Hinging on heritage

From washtub-bass plucking to gripping stories to frenetic clogging, local heritage has always sounded compelling within the merry confines of Asheville’s annual Mountain Dance & Folk Festival.

But 2002 marks the 75th anniversary of this celebration of old-time music, bluegrass and Appalachian dance — making it the nation’s longest continually running folk-music festival. So organizers and performers are making a bit more noise of their own this year.

“There’s gratification from sharing traditions with new generations or people new to the region,” says festival adviser Leesa Sutton, a state heritage-development officer.

Mountain music blends English, Scottish, Irish, African and Cherokee elements, she notes. “The traditions,” says Sutton, “are a result of different cultures coming together.”

Beyond Lil’ Abner

The Mountain Dance & Folk Festival was born in the 1920s — a time when old-time music boomed and thousands of songs were recorded, reports acclaimed local musician/music historian David Holt, who’ll perform at this year’s event. And efforts to preserve Appalachian songs may go back as far as World War I, says another local musician/historian, Jim Trantham.

Last year’s film Songcatcher chronicled that search and featured many of the festival’s longtime participants, notes Sutton.

One such songcatcher, Bascom Lamar Lunsford — who lived in the South Turkey Creek area at the outer reaches of Buncombe County but did much of his song-collecting in nearby Madison County — started the festival to celebrate Appalachian music and culture. He invited neighbors to pick and dance on his front porch, then brought them down the mountain to play in Pack Square beginning in 1927 (Lunsford’s event was originally part of Asheville’s Rhododendron Festival; the Mountain Dance & Folk Festival was established under its current name in 1930).

Lunsford, himself a musician, made some recordings for the Library of Congress. But he was more adept as a folklorist, says Trantham, noting, “He collected bits of song no one else ever bothered to record or write down.” Southerners developed complicated “rhythmic bowing” for old fiddle tunes to propel square dancing, then changed chords once guitars were introduced, adds Holt.

Mountain music’s basic energy and complex execution showcase local artistry, continues Trantham. “It’s an ego boost. It’s a contrast from the Lil’ Abner stereotype of mountain folks as ne’er-do-wells, hillbillies on the edge of society. Now people recognize value in our music.” He is patriarch of the three-generation Trantham Family Band, which plays songs from its English and lowland-Scottish ancestry. The Tranthams will perform at the festival on opening night.

Home entertainment

In pre-TV mountain homes, the entertainment choices were limited; music, folk stories and true, bloody tales figured high on the list.

“Subsistence farms sponsored this music — a do-it-yourself lifestyle,” Trantham observes. “It’s part of the independent spirit.” He’s sung old English and Scotch-Irish ballads a capella since childhood. There’s a simple explanation for the tradition of singing without instrumental accompaniment: It cost a lot to buy instruments until around 1900, when they became affordable thanks to the Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Montgomery Ward catalogs.

“Before then, there were a few fiddles scattered here and there, but not many dulcimers,” says Trantham. “A good music instrument was a luxury; few had the time or skill to build them.” Trantham, however, learned the craft well enough to make a career of it (he numbers Holt among his current clients). Growing up in Thickety, north of Canton, Trantham worked on his family’s subsistence farm, where they raised livestock and grew enough vegetables to live on, selling leftovers in the Canton market.

For centuries, mountain farmers celebrated harvests by singing and playing. But Jim recalls that his father and farm neighbors were more into storytelling, exchanging yarns while they were out hunting on Friday nights. “They’d go to the mountaintop, sit by the fire, listen to fox hounds and tell stories” (at least until they heard the dogs hot on a fox’s trail). Hunters typically bragged about their dogs’ tracking skills — but storytellers, says Trantham, had to observe some limits.

“They saved sex and other juicy parts till after the kids fell asleep. If you feigned sleep, you’d hear it.”

The art of tragedy

Today, the Maggie Valley-based Trantham Family Band features Jim’s son Doug and Doug and Amy Trantham’s three children — Emily (16), Adam (13) and 8-year-old Sara.

“They’ve all surpassed my ability vocally,” confesses Jim, who occasionally joins them on-stage. Jim and Doug both sing tenor and play guitar, banjo and dulcimer. “Doug plays banjo old-style, plays flute, and is a super guitar player,” his father reveals. Doug began learning string instruments at a tender age. “I gave him a tiny tenor ukulele,” Jim recalls. “He drove us crazy with it — he wouldn’t put it down. I got him a baritone ukulele; it had a better sound.” Doug graduated to guitar, then to banjo in his late teens.

Like his father, Doug is proud that his own kids are following in his musical footsteps. “It is very gratifying. I feel it is important that we have a sense of where we come from and to be proud of our heritage,” he says. “It’s also great that we can do it together as a family.”

Emily is awed by the way generations of Tranthams passed down songs. “Ballad singing is part of who I am. It’s a real connection with my family, and it’s pretty cool,” she says. Adam recently won a scholarship to a dulcimer workshop at Western Carolina University. And Sara — whom Doug calls “a gifted storyteller” — has led crowds of hundreds in chanting stories about bear-hunting and crossing a peanut-butter river.

“There’s a rich tradition of humorous songs that convey important social information — about courtship, love and how to survive in the world,” notes Doug.

Emily, meanwhile, tries to put herself in the place of the characters in these old songs — such as a Civil War-era woman whose husband went to Tennessee to join the Union Army while her son fought for the Confederacy. “So much was painful, heartbreaking and devastating,” says Emily. “I love to hear my grandfather sing tragic ballads, but I steer away from them.”

Old English folk ballads often spin gruesome tales of romantic tragedy. They were adapted centuries ago from sensational English news “broadsides” — single sheets with a story, poem or ballad about the event, explains Jim Trantham. As a child, he recalls, “It was bizarre to listen to murder ballads. I had no idea they were English and Scottish [in origin]. I thought they occurred locally, they were so realistic.” A good example of this style of ballad is the bluegrass staple “Pretty Polly,” about a pregnant woman whose boyfriend kills her rather than marry her.

Interestingly, these tragic songs are supposed to be sung steadily, not fluctuating with emotion, says Trantham. “English-Scottish tradition prohibits dramatization. It has to be stoic, discreet, nonjudgmental.”

Keeping things stirred up

Inevitably, however, a culture’s survival hinges on the younger generation. Perhaps with this in mind, the Greasy Beans (who play on Saturday) perform mostly originals, mixing in some classics.

The band — three 30-ish musicians who blend old-time and bluegrass — came together 10 years ago out of picking sessions at Warren Wilson College. The current lineup features mandolinist Charley Brophey, bassist John Matteson and Josh Haddix on guitar and banjo. All three sing.

Matteson started out playing rock, but he prefers the acoustic bass’s “fullness of tone … without fancy amps or boxes. No knobs to turn.” He appreciates the way bluegrass musicians rotate solo leads and sing lead together. “I gravitated towards bluegrass over old-time because of its singing and concentration on virtuosity by all instruments,” he explains.

Brophey likes both styles, though his mandolin gets to shine more in bluegrass. “Old-time relies on the fiddle to do almost all of the lead, delivering the melody,” he notes. “Other instruments play a variety of rhythms to accentuate the melody. In bluegrass, the fiddle is still the main instrument. But all other instruments have a turn in playing the lead melody, while the rhythm remains fairly consistent.”

Regardless of who grabs the spotlight, however, “Both forms can be high-energy,” he notes. “It is especially enjoyable to sit with a bunch of musicians and play string music.”

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