Go a-wassailing into the holiday season with A Swannanoa Solstice, and join the southern Appalachian's foremost bards of song, poetry, dance, and storytelling in an unforgettable celebration of Christmas and the winter solstice. In its seventh year, the event rejoices in the yuletide history of Appalachia and its Celtic origins.
Revelers entering the "great hall" will be greeted by the warmth of wassail and the heartstrings of the harp, setting the tone for a warm, intimate interchange with the artists.
"It's a tradition in all cultures to celebrate the time of year when the long winter is over," says Al Petteway, who performs original, traditional and contemporary instrumental works with his wife, Amy White. "It's made us much more conscious of how much beautiful music is associated with Christmas and winter."
Among the offerings are the local traditional "Cherry Tree Carol," the classic "Carol of Bells," and one of White's traditional French folk favorites, "Patapon," a fun 17th century tune on a light dulcimer. "The history of some of these tunes of the 1920s, '30s and '50s — and the melodies of old Renaissance music — you just won't hear them elsewhere," she says.
The beauty of the event is not limited to music. Petteway, a former National Geographic photo editor, captured breathtaking images of Western North Carolina in winter repose, providing a backdrop for portions of the program. Additionally, the hall will be decked in seasonal style.
Petteway and White, along with their unique repertoire featuring acoustic guitar, mandolin, Celtic harp, piano and fine vocals, have been with the show since its inception. Doug Orr, then-president of Warren Wilson College, made the connection between their seasonal concert and the Swannanoa Gathering, a diverse summer music program. This year, Orr plays host and emcee, performing songs and reciting poetry alongside the acts he introduces.
Ultimately, A Swannanoa Solstice may be likened to medieval and renaissance Twelfth Night revels. The performance ties in the storyteller tradition, with Orr and others sharing poems, songs and stories: Celtic-American musician/composer Robin Bullock's offerings range from 17th-century Irish harp, Irish jigs and reels, to haunting ballads of southern Appalachia. Other performances from award-winning Highland bagpipers Steve Agan and E.J. Jones, virtuosic fiddler and harpist Alex Reidinger, and internationally renowned seventh generation Appalachian traditional storyteller Sheila Kay Adams, promise to be seasonal gems.
A perennial favorite remains the Twisty Cuffs, a dynamic step-dance troupe performing the percussive rhythms of Cape Breton Island, Canada. The group appears in a trio of works under the tutelage of dancer musician Ellie Grace. For A Swannanoa Solstice, a small group a cappella piece allows audience members to hear the rhythms and inner working of the feet, and two "big style" works featuring the full ensemble "with all the musicians playing."
Grace calls the exciting dance form a "natural fit," given the event's Celtic roots and the community spirit of Western North Carolina's music and dance scene. The formal, percussive movement style of the Twisty Cuffs is characterized by erect posture and intricate rhythms.
"When the time signature changes and gets faster, there's an exciting drive forward," she says, explaining the dance's movement style and rhythms cement its earliest origins in Scotland. "We absolutely love dance, and our goal is to share that with the audience and give them the same feeling about dancing that we have."
Solstice condenses and perfects the elements of Scottish, Irish and Appalachian heritage and culture to celebrate the region's legacy, says Orr.
"On the one hand, immigrants from Scotland and Ireland came here due to a strong wanderlust and a wish to explore and adventure," he says. "On the other, they experienced homesickness for a sense of place." As a result, they settled in the coves and hollows of the southern Appalachians and kept alive the stories and ballads of their homelands, adding their own verses, twists, and interpretations.
Orr, who is writing a book about this cultural and musical phenomenon with National Public Radio's Fiona Ritchie, of Thistle and Shamrock fame, believes this resulted in "a dynamic tension within this culture through immigrations and migrations."
Petteway agrees. "We're learning about all different cultures, especially the Celtic and Appalachian traditions, and how they've mixed together," he says.
The real treasure of the evening, says John Ellis, managing director of the Diana Wortham Theatre, is the way the artists pay homage to the Scots-Irish legacy in Western North Carolina.
"You know those moments when it's snowing and you're sitting at a table looking out the window, the feeling and awe that you get, that's what it's like," he said.
Like coming home.
[Sherri McLendon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
what: A Swannanoa Solstice, evening of music, dance and storytelling
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Sunday, Dec. 20, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. (Admission is $35 regular, $33 senior, $30 student, and $12 children 12 and under. Student rush day of the show is $10 with valid student identification. 257-4530 or www.dwtheatre.com)