In the summer of 1966, in Washington, D.C., a mysterious drug called LSD was receiving scrutiny from Congress. In Chicago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was confronting discrimination on a scale that rivaled what he’d seen in the Deep South. On television, the nation was about to encounter the primetime sight of a character named Captain Kirk, whose acrylic stretch uniform and measured speech were something altogether new. And John Lennon, leader of a band known as The Beatles, had recently claimed that he and his three fellow musicians were “more popular than Jesus now.”
In Asheville, a more restrained event was taking place. On Saturday nights, crowds of musicians would gather at the city square to perform on stage or just group up for informal “picking.” Dance teams from the around the region—cloggers, smooth dancers, big-circle dancers, flatfooters, buckdancers—scuffled and kicked their way across the asphalt within sight of College Avenue. They had a name for it: Shindig on the Green.
Glenn Bannerman was there, as he has been most Saturday nights in the four decades of summers since. “It’s a chance to get out of the house, to be out under the stars, to be a part of Americana, of our mountain traditions,” he says. “You come without any expectations. The music will grab you.”
Shindig on the Green, which celebrates the start of its 42nd season this Saturday night, is Asheville’s longest-running street festival, a celebration of mountain heritage without peer. It grew from the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, an annual celebration of Appalachian music and dance founded in 1928 by Leicester song collector Bascom Lamar Lunsford.
The Mountain Dance and Folk Festival was, and remains, primarily a stage show. But sometime in the 1960s, festival performers got in the habit of carrying their music off the stage and well into the night. Bannerman remembers those first evenings, when musicians, dancers and hangers-on would ride from downtown over to the Westgate Shopping Center parking lot, unload their instruments and play for their own satisfaction.
“It got a little rough after a while, I guess with what you would call the hippie movement coming out,” recalls Bannerman, who lives today in Montreat and still serves as one of a half-dozen masters of ceremonies for the event.
In the summer of 1966, the party moved downtown to County/City Plaza and formalized as Shindig on the Green. It has gone on without interruption since, though two summers ago it changed locations to Martin Luther King Jr. Park (due to the Pack Park construction). Estimates hold that between 3,000 and 5,000 attend each weekly session.
A “shindig,” according to Webster’s New Universal Dictionary, is “An elaborate or large dance, party, or other celebration,” a word that has origins dating back to about the time of the Civil War. Over the years, any number of regional and national talents have suckled at the Shindig’s bosom. Banjoist Obray Ramsey and fiddler Byard Ray, for instance—early Shindig performers who, in an unlikely jaunt north during the 1960s recorded with rock, gospel and folk artists including Judy Collins; radio and television luminary and Doc Watson-collaborator David Holt; bluegrass virtuosi Josh Goforth, Marc Pruett, Bryan Sutton and Jim VanCleve; fiddler Arvil Freeman of the Shindig’s house band, The Stoney Creek Boys, who has influenced scores of younger musicians; and crooner and clawhammer-banjo player Laura Boosinger. (Like Bannerman, Boosinger also emcees the event.)
If history is any indicator, this Saturday night, several hundred musicians and spectators will gather downtown, sauntering in “along about sundown” as they always have. Lawn chairs will be unfolded, coolers plumbed for food and drinks. Gingham dresses and checked Western shirts will hold sway. The Facebook generation will mingle with the Polident generation. Tunes and songs will spark and hover in the air: “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” “Angel Band,” “Wheel Hoss,” “Sally Ann” and “Sugar Hill.”
From Shindig’s main stage, Bannerman will call the figures for something he calls “sit-down square dancing.” The elderly and the injured will join hands, lean to the right, lean to the left, clap, slap their knees and say “hello” to their neighbors. “We strive for inclusiveness,” he explains.
Then the “street dancing” will begin, again with Bannerman leading—circles forming, bodies swapping places, dodging in and fading out. The concerns of the day will drift off, and for a few minutes, the scene will be as close to timeless as you’ll likely find on a Saturday night, anywhere in America.
“I’ve often said that if you could point a camera just at people’s faces, that would tell the whole story,” Bannerman says. “These are people of all backgrounds, from all over. They’re strangers in many cases. And there they are, making those figures go and making those circles go. And you don’t see any frowns—just smiles.
“That, to me, is the beautiful thing about Shindig on the Green.”
who: Shindig on the Green
what: Mostly informal hoedown and pickin’ party, now in its 42nd year
where: Martin Luther King Jr. Park (off Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, in downtown Asheville)
when: Saturday, June 28, with additional events on July 5, 12 and 19, and Aug. 9, 16, 23 and 30. 7 p.m. (Free. Visit www.folkheritage.org for more information.)