In downtown Knoxville, exactly 125 years ago, country music was old-fashioned, a fond memory inside some graying heads. To the young, it was hardly even a disreputable rumor.
Those May evenings, from the river to the railroad, Gay Street was more brightly gas-lit than ever before, one long series of "pyramidal illuminations." Hundreds flowed from the railroad station to experience Knoxville's first music festival. There was no question what you'd hear at a Knoxville Music Festival in 1883. It would be, mostly, European opera. Some boosted the idea of Knoxville as "the little Paris of the United States."
At Staub's Opera House, at Gay and Cumberland, the festival opened with a variety of short vocal pieces and the second act of the opera Martha by German composer Friedrich von Flotow. Performing it was a combination of a Cincinnati troupe of German performers; Knabe's Orchestra, led by a local German immigrant, former Schumann associate Gustavus Knabe; and a chorus of 39 Knoxvillians. During the week, the festival would also feature at least two Georgia bands, including "Cohen's famous Atlanta Orchestra"; the local 16-piece Coffman Cornet Band; and a couple of celebrity sopranos from Alabama.
Tuesday night brought a performance of Donizetti's opera L'elisir d'amore by a different combination of the same assemblage. After a one-night break, Thursday offered a production of the 1877 French comic opera The Bells of Corneville.
The Friday night finale, featuring Mattie Barnard, "the sweet songbird of Alabama," was a crowd favorite. The Pirates of Penzance was hardly more than three years old, but this wasn't the first production of the comic operetta mounted here. Knoxvillians are "familiar with the Pirates," the Tribune said, "but never tire of them." The Chronicle called it "musical lemonade."
Young Lou Krutch (aunt of the unborn park donor) was pianist for Pirates. Many of the opera boosters were bright young members of old families: McClungs and Humeses and Croziers. The Crozier sisters sang in most of the performances; feminist Lizzie Crozier French, depicted today in a statue on Market Square, doubled as stage manager.
The Music Festival was officially over on Friday, but an impertinent coda almost upstages it. One man, on his own, chose to upend the Little Paris feel. "General" D.D. Anderson invited some "Knights of the Bow" to come to the opera house at 2 o'clock on Saturday. "His idea was to have a contest in which the unique music of the old-time fiddler should be brought forth from the shades where it has been retired by the ‘newfangled' music of the opera."
David Deaderick Anderson may seem an unlikely country-music impresario. Son of a U.S. Senator, he was a Confederate captain wounded in the war and mayor of a small town in Reconstruction Alabama before setting himself up as a lawyer in Knoxville. A few years earlier, he'd been appointed district attorney general.
The crowd was almost as big as the opera audiences that week: about 700 paid a quarter each to hear the Valley's best fiddlers. The middle-aged Anderson billed it partly as a nostalgia act, to recall "good old memories and bygone days." He offered $25 in gold to the best performances of "Fisher's Hornpipe," "Grey Eagle," and "Arkansas Traveler."
"The tunes selected will not be found on the repertoire of the Mendelssohn Society or the Mozart Association," deadpanned the Knoxville Tribune. "'Twill prove interesting as well as novel."
Fiddling had been a common entertainment at dances before the Civil War, but in 1883, few Knoxvillians under 45 had been around it much.
The judges were "survivors of the olden time...who would not be led astray...by the newfangled scrapings of these degenerate days." Among them was former Congressman John Crozier, the 71-year-old father of Lizzie Crozier French and her modern, opera-loving sisters.
Anderson entered via the right aisle, marching at the head of a parade of 17 fiddlers. There were some ground rules; one was that the word "violin" would not be heard. These were fiddles. And what you played on fiddles was "the pure and unadulterated music of olden times."
"The audience was entertained with a unique musical performance," the Tribune reported, "the like of which had never been given in Staub's Opera House, or perhaps in the State."
The old was new to most, the tunes so antique that many didn't recognize them. But middle-aged aficionados Major John McGrath and former Mayor Samuel B. Boyd were "highly wrought up. Their avoirdupois was all that kept them in their seats." Boyd's teenage son had sung in the chorus of the Donizetti opera.
When it was time for the judging, former Congressman Crozier gave a "brief but happy speech." Confederate veteran Ethelred W. "Shed" Armstrong and Matt Tindell of Knox County were winners, as was J.E. Patty of Washington County. Charles Crouch and his 8-year-old son Tommie, sentimental favorites, won the duo competition.
Shut out was esteemed Virginia-style fiddler Bart Giffin, who hailed from "South America," the region beyond the river. An old-fashioned long-bow fiddler known to the gray-hairs, he grumbled the judges got "carried away by the riggity-jiggity newfangled fiddling."
Major Louis A. Gratz, the German-Jewish immigrant, Union veteran, and mayor of North Knoxville, directed the fiddlers in a closing concert. Every time the Tribune used the word concert in reference to the performance, they added a parenthetical question mark. "It is not claimed that the fiddlers' concert (?) was of a nature so aesthetic" as the other four performances of the week, reported the Tribune, but it was "more fun than all of them put together, and was appreciated by the most cultured people in the city, there being several hundred ladies present. One lady remarked that she never in all her life had so much music and fun for a quarter."
It was the first of many fiddling contests in Knoxville. Historians have cited such contests as the roots of popular country music. Did it all start as an old-timers' revolt against their children's interest in opera?