As a musician and longtime Asheville resident, Dan Lewis is more accustomed to writing songs than books. An active figure in the local music scene since the 1970s, he has recorded 12 albums, including a collaboration with the late Bob Moog.
But amid the city’s continued growth, Lewis felt compelled to temporarily put down his guitar to revisit his past. In December, the songwriter self-published his memoir, Growing Up In Asheville, North Carolina: How Music and Art Spurred a Renaissance in a Sleepy Southern Town.
“With new people and influences flocking in as they always will, it seems important to leave some record of how the times and people were, and what happened to bring about such remarkable change to transform a sleepy southern town into a thriving center of culture and tourism,” he writes in an early passage of the book.
As the memoir’s subtitle suggests, Lewis’ work chronicles Asheville’s history from 1960, when he first arrived at age 7, to 1980, which he says marks the beginning of the end of the city’s quieter days.
No fan of commercial growth, Lewis believes that the “powers that be” drove out the artists with whom he identified and lived among. “The old remote mountain town I grew up in was opened up and exposed to the outside world, and hordes of people followed, more old got torn down and replaced by new, and property values went up and up and up until people born here couldn’t afford to live in their hometown anymore,” he writes.
The 1969 walkout
By the time Lewis arrived in Asheville, by way of Baltimore, in 1960, the town still resembled what he’d later read about in Thomas Wolfe’s 1929 novel, Look Homeward, Angel. “Most of the things Wolfe wrote about were still in the Asheville I grew up in,” he says. “The town seemed to be in a time capsule.”
But change came rapidly once the anti-war sentiments and drug culture of the late 1960s hit, Lewis recounts. Often traversing the city on bike, the author says his youth was spent witnessing the city’s transformation. Among many notable experiences spotlighted in the book is the 1969 Asheville High School walkout.
On Monday, Sept. 29, 1969, at 9:15 a.m., about 200 African American students exited the school. The protest occurred during the first fall term as an integrated educational institution. That year, African American students, who previously attended Stephens-Lee, had joined the white students at the recently renamed Asheville High School, formerly Lee Edwards.
The impetus for the walkout stemmed from a list of grievances, which Black students wanted school officials to acknowledge and change, before they would return to class. An article in the following day’s edition of the Asheville Citizen included a detailed list, written by student George Watkins:
“–The majority of majorettes or cheer leaders at AHS were white girls.
– In cosmetology class, the instructor had said she couldn’t do Negroes’ hair.
– Athletes had been compelled to get hair cuts.
– When black students are late a few times, they are sent home.
– It is hard for many black students to get to school on time because bus service is inadequate.
– Negro history is taught by a white teacher, and the history textbook’s author is a white man, and neither is competent to teach Negro history.
– Black students are called ‘colored’ and ‘boy’ and Negroes object to use of either term.
– Black students have trouble when they go to the school lunch room.”
Lewis remembers the walkout as initially a peaceful demonstration. Yet, state troopers were called in when protesters refused to leave the campus. Tensions escalated, and soon violence broke out. Rocks were thrown and cars overturned, as protesting students intermingled with nonstudents who came to join in on the day’s happenings.
In preparation for his book, Lewis revisited articles and personal accounts of that day to try and capture it as accurately as possible.
“Although I was an eyewitness of the riot, it would be almost 50 years before I fully understood what took place and why,” he says.
‘Like peanut butter and jelly’
Along with the walkout, Lewis notes that the anti-war music of his youth shaped much of his political, social and artistic perspectives. But it was his mother’s demand that he move out at the age of 18 that ultimately led to some of his most important relationships. With barely enough money to cover $50 rent, he moved into a small apartment off of Valley Street, one of Asheville’s historically Black neighborhoods.
While living there, he met popular Valley Street musicians Walter and Ethel Phelps when guitarist and folksinger Andy Cohen came to town to book entertainment for the Asheville Junction coffeehouse, one of the local spots where Lewis hung out.
“I fell in with Walt and Ethel like peanut butter and jelly, and spent countless days with them in their tiny basement shack overlooking Valley Street,” Lewis recalls in his book. “Playing alone, Walt had a tendency to play slow and easy, but once we hooked up together, we’d start tapping our toes and the same songs took on a rollicking swing and beat that was infectious, and every song was a party in itself.”
Lewis continued playing and recording with the couple until Walter’s death in 1985. According to Lewis, they performed all across WNC, in addition to a folk festival in West Virginia. But more often than not, they could be found in an “ancient speakeasy in the heart of Valley Street,” he writes.
“We’d walk in, and people always stared at first at our unlikely trio: the ancient old Black man with a derby hat stooped over carrying a guitar case, the tall slim elderly Black woman striding purposefully along … and the tall skinny white kid with hair down on his shoulders lugging his guitar,” Lewis notes in his memoir.
Someone who lived it
Along with personal anecdotes, Lewis takes liberties throughout the tome to insert his own opinions about the times, the changes in Asheville and his own place within that society. Often outspoken, the 69-year-old author and musician rails against the 1969 draft lottery during the Vietnam War, which he refers to as the “lottery of death.” He’s equally as critical of President Richard Nixon’s 1971 launch of the war on drugs.
“I wrote the book for two reasons,” Lewis says, reflecting on the publication. The first, the author notes, is to extend Wolfe’s snapshot to capture a world that Lewis believes is all but gone. “I have so many unanswered questions from my own parents; I want my kids to know what I lived through.”
The second reason, the author continues, it to offer perspective and nuance. “If historians only rely on written research, they often miss the truth, unless they talk to someone who lived it,” he says.