Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Clifftop vs. Galax - a comparison

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 Jam.
 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!
The evening competitions take place in front of a grandstand with an open area in front of the stage where people race to place their chairs at the beginning of the week.  Attendance swells in this area each night as people come by the thousands to listen to the competitors and enjoy the festival.  Lots of true old-timers do some darn good flat-footing around the stage.  Despite its conservative nature, the mixture of bluegrass in the music makes Galax more progressive in a musical sense and there’s an overall feeling of whimsy to be found there, as evidenced by the annual Kazoo competition and soup kitchen tradition. 

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.
The music played at Clifftop is vehemently old-time, with well-schooled fiddlers and clawhammer banjoists emulating styles they may not have grown up with, but have spent most of their adult lives studying, analyzing and reproducing as sincerely as possible.  One camping zone might be comprised of people from Canada, another people from the Ozarks, still another populated by folks from Charlottesville and so on…each contingent fairly certain that their version of “Lost Indian” is the best!  The insular nature of these circles means that individuals can find it hard to join jams unless you know people in the group and already have an in.  If you’re lucky the people you’re camped next to might let you play with them. 
Seen, but thankfully not heard, at Clifftop.
Playing bluegrass can be a taboo at Clifftop, but taking an indie/hipster approach to traditional music by bringing your tuba, accordion or harmonica  and playing jugband music or early jazz seems to be OK.  Banjo ukes are quite common. The deeper you go into the woods the more you encounter the dreadlocked, punked out representatives with dogs on roped leashes (or no leash at all), who take advantage of Clifftop’s liberal attitude toward enjoyment of old-time music paired with whatever makes one feel comfortable.  This progressive mindset extends into the official activities:  morning yoga, nightly square dances, masters workshops and family-friendly events abound.  You're unlikely to come across any Romney stickers or confederate flags at Clifftop.  There’s no visible police presence; the crowd polices itself - you rarely see people being visibly intoxicated or causing a disturbance…beyond the occasional Indian War Whoop or playing of a bagpipe at 6am.

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!


  1. Thanks for a good writeup, Lanny...half of my family is from the Galax area, so I grew up hearing about the convention, but have never been. This year was my first time at clifftop, and I can't wait to go back...

    And here's a Clifftop piece Richmonder Dave Shifflet wrote a few years ago, that does a bit to contrast the cultures/lifestyles of Clifftop and Galax-goers...,,SB112431962083316041,00.html

    1. Thanks Justin. You should go next year! That Clifftop piece by Dave Shifflet helped me flesh out my ideas for this post.

  2. Having been to both several times I think you get it mostly right, to my experience. I would say however, that there are more people than first meet the eye at Galax who learned the music from recordings and books, and more folks than you might think at Clifftop who learned it in their family growing up.

    Also its kind of dangerous to over generalize about political affiliations, I think most folks go to music to avoid that side of things as much as possible. There are more "gentlemen of the opposition" than you might think at both festivals, regardless of your own political leanings.

    But you got the flavor right I think.