“The only place on the planet that the old British ballads are still extant and living is western North Carolina,” insists 70-year-old Joe Bly, his words falling over one another in their eagerness to spill out over the phone line. “Now if that isn’t high art, I don’t know what is.”
Bly should know: For the past 30 years, he’s been part of the annual Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, known far and wide as “the Granddaddy of Festivals.” He even remembers dancing with his mother, as a child, at the home of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who founded the event more than 70 years ago.
“This stuff is in the Smithsonian,” continues Bly, who emcees the venerable celebration. “It’s the folk culture of eight generations of mountaineers. … Their legacy is precious to us now, and to the future, in understanding the beauty and wisdom of real people.”
That’s the message behind the festival — a showcase for family and community musicians and dancers from all over Appalachia and beyond. In other words, mountain dance and music aren’t merely quaint vestiges of some vanished past — they’re an authentic, world-famous, honest-to-goodness living tradition.
“We get people from all over the country — and other countries, as well,” reports festival organizer (and banjo player par excellence) Stewart Canter. “It’s completely impromptu, and everyone respects the family atmosphere; it’s a real music-centered, intergenerational gathering.
“For the past century,” he continues, “this area has been a repository for really old dance figures and tunes dating back to 16th-century Europe and before. That’s an incredible contribution for a people to make.” Festival founder Lunsford, says Canter, “really wanted people who came to the area to see that music and dance was a big part of people’s life here — combating the stereotype of the backward mountaineer. … This festival is one of the best ways I know to fight that stereotype.”
Lunsford — himself a mountain minstrel and dancer — launched the festival in 1927 as an open-air event in downtown Asheville, where dancers and bands could show off their skills, meet others and have a good time. It’s the oldest continuing celebration of traditional music and dance in the U.S. That distinction hasn’t gone unnoticed, either: Five television documentaries have spotlighted the festival, and it’s listed as one of the Top 20 events in the Southeast — and one of the Top 100 events in North America — by two different travel-and-tourism trade organizations.
Some years back, however — seeking to generate more revenue and make older tourists more comfortable — the festival moved indoors, becoming more a series of ticketed performances than a community event. But this year, Canter is leading it back to the streets.
“Shindig on the Green is a hugely popular jam session that Asheville hosts,” notes Canter, adding that this year, the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival “is going to be much more like Shindig on the Green. …We’re trying to recapture that spontaneous spirit of old-time bands and dancers and bluegrass bands … which is how that festival used to be.”
Tickets will be sold for two performances by groups of award-winning dancers and musicians at the Diana Wortham Theatre, and Asheville Community Theatre will host two ticketed “round-robin” Appalachian ballad swaps (see box). But most of the action will take place outdoors — at the Lunsford Stage at City/County Plaza and the Sam Queen Dance Stage at Pack Square — and will be free to the public. “[Most] everyone is donating their talent and time,” says Canter. “That’s the beauty and the uniqueness of [Lunsford’s original vision]. … It keeps the focus on the local performer, which is what the visitor really wants to see. A paid concert with big names is great, but it’s equally enchanting to see how a community’s music and dance are mixed in with everyday life.”
Moving the festival outside will make it much more family-friendly, too — especially for kids who might otherwise be squirming in their seats, with no room to roam. Scheduled festival performer Laura Boosinger has built up a considerable following among kids and grownups — both on her own and with her husband, Tim Abell — playing old-time songs and children’s tunes.
“The only way we’re going to keep these traditions alive is to put them out there where the young folks can see them,” she declared by phone from Birmingham, Ala., where she was performing at that city’s big outdoor event. “And that’s the beauty of the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival: It’s not ‘dress up the locals for the tourists.’ It’s real people [playing music and dancing]; it’s families; it’s community groups; it’s people from Canton and Candler and Soco Gap. … When the Christian Harmony singers get up to sing, anyone with any knowledge of [that kind of] singing can get up and sing, too, and anyone who wants to square dance can get up and square dance. … It’s going to be a very noncommercial, community, inclusive family event.”
Past and present, young and old: the very best of a way of life, there to be shared. As Bly puts it: “This area is a wellspring of the earliest American music, and it’s a living thing. This is what the festival is going to present: a living legacy.”
The Mountain Dance and Folk Festival will run Thursday, July 2, through Saturday, July 4, in and around Pack Place and City/County Plaza in downtown Asheville. While the outdoor portion of the festival is free (thanks, in part, to the generosity of a variety of sponsoring organizations and local businesses), organizers hope to put some money in the bank to help fund next year’s event by offering the public a chance to win prizes — including cash, meals at local restaurants, weekends at area resorts, and a new Martin D-28 guitar — in return for a $5 donation.
Free dance exhibitions, street dances, workshops and a “liar’s contest” will take place daily at the Sam Queen Dance Stage at Pack Place, 12-6 p.m. Bands and individual performers — both old-time and bluegrass — will compete July 2 and 3 at the Lunsford Stage at City/County Plaza, 12-6 p.m. On July 4, a special Community Showcase will grab the spotlight, also 12-6 p.m. And each evening (7-10 p.m.), a special performance will cap the day’s events.
Scheduled headliners include the Southern Mountain Boys, David Holt, the Carolina Mountain Cloggers, Laura Boosinger and special guests Kickin’ Alice (a British step-dance team, who come complete with a BBC documentary film crew). Bunches of family and community groups will perform, too. Asheville’s annual July 4 fireworks extravaganza will crown the Saturday-night performance.
The Diana Wortham Theatre will host “Master’s Matinee: Award-Winning Musicians and Dancers from the Festival,” July 2 and 3, 1-3 p.m. Admission is $6 (children under 3 get in free).
And Asheville Community Theatre will host “Round-Robin Appalachian Ballad Swap,” July 2 and 3, 4-6 p.m. Admission is $6 (free for kids under 3).
In addition, the festival will feature a food court, a musician’s marketplace, a storytelling court, a general store, Performers’ Cove, an Appalachian-life photo exhibit, and “Perspectives of Heritage,” displaying the art and writing of students from Madison County’s Walnut Elementary School, winner of the prestigious Governor’s School of Excellence Award.
For more info, call 626-FOLK.