Infectious beats fill college grounds

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 18, 2008

NATCHEZ — Under the shade of century-old Live Oak trees, old-time music lovers gathered at Historic Jefferson College on Saturday for the inaugural Big Yam Potatoes Fiddle Contest.

“This is some of the finest old-time musicians you’ll find anywhere,” said Robert Gray, the event’s founder. “We’re trying to get old-time music back where it belongs and this is how you do it.”

Fiddlers young and old competed for cash prizes inside Jefferson College’s West Wing building. Bonnie McCoy, 16, won first place in the junior division. She considered her win an early birthday surprise. She turns 17 today.

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“I’ve been playing violin for 12 years and studying the fiddle seriously for five years,” said McCoy, who’s homeschooled. “I’ve always been interested in fiddling and got bored with classical style.”

McCoy said she practices her fiddle every day for 30 to 45 minutes. She acknowledges most kids her age aren’t familiar with old time music and encourages her peers to keep an open mind.

“It’s kind of obsolete for a lot of people and they don’t get it, but there’s something for everybody. That’s what I enjoy about it the most,” McCoy said.

Emily Ortiz, 12, of Brandon, took second place in the junior division. Ortiz said her grandfather was convinced she was born to have a fiddle under her chin.

“My grandfather bought me my first fiddle when I was 4 and he brainwashed me to be a fiddler,” she said.

Ortiz performed two pieces for the contest — “Sullivan’s Hollow,” a fast-paced fiddle tune, and “Maggie’s Waltz,” a slow tune named for her little sister.

“It’s really interesting once you start (playing),” Ortiz said. “If you just keep going you can get really good at it.”

While McCoy and Ortiz received cash prizes of $100 and $75 respectively, the first of many impromptu jam sessions took place behind the West Wing. One by one, folks broke out their fiddles, guitars, banjos, mandolins and cellos and lost themselves in the music. One of those folks was Peggy Dudley of Vicksburg, a member of the Mississippi Old Time Music Association who plays the mandolin and the guitar.

“I’ve been playing every since I was knee high to a turkey,” Dudley said. “A bunch of us get together and jam.”

While Dudley and company were jamming, they informed onlookers of a small piece of plywood that served as the dance floor nearby. No one took to the floor, but everyone felt the urge to toe tap to the infectious beats.

Outside the front entrance of the West Wing, Don Price of Utica enjoyed a pimento cheese sandwich while listening to fiddlers play inside. Price, who is also a member of the Mississippi Old Time Fiddlers Association, is confident Big Yam Potatoes will become a longstanding Adams County tradition.

“Hopefully this will be the beginning of something what will go on from now on,” he said. “Once the word gets out, next year it will be three times as big or even bigger.”