Billy Jim's Fiddle

There is a poem by Stephen Vincent Benet that I have loved since the very first time I heard it.  In fact, it made such an impression on me I tried to memorize it.  I got pretty far with that, but for some reason I never finished.

I say “first time I heard it” and not first time I read it because I really didn’t read it until I’d heard it many times.  My family heard me hearing it so many times that I know they were glad when I finally got around to reading it.  I know this is true because I was able to quickly convince my sister to copy it out (by hand) from a book I found it in.  It is a pretty long poem, so she must have been tired of hearing it.  Anyway, the first time I heard the poem was when I was listening to a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album called Stars and Stripes Forever that was released in 1974.

(photo from Nitty Gritty Band site )

The track started with a banjo playing a few harmonics and then John McEuen reciting the poem- no music, nothing but him talking.  That got my attention right away because it was so different from the rest of the album.  While he recited, he would occasionally and sparsely play a line or two of music to support his recitation.  I had never heard anything quite like it- it wasn’t really a song and it wasn’t really a poetry reading, it was something different and I liked it.   I tried to memorize the poem from listening to the record and tried to figure out how to play the banjo while I recited- it wasn’t going well.  At the time I didn’t know it was a “real” poem; I thought it was something McEuen had come up with. The next time I was at our local library (Virgil I. Grissom library in Newport News, VA) I thought to ask one of the workers there if they could help me look up the words to the piece.  I described it as a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band song and then recited the few lines I had memorized.  Somehow, that was enough to let them know what to look up in a poetry index.  It turns out it was a “real” poem. That evening I sat in my room with a book of poetry open on my desk and read and re-read The Mountain Whippoorwill (Or, How Hill-Billy Jim Won the Great Fiddlers’ Prize) by Stephen Vincent Benet  and tried my best to commit it to memory.  It was slow going and when the due date on the book was close I asked my younger sister to copy it out for me and for some reason she did.  Every now and then I still run across those several sheets of loose leaf notebook paper with her young handwriting on it where she had copied out the entire poem for me so I could return the book.


Over the years I would work on memorizing that and trying to play something on the banjo while I recited, but none of my efforts ever compared to what McEuen did on that album.  I eventually stopped trying.  I still listen to that track though and it still gives me goose bumps at the end.  It is a powerful piece (even after a few hundred listens).

I could tell you more about the poem but I’ll let you read it for yourself- it can be found in this and other books:

Selected works of Stephen Vincent Benet –  Main Collection Level 3-  PS3503.E5325 A6 1942 v.1

But that’s not really what I’m here to tell you about, it was just a good memory and a good excuse for me to listen to that song again- it does actually have something to do with what I wanted to tell you about.

What I’m really here to tell you about is the Galax Fiddler’s Convention.  This year will mark the convention’s 76th time (the first one was in 1935) and this yearly event is for many people the high point of the summer.  Musicians, singers and dancers gather in Galax the second weekend in August and compete for thousands of dollars (this year there are $20,000 in cash prizes!) in prize money or more importantly, bragging rights if they place in the competitions.  At first mostly local people came to the fiddler’s convention but more and more each year, people from all over the world now attend it.  Competitions include fiddle, dulcimer, banjo, guitar, singing, dobro, dancing, band, mandolin and autoharp, and the parking lot and campsite areas are filled with music day and night.  $40 gets you a ticket for each day or you can buy a single day ticket for $6-$12 depending on the day- a pretty good deal considering how many hours of music you can get for that.

I first heard of Galax sometime after I had heard The Mountain Whippoorwill, and it really piqued my interest.  Knowing the story of the poem so well, I had developed a very romantic notion of what a fiddler’s convention must be like so when I heard about Galax and when it was, I convinced my parents to let me attend it.  The condition of me being allowed to go was that I had to convince several of my more responsible seeming friends to go with me, and that really was not much of an effort and as it turned out they were probably not overly responsible but that’s another story.  We talked it out, registered ourselves in the music competitions and started practicing.   When the appointed day came, my friends and I packed a very small car with one upright acoustic bass, one banjo, one guitar, one fiddle, some clothes, four people and a cooler and we drove off from the Virginia coast to Galax without a care in the world. One thing we had all heard about was that we would be able to play music all day and night with anybody there and we were looking forward to that for sure.  Where we lived it was slim pickin’s in the way of finding picking partners and more than anything else the idea that we could play with so many different people really excited us all.

Arriving at Galax was memorable- cars, campers, tents, and motorcycles filled a field and every sort of person imaginable was there playing music in small groups, listening to music, talking to vendors, and generally just hanging out.  We drove in and parked and got ready to set off to find some people to play music with and had a wonderful time of it. I can still remember the excitement we felt when we would see professional musicians picking with folks (and us) and I still have a birthday card that several of them signed after jamming with us or just talking to us as we walked around- the highlights for me were Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Roger Sprung, and Butch Robins.  That these folks would more than happily come join our jams or just sit and chat and then wander off to join another was a real eye opener for me.  These were real people and they did not put on airs and every one of them would sit and talk and play and didn’t think twice about it and that is one reason I stuck with learning bluegrass and Appalachian music I think.

Honestly, I don’t remember when it dawned on us that we had never thought about where we would be sleeping during the 4 days we would be there……. out of necessity two of us ended up asleep on cement bleachers near the performance area, one made a friend and slept in a camper, I don’t remember where the other ended up but we all slept and ate and picked and had a great time.

When it came time for the competitions that we had entered we waited our turn, went to the stage and played our competition piece. Contestants have their time throughout the day to stand alone on the stage and play their piece and in a lot of ways that was just like I had imagined it would be thanks to The Mountain Whippoorwill. None of us won and we knew we wouldn’t but we had to try just for fun- and fun it was.  We went from stage back to the camping area to find more people to pick with and after 4 days of that we loaded up the car again and drove home happy, tired and possibly a little gamey.

I attended Galax several times, sometimes competing in the banjo contest, sometimes in the singing contest.  I never won and I never thought I would but I had my time all alone on that giant stage to perform in front of a huge audience who would clap when I was done. I did think about Billy Jim’s moment of clarity before he played and his humbleness and surprise when the crowd applauded but I was also happy when my time in the spotlight was over so I could wander back to the picking areas. Somewhere I still have one or two of the souvenir ribbons that would be handed to us when we left the stage and that birthday card a hundred or so random folks signed- those always bring a smile to my face.

So mark your calendars, the Galax Fiddler’s Convention will be held August 8-13 and whether you are a performer, a jammer or just a listener, there is more than enough there to entertain you.

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