Tradition highlights annual Vandalia Gathering at capital
CHARLESTON — Under the shade of the trees at the Capitol Complex on Saturday afternoon, people sat in small circles, bumping knees as they played mandolins and fiddles and strummed guitars during the 43rd annual Vandalia Gathering.
Between competitions for storytelling, dancing and fiddle playing, attendees could stop at the row of booths where artisans from across West Virginia were selling everything from jewelry and clothes to soaps and woodworkings.
“This is just West Virginia tradition, through and through,” said Delores Bloom, who attended the free festival with her husband, Stewart Bloom. “It’s all beautiful, and it’s right in our backyard, so why wouldn’t people come?”
The two live in Charleston, and while Delores Bloom is a Monroe County native, she said each time she goes to Vandalia it’s a reminder of the things to love about the Mountain State. The couple said they make an effort to support any cultural event they can in Charleston, especially over the summer when the weather is nice, like it was on Saturday.
“We want to make sure we take advantage of things like Vandalia, Live on the Levee, all of it,” Stewart Bloom said. “It’s the side of West Virginia a lot of people don’t see, but it’s our favorite side.”
For Jim Tucker, a 75-year-old Gassaway native, the Vandalia Gathering is a chance to reconnect with old friends and musical partners. While he lived in Ohio for work, he returned to West Virginia a few years ago and resumed his tradition of playing at Vandalia.
On Saturday, he sat in the shade outside the Capitol’s west wing with a fiddle in hand. He said he usually plays a mandolin — the group he regularly played with for years always had a fiddle player — but now, he gets to fiddle again. In a case next to him, though, was a handcrafted yellow mandolin, decorated with elegantly painted blue flowers.
Tucker said he attended his first Vandalia Gathering “sometime in the early ’70s.”
“I really don’t know,” he laughed. “It’s definitely been a while, a long while.”
He said he loves the music he gets to experience while he’s there. It’s something he’s been a fan of since he learned how to work his parents’ hand-cranked record player when he was a child. He’s since bought a new record player, passing his childhood one on to his daughter, who he said treasures it.
“That’s tradition right there, just like Vandalia, just like all of this,” Tucker said.
Another fiddle player, Tessa Dillon, of St. Albans, stood in a grassy area Saturday afternoon waiting to hear her name for the fiddle competition. Dillon, who is 23 years old and has been playing the fiddle since age 5, won the competition in 2015 and was hoping for another win this year.
“Even after all this time, I still get nervous,” she said, laughing. “It never goes away, but I kind of love that part.”
Dillon has been attending Vandalia — often as a performer — since she was brought for the first time as a music student at age 6. Now, she’s a music teacher, bringing her own students to the festival to play, watch and learn.
“It is a bit poetic for me, full circle,” she said.
For Dillon, playing at Vandalia is an opportunity to become a part of Appalachian tradition.
“We play as we go and memorize everything. You learn how to match with the people you’re sitting with, playing with,” Dillon said. “It’s a big part of who we are culturally, and participating in it each year is a gift.”