Galax fest. He tells a story that really set a lot of folks in the campground on edge.

About 11:30 p.m., I began a jam session with three friends, each of whom is a current member of a headlining bluegrass band. I was playing my electric bass, which means, of course, that I was using an amplifier. About 8 or 9 songs into the jam, we were approached by two members of the Galax Moose Lodge #733 who advised that the rules stated that amplifiers were not allowed in the park, and that if I didn’t cut mine off, they would not only escort me out of the park, but would cut off the electricity to our entire campsite (several friends had gone in together purchase 18 consecutive sites, as we have done every year).

I have been playing this same electric bass and also my acoustic bass, both through an amplifier for each of the 21 years I have attended. I’ve never encountered a problem or received a complaint from anyone. I honestly thought one of my “devious” friends was pulling a prank on me, and continued on with the jam session. The Moose members left the area only to come back later with two police officers. He repeated the same demand to cut off the amp and advised me that there would be no refund if I refused to cooperate and was booted our of the park.

I asked specifically to see the rules. Rule #15 states:

“No boom boxes or loud amplified music to be played at any time during the convention. Anyone violating this rule will be subject to being removed from park, and charged with disturbing the peace.”

The operative word here is “loud.” Loud is a matter of opinion unless otherwise defined by the use of a decibel meter, and an established decibel limit. Regardless, the Moose members didn’t ask me to turn it down, they told me to turn it off or face consequences. In the opinion of all non-musicians present at the jam session, the volume of the bass had not been excessive, and, as a matter of fact, the banjo was far louder. The crowd around the session was not being unruly or noisy by any means. They were simply there to enjoy the music, and we were having a great time doing the same thing we’ve been doing for over two decades. I fully understand that some folks overdo it sometimes in regard to amplification. I have witnessed myself jam session where I felt like the amp was louder than necessary. But, again, that’s a matter of preference or opinion.

A conversation this morning between a Moose representative and two campsite buddies of of mine resulted in agreement that the rule is vague. But the statement was made that the rule would be clear for next year. What that means exactly, I do not know. Will they entirely prohibit amplifiers? Or will they set measurable noise limits, or a time at night after which amplifiers can’t be used? Who knows. Time will tell. But, judging by the number of campsites that use a bass amplifier, attendance of future events will be cut approximately in half if amplifiers are banned.

Our session was one of no-less-than four that were “shut down” last night for the same reason: amplified instruments. Nothing like that has ever happened before to my knowledge, at least not where people were genuinely interested in enjoying each other’s company and playing good music. It is my understanding that the shut downs were instigated due to a complaint from one, or a small group, of disgruntled patrons who are strict traditionalists, and feel that there is no place in the music for amplified instruments. In short, the Moose has allowed a minority opinion to punish the majority. I have the utmost respect for the opinion of traditionalists, both old time and bluegrass, and do not expect them to accept new or contemporary music, ideas, technology, etc. They are entitled to their opinions. I may not agree with or accept their viewpoints either, but I would never complain to the point of pulling the rug out from under what they love to do.

I’m sure the story will continue to unfold throughout the week. Several people who witnessed last night’s events shared this story with various media outlets and some public officials this morning.

The Moose representative told my buddies this morning that it would be ok to use amps, but that we needed to keep the volume down. He also stated that no session would be shut down, nor would nobody be ejected from the park without his consent. But I have to wonder what the future holds for this glorious and time-honored event if the final outcome is in favor of the minority. The spirit of many long-time attendees was broken by last night’s events.

Here’s a video of Tracy at Galax 2008, where he took the first place trophy in the bluegrass band competition with 4 Fret Kord.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.