Still coming around the mountain

The oldest-time mountain man I’ve known in my decades hereabouts was Joe Gilliam, down in Broad River Township. One time I was telling him about my hike to a jumbled rocky promontory known as The Pinnacles, down where Buncombe and Henderson and Rutherford counties all tangle in sort of a no-man’s—or, more to the point—no-tax-assessor’s land.

Keeping on: The Steep Canyon Rangers are one of the younger draws at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival.

Joe said, “That place is just like Elvis Presley.” I must have shot him a blank stare. “Whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on,” he explained.

He had that right. These mountains danced once upon a time, and its native people haven’t forgotten.

This summer’s 80th Annual Mountain Dance and Folk Festival is just a mite older than Joe, whose 1931 birthday makes him 76 if he’s still kickin’ down Hwy. 9 below Black Mountain. No question that the festival is still kickin’, with three full evenings of old-timey hooplah planned for the Diana Wortham Theatre stage. The best local and regional bluegrass players, mountain string bands, ballad singers, big-circle mountain dancers and cloggers will tune up and step out.

Two weeks later, Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre will feature The Memory Collection, an original musical celebrating the life and work of the legendary Bascom Lamar Lunsford, credited as founder of the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival way back in 1928.

Eighty years ago, the Asheville Chamber of Commerce was concerned with increasing tourism (imagine that!)—perhaps fearing the effect of Thomas Wolfe’s soon-to-be-published Asheville-basher Look Homeward, Angel. Promoters concocted a Rhododendron Festival and asked Lunsford to arrange for a little mountain music.

They never knew what hit them. Five-thousand people mobbed Pack Square to listen to balladeers, fiddlers, banjo pickers and string bands while square dancers competed for cash prizes. The Chamber has been dealing with street musicians ever since, and success spun the event clean out of control, giving birth to Shindig on the Green as well as the annual hoedowns that have swelled and faded and swelled again over the decades.

Picking by numbers

Prodigy picker: Seth Taylor may not be old enough to drive, but he can play with the best of them.

There are well upward of 100 performers in the mix this year—too many to mention—but herewith a few highlights: The Steep Canyon Rangers with their sleek, award-winning bluegrass will headline Thursday, along with 14-year-old guitar and banjo prodigy Seth Taylor and Reel Tyme. Doug and Darcy Orr, progenitors of the Swannanoa Gathering at Warren Wilson College, will take the stage as well.

Taylor, a three-year veteran of the festival, says he started playing music at age three in, interestingly, an otherwise unmusical family. “Reel Tyme tours quite a bit in the summer,” he says, “and we’ve recorded one CD.” Taylor has released a solo effort as well, titled Shady Grove.

He says home-schooling facilitates his music-making since the schedule is flexible. Pencilled in for the future: a career in music.

In a colorful twist, former newscaster and congressional candidate Maggie Lauterer will share emcee duties with shape-note wizard Zack Allen.

Friday’s show features the Tar Heel State’s heartthrob Laura Boosinger and Scottish folkie Flora MacDonald Gammon as emcees and performers. The man in the white hat, David Holt, will be on stage, as well as the Mountain Valley, Green Valley and Rough Creek Cloggers.

Come Saturday, the renowned Cockman Family will bring bluegrass gospel to the fore, together with the Cole Mountain and Stoney Creek Cloggers, not to mention the stomp-it-till-it’s-dead-out crowd known as the Southern Mountain Fire Cloggers. Glenn Bannerman and Richard Hurley pull emcee duties on that final night.

This is the music and the mayhem that made these mountains famous, and just like Old Joe would tell you, “There’ll be a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on.”

The 80th Annual Mountain Dance and Folk Festival runs Thursday, Aug. 2 through Saturday, Aug. 4 at 7 p.m. nightly at Diana Wortham Theatre. $15/general, $8/children 12 and under, 3-night package $36. Call 257-4530 or see Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre presents The Memory Collection Aug. 15-26 at Owen Theatre on the campus of Mars Hill College; see for details.

Go ahead, just try to find an older music festival

Asheville’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, turning 80 this year, enjoys the distinction of being the oldest continuously running music festival in the U.S.

Other American folk fests, including the Philadelphia Folk Festival and the Florida Folk Festival, have tried to claim this honor, though MDFF has them beat by at least 20 years. During an inspired online search, Xpress slipped out of the country to try to uncover an even older folk festival. But even such promising-sounding events as Bolton, England’s Busker’s Ball and the Celtic Colours International Festival of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, were begun within the last decade. The Cambridge Folk Festival, a British institution, rivals some of the American runners-up but is still young enough to be MDFF’s love child.

To find anything older than MDFF we finally had to exit the genre altogether. The Three Choirs Festival, held this month at the Cathedral of Gloucester in England, is responsible for the success of such British classical composers as the late 19th century’s Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

However, the event predates even him by more than a century. According to a passage on , “the earliest printed evidence for the origins of this triennial ‘music meeting’ appears in a 1719 edition of the Worcester Postman.”

— additional reporting by Melanie McGee Bianchi


About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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2 thoughts on “Still coming around the mountain

  1. Scott Gilliam

    Cecil, that story captures my uncle Joe’s way nicely. He seemed to always have a bit of sly humor at the ready. I’m afraid that he passed last year in mid-December. Glad to see your still around and glad to see my uncle remembered.

    Scott Gilliam

  2. clarissa

    THis is awsome i have worked at the festival and shindig since i was 6 (now 14) and i love it !! the 80th annual festival was i memory of Richard “Dick” Roberts (my great uncle) IT meant alot to me and my family i can;t wait till next planning is in session and we hope to see more people there this year!!!
    ~continuing the tradition~

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