DOBSON — It’s Saturday afternoon outside Surry Central High School, and the familiar sounds of a 100-year-old song drift through the Dobson air with the help of a stiff breeze.
A listener immediately identifies the tune as “Li’l Liza Jane” and figures the musician deftly rendering an instrumental version of it on the banjo, from an almost-hidden corner of SCHS, must be some geezer who’s been performing it for decades.
A closer look reveals the banjo picker to be a young boy, 11 to be exact, who is playing “Li’l Liza Jane” accompanied by a girl on fiddle and another flatfooting nearby. The three are engaged in a mini-jam session outside the high school, where the eighth-annual Surry Old-Time Fiddlers Convention is under way in the gymnasium during the second of its two-day run.
The banjoist takes a brief break to identify himself as Ethan Pardue of Sparta, and explains his interest in old-time music.
“It’s easy and fun — really easy to pick up,” the youth says before launching into another tune, the kind of thing which was music to the ears of fiddlers convention officials in addition to passersby.
“That’s one of our focuses,” Buck Buckner, a convention organizer who also is a musician, said of efforts to involve young people in the art of old-time music which took root years ago in this region of North Carolina and Virginia.
After the early 1900s when the music gained tremendous popularity, it became passed down from one generation to another by family members or old masters such as legendary local fiddler Tommy Jarrell.
Fast-forwarding a century later, the tradition is being kept alive by efforts such as the Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) program being offered in public schools. Buckner said Alleghany and Grayson County, Virginia, have put a special emphasis on integrating old-time music into the schools.
“That’s fueling the young musicians,” Buckner said of the movement. “I think it is going really well.”
Buckner also pointed to efforts closer to home, including the development of a traditional music program at Surry Community College — right next door to Surry Central High.
“We’ve built it into the curriculum in the social sciences division,” SCC official Marion Venable said on Friday night in the Central gym.
She said the traditional music program really got started last summer with camps for children, and there now seems to be a big interest in the old-time genre among young people — who are buying instruments and learning to play.
Venable added that this has been perpetuated through special activities such as a March 21 performance at the college by a trio of local old-time musicians – Kirk Sutphin, Kevin Fore and Andy Edmonds.
“It was fabulous,” Venable said.
Reflecting its emphasis on having younger musicians interested and carrying on its tradition, the Surry Old-Time Fiddlers Convention provides those being exposed to the genre a creative outlet for what they’ve learned.
Attending the convention allows them not only to display their skills in a competitive setting, but to bond with and learn from other musicians young and old alike.
“These little kids will blow you away,” Buckner said of children playing onstage who were as young as 6.
About 35 individual youth competitors registered for Saturday’s convention events along with about 60 adults, performing throughout the day in categories including guitar, folk song, banjo, fiddle, dance and variety.
Around 20 bands were expected to compete, with that part of the event concluding Saturday night.
Unlike other conventions that include both bluegrass and old-time music, the Surry convention is restricted to the latter.
With its competition component set aside for Saturday, the fiddlers convention kicked off Friday night with a segment that has proved popular during its duration, a community dance.
The Surry Central gym was crowded for an appearance by two acclaimed old-time groups from Grayson County, Virginia, The New Ballards Branch Bogtrotters and The Whitetop Mountain Band.
After the Whitetop group got the room going — with folks either dancing or listening while tapping their feet to its rousing tunes — the Bogtrotters and their leader, fiddler Eddie Bond, took over from there.
It further electrified the gathering with songs such as “Who Broke the Lock on the Henhouse Door?” and “Honeysuckle Rag.”
Although the fiddlers convention was moved for this year from its usual venue (the community college gym undergoing maintenance work) to its counterpart facility next door at Surry Central High, the event didn’t miss a beat, according to Buckner.
“It’s been smooth,” the convention organizer said.
“The high school couldn’t have been more accommodating.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.