I attended both Clifftop and Galax for the first time this year. While on paper these might look like similar Appalachian music festivals, they are actually quite different. Each is fun in its own way, so I thought I’d point out some observations I took away from both.
Galax, the Old Fiddler’s Convention, is the oldest and most well-known fiddle convention, founded in 1935. It is called “Fiddlers” by locals. Campers camp-out in-the-open on baseball fields in 28-acre Felts Park in downtown Galax. The music played tends to be a mixture of old-time and bluegrass. There’s a certain authenticity to the music as a lot of the pickers are actual Appalachians who grew up with the music right outside their door. Hence they lived it rather than studied it from afar. This living heritage might explain the seeping in of bluegrass causing a change or evolution in the music. Jams are pretty open and informal and you don’t have to feel weird about barging in.
There are some rebel flags flying and many young non-music playing locals are definitely there more for the party than the music. This portion of the crowd usually hangs out in the Land of the Lights, a separate area from where the music competitors set up camp. You see games of cornhole and beer pong going on there, but not as much music playing. There’s a big police presence throughout the camping and stage areas.
|If it weren't for Galax!|
Clifftop – officially known as the Appalachian String Band Music Festival – started in the late 80’s as sort of a counterculture alternative to Galax...a place where long-hairs and gypsies could go to get their old-time freak on. The majority of the campers at Clifftop are music players (unless they are spouses of players) who spread out and claim territory in the shaded, woodsy recesses of Camp Washington Carver. You don’t have many people going to Clifftop just to party, although the music players do their fair share of this!
|Square dancing at Clifftop.|
|Seen, but thankfully not heard, at Clifftop.|
Clifftop “begins” on a Wednesday, but many of the hard cores arrive the Saturday prior and are already outta there by Thursday when the festival is just getting underway and more hippies are rolling in. Grabbing a spot at the stage to watch the competitions is pretty hassle free, as most people are chill about setting up a chair so there's no need to do so in advance. Anyone who wants to can get pretty close to watch the always entertaining neo-traditional band competition, for example. There’s a safe, kid-friendly, compassionate vibe to Clifftop and a serious adherence to pre-bluegrass musical traditions.
When it comes down to it, the fact that anyone plays traditional music in this golden age is amazing, and the continued popularity of festivals like Clifftop and Galax where people gather to play these tunes into the wee hours of the morning for days on end is a great thing no matter what!