Folkmoot USA, the two-week festival which unfurls across Western North Carolina every summer, has emerged as one of the world’s premier showplaces of folk music and dance. Just ask anyone.
But make sure you’re armed with a good long-distance calling plan: Many of Folkmoot’s biggest boosters live far from the festival’s Waynesville headquarters.
While Folkmoot has enjoyed an enviable reputation overseas, its yearly offerings have been ignored — and sometimes disparaged — by local residents resentful of the festival’s perceived uppity attitude. Although thousands of Western North Carolinians buy tickets to performances by troupes of Turkish, Chinese and Peruvian dancers, both organizers and participants say Folkmoot could do more to forge meaningful relationships with its neighbors.
“My impression from a distance was it was a more highbrow cultural community,” says Grammy Award-winning banjo player Mark Pruett of Haywood County, whose Whitewater Bluegrass Company is among the more than one dozen groups included in this year’s edition of Folkmoot. “I didn’t feel encouraged from a local perspective. Could it be a lack of invitations to local folks to participate? I don’t know.”
If that was indeed the problem, Folkmoot organizers hope to have remedied it this year with a slew of open invitations. In addition to traditional performances, residents are being urged to join the festival for its first-ever series of interactive workshops. Scott McLeod, a member of the board of directors, says the outreach effort is part of a greater rethinking of Folkmoot prompted by last year’s departure of longtime executive director Jackie Bolden.
“When Folkmoot started 22 years ago, the iron curtain was still up,” McLeod says. “There wasn’t cable television. Now everything’s changed. Just having groups here isn’t enough. For the festival to succeed, people need to interact.”
It was the promise of interaction which propelled Waynesville surgeon Clinton Border to launch Folkmoot a decade after accompanying a local square dance team to a folk festival in Sidmouth, England. He spent the intervening years leading various groups of musicians and dancers to Europe, experiences which cemented his belief in the power of cultural exchange.
In 1976, Border sent a bluegrass group and clogging team to Poland in exchange for “a top-notch soccer team,” according to Pruett, who played banjo in the band. The culture shock — and ensuing understanding — which Folkmoot is now trying to instigate was then unavoidable.
“I remember going to a restaurant and the only drink they had was a strawberry dropped in a hot glass of water,” says Pruett. “Some of the cloggers were just dying for a Coke.”
But it was the overriding poverty of the region that most struck Pruett and his fellow travelers, all of whom were closely monitored by the KGB.
“One fellow there said he played American banjo, but had trouble finding American-style picks,” Pruett remembers. “Now, we come from the land of plenty, so a pick is nothing to me. My case was full of them. Literally, he got down on his knees and thanked me.”
Folkmoot Director Jamye Cooper hopes the new interactive workshops will facilitate such moments of profound personal connection, something she senses has been missing from the festival in recent years. According to Cooper, the prospect of exotic entertainment in a comfy air-conditioned auditorium may have been more appealing to some attendees than the promise of global understanding. Cooper is hoping to get those people out of their seats and dancing this year, or at least making French lace.
“A lot of what we’re focusing on this year is education and cultural exchange,” Cooper says. “We’re returning to our roots.”
Folkmoot’s two interactive workshops — one in French lace-making, the other focusing on African drumming — were specifically chosen to appeal to local residents who might not have attended Folkmoot performances in the past.
“Look at downtown Asheville, how many people are into drumming,” Cooper points out.
Joe Amozou from Togo will lead six one-hour drumming workshops at the Folkmoot Friendship Center in Waynesville.
“We have a huge, very active retirement population,” McLeod says. “Perhaps something like this can broaden the appeal of the festival to other groups.”
Cooper is also hoping to draw an unorthodox crowd with the Learn to Dance event, scheduled for July 25 at the Stompin’ Ground in Maggie Valley. The program is not a formal dance class so much as a dance party, structured to partly simulate the ad-libbed late-night sessions at the Folkmoot complex in which performers from different countries swap steps. Those celebrations have been the backdrop for memorable moments of cultural exchange between the performers, such as the reticent 12-year-old Russian violinist who was at Folkmoot when he first heard “Orange Blossom Special.”
“That brought the kid right out of [his] shell,” Cooper recalls.
Learn to Dance, which was offered last year but barely publicized, is an opportunity for anyone to hoof it alongside pros from France, Latvia and Romania (a lineup that, like all Folkmoot lineups, is subject to change according to visa issuances and political turmoil).
“It won’t be real hardcore,” Cooper says. “Most anyone can do it. You dance along with them, and hopefully go home and remember what you did.”
Pruett says he’s looking forward to being part of Folkmoot this year; while Americans have participated in the past, the inclusion of Pruett’s group further signals the event’s renewed commitment to its own community. The festival had previously imported a clogging group from Chapel Hill, a move that particularly stung Haywood County residents, who are rightly proud of their own championship cloggers.
“We’ll do anything we can to interface with other cultures,” declares Pruett. “And we’re hoping people participate, whether it be toe-tapping or hand-clapping.”
[Contributing writer Hanna Miller is based in Asheville.]
Folkmoot kicks off Monday, July 18, with various community programs. Wednesday, July 20 marks the first public program, at the Martin Lipscomb Performing Arts Center in Highlands (7:30 p.m.; $15). On Friday, July 22, the Parade of Nations happens at 1 p.m. along Main Street in Waynesville. The grand-opening show is that night at 7:30 p.m. at the Stompin’ Ground (2914 Soco Road) in Maggie Valley ($15-$25). Folkmoot will perform in Asheville at UNCA’s Lipinsky Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 23 and Sunday, July 24 (tickets are $15 and $20 for both shows).
For information about special Folkmoot workshops (especially Learn to Dance, French Lace Making and Togo Drumming), as well as additional Folkmoot performances in Clyde, Maggie Valley, Lake Junaluska, Flat Rock, Hendersonville, Waynesville, Canton, Cullowhee, Bryson City and Franklin, see www.folkmootusa.org/schedule or call (828) 452-2997, or toll free at (877) FOLK-USA.