It’s time to make fiddlin’ history

Published 11:59 am Thursday, May 15, 2008

NATCHEZ — Last October, the Big Yam Potatoes Gathering and Old Time Fiddle Contest was only an idea in Robert Gray’s head. The idea hit him after he and his wife “went giggin’” at Historic Jefferson College. The rest is fiddlin’ history.

“After we played a set of this old time music I was just thinking out loud to the staff there. I said, ‘This would be a grand site for old time music and a fiddle contest.’ They all lit up like a Christmas tree,” Gray said.

“I really like the buildings, the architecture, the landscape, the old oaks and everything. It’s just a beautiful setting for this music because it’s rural music of the South. It’s comfortable there.”

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On Saturday, fiddlers near and far will gather at Jefferson College at 8:45 a.m. for the free inaugural event and pay tribute to the instrument they hold so dear.

Sponsored by the Mississippi Fiddlers Association, the Mississippi Old Time Music Association, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and the Natchez Moose Lodge, the event is named for “Great Big Yam Potatoes,” an old-time fiddle tune recorded on a front porch in rural Mississippi by the Library of Congress in 1939, said Tim Avalon, contest coordinator.

Visitors are advised to bring blankets and lawn chairs to the all-day event, said Clark Burkett, Jefferson College historian. The contest will begin at 9 a.m. with the pee wee division, ages 1 to 11. The junior division, ages 12 to 17, will compete at 10 a.m. The senior division, ages 18 and up, will compete at 1:30 p.m.

Contestants may register as late as Saturday morning. The registration fee is $5. Cash prizes will be awarded to the first and second place winners in each division. Avalon said judges will look for authentic, old-time style playing and it wouldn’t hurt if contestants threw in a Mississippi fiddle tune.

“The judges will be judging on ability, style and enthusiasm,” Avalon said. “It’s not a beauty contest with people dancing around. You’re not going to be judged on your costume. It’s all about fiddlin.’”

From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., an outdoor concert will be held on the grounds. Johnny and Beth Rawls, Hal and Connie Genes, Edwin MacAllister, the Jackson Jug Band with Kate Morgan, Wild Fiddling Jack Magee and Avalon are scheduled to perform. The event will conclude with an old-time dance at 7:30 p.m.

Arthur “Mr. D” Davis of the Old Country Store in Lorman will cater the event.

Gray hopes Big Yam Potatoes will spark a state tradition and revive a style of music that is scarcely known.

“It’s a forgotten music in a lot of ways,” Gray said. “We’re trying to bridge that over now and keep this music alive.”