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WASHINGTON, Miss. — In 2007, Robert Gray and a few of his friends visited Jefferson College, the first institution of higher learning chartered in the Mississippi territory. The federal style colonial school buildings are surrounded by Aaron Burr Oaks and sit on about 30 acres just north of Natchez. As Gray walked back to his car that afternoon, he thought out loud about the spot — now a museum and park — would be a perfect venue for a fiddle contest.
“The curator at the time was walking behind me, he tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Can you make that happen?’” Gray said.
Beginning today, folks will travel to Mississippi from as far as New Mexico to set up camp and start their weekend for that same fiddle contest — dubbed the Great Big Yam Potatoes Old Time Music Gathering — at Jefferson College for the 10th year running.
As for the festival’s funny name: That stems from a Library of Congress project back in 1939 when researchers from Washington, D.C., made their way around the country to research and record music from different locales. The researchers traveled the country in a World War I ambulance that had been converted to a makeshift studio, and they recorded musicians as they went. In Mississippi, fiddlers, ballad singers and songsters all made the cut, and the final product was a vinyl record put out by the researchers. It was called Great Big Yam Potatoes.
“The music came from the dirt off their hands,” Gray said, noting that often times farmers would go straight from the field in their muddy boots to the back of the ambulance and record their songs before heading right back to work. “There’s something about the soil here in Mississippi, it roots you to a place. It’s home.”
“We decided we wanted a place where we could camp and play music,” Gray said. “It really adds to the charm of the event. That’s what the musicians come for. They like to visit and play together. That’s how tunes are learned when you have a gathering like this.”
Once everyone settles in, there’s a social and an “old time barn dance,” complete with a caller — “swing your partner” and such — and live music.
“Musicians love to play for dancers. This music is rhythmic dance music,” Gray said. “Essentially, this is how your grandparents, maybe great-grandparents, spent their Saturday nights in the rural South, a social gathering like this. It’s a way of people coming together, creating community and fun. From the dance floor to the caller to the musicians, it’s a good feeling all the way around.”
Gray said the dance has been pretty well attended in the past, and lots of people from the Natchez area will come just to watch.
Bright and early Saturday morning, the day will start with a flag raising and a rendition of the National Anthem, usually played on a fiddle or a banjo. From there, people can make their way to the fiddling contest on the inside stage (with competitors elementary school age up to adults) or enjoy old time music performances on the outside stage.
“We have a core group of people who come every year, so in some ways it’s like a family reunion. It’s like a big gumbo. Everyone throws their talents into the pot to collectively put this thing on,” Gray said.
Molly Gleason, a California transplant who lives in Ridgeland, said she enjoys the contest most.
“My favorite part is the senior fiddle contest,” she said. “I love how each person has their own style.”
Gleason is a fiddler herself. She always wanted to play the violin, and when she moved to Mississippi, she realized the fiddle and violin are the same instrument — the only difference is the way you play them.
“I sought out a teacher and started taking lessons a few years ago,” she said. “So I ended up a fiddler and, in turn, meeting a wonderful group of people that are part of the Mississippi Old Time Music Society.”
Although Gleason is not planning to perform this year, she probably will bring her fiddle and jam with some friends who will be there.
The on-stage performances feature everything from fiddles, mandolin and guitar to a banjo made from homegrown gourds with nylon strings and hand-whittled pegs.
“You aren’t going to find this on TV or in whatever club you go to. It’s gotten to be really unique to Jefferson College,” Gray said. “Plus, we’ve got this educational aspect to what we’re doing. It’s not just a bunch of people back there jamming away.”
The weekend has developed an identity of its own — so much so that people will greet each other by saying “Happy Big Yams to you.”
“The architecture and the field of historic Jefferson College matches the music. It’s a historical setting with historical music. The big front yard, antique oaks — it’s just a really peaceful spot,” Gray said. “It’s very low stress and very pleasant. It puts a smile on your face; it’s just one of those things.”
A day full of live acoustic music on the outdoor stage starts at 9 a.m. Saturday. All events are free.