It’s about the music and dancing, of course: Toes tapping, fingers plucking, bows whizzing. The rustle of bouncing crinolines and the sweet stickiness of rhythmic sweat. A high note held so long and so true that the audience screams in appreciation.
But it’s even more than that. During its three-night stay in Asheville, the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival is mostly about connections.
This, our country’s oldest music festival, is about modern-day musicians connecting to the past, both recent (Grandpa and Grandma) and distant — harking back to the ancestors who fled foreign shores to form new roots in the isolation of our green hills.
It’s about several generations of the same family connecting to one another through a tie as strong as blood, for — as so many lovers of traditional music insist — the music does indeed run in their veins.
It’s about musicians from anywhere connecting instantly without an introduction, and strangers in the audience melding into immediate friends.
Finally, it’s about connecting to the future — a simple act that comes from looking at the Southern Appalachian music scene today and realizing that, old as it is, it will never die.
All together now
Usually it’s parents who get kids into mountain dancing. But it was the other way around for Doug and Jackie Warren, founding members of Candler’s Green Valley Cloggers (who’ll appear Thursday night).
“Our girls were on dance teams at school,” says Doug Warren. “They were having so much fun, we thought we’d try it. I was 40 years old then. Twenty-two years later, we’re still doing it.”
There are 12 couples in the Green Valley Cloggers, with eight couples always on the floor. Is it true that couples who dance together stay together?
“I very rarely dance with my wife,” confesses Doug. “We’re paired with other couples … good thing,” he laughs, “so the husband and wife can’t fuss at one another while they’re busy on the floor!
“We don’t do precision moves at all,” Doug continues. “That’s not original Appalachian. Free-style is original — and that’s what we do. Every dancer keeps the same beat, but our feet are moving all different.”
Doug is also the group’s caller; he explains, “Calling takes a lot of concentration, because you have to watch every couple on the floor, be sure they’re in their right place before you tell them to move on.” Over time, some of the words of the songs accompanying traditional dances have changed — but the moves remain the same.
Craig Bannerman is another busy family man who’ll be on-stage at this year’s festival. He’ll be playing with old cronies on Friday night and dancing with three generations of his family on Saturday.
The Crooked Pine String Band, which also includes Frank McConell (guitar/hammered dulcimer/vocals) and Marion Boatwright (fiddle/vocals), “existed in earnest 20 years ago, and [we’ve been] doing a kind of reunion for the past six or seven months,” says Bannerman, who plays the standup bass and lap dulcimer.
“All three of us, we got a real history together and a real camaraderie.” In fact, they’re seasoned to perfection, having been around long enough that “we’re almost geezers, but not quite!”
Bannerman’s lifelong exploration of the high-lonesome territory has been “driven by respect for the traditional music and dance. I try to stay true to it. Because of the history and the uniqueness of the music that came out of this part of the country, there’s really nothing else like it anywhere else. And it’s always had a feel that matched the mountains that we live in. And that’s always been important to me.”
The Dowden Sisters, who appear Thursday night, are three close-knit siblings who grew up singing in Ozark churches. Now in their 20s, they live together in Leicester, traveling and performing full time. They’d like to keep it that way forever:
“In school, people used to tell me, ‘Get a regular job!’ But this is what I wanted to do,” declares Laura, age 27, the group’s oldest member and unofficial manager.
Besides contributing to their three-part harmony, each also plays an instrument, with Laura on guitar, Hannah on fiddle and Emily on banjo.
“We do everything by ear,” Laura reveals (none of the sisters has had formal musical training). Strictly old-fashioned gals, they perform nothing contemporary.
“We do just the old songs from old recordings, old songbooks,” she affirms. Consider these lines from “Little Maggie”:
The first time I saw little Maggie
She was sitting on the banks of the sea
A pistol around her body
And a banjo on her knee.
No moss collects under the feet of the Dowden girls: They just returned from performances in Louisiana, Alabama and Canada’s Prince Edward Island; after the festival, they will head for the Fiddlers’ Convention in Galax, Va., then on to Maine.
What’s the hardest part about three sisters working together? “Nothing. It’s easier. We don’t have to worry about somebody not showing up. We’re together all the time.”
She adds: “Don’t let anyone tell you to do anything else but music, if music is what you want. And if what you want to do is stay together with your sisters, don’t let someone persuade you to leave.”
The Trantham Family is made up of three generations of musicians — and, as so many times in past years, at least two of them will be performing at the festival on Thursday night.
Generations two and three were at home practicing when I called.
“I’m a perfectionist,” Doug, the father, admits. “In summer, we practice three times a week.” Where? “On the front porch.” (Did I really have to ask?)
“The kids groan sometimes. But then you have the best part — really sharing the music, when it all comes together, when the kids are so proud of themselves,” Doug continues, noting that the family has put out four albums.