As the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival closes in on its 100th annual event, organizers mark the countdown with a giant, centrally located photo of founder Bascom Lamar Lunsford and a sign noting the shrinking number of years left until the centennial. In 2020, when the gathering shifted online to comply with restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Lunsford’s visage appeared shrouded with a mask and the message, “See you in 2021!”
One year later, the celebration of Southern Appalachian music, dance and storytelling indeed returns to an in-person format, Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 5-7 at UNC Asheville’s Lipinsky Hall. And Lunsford’s uncovered face will be there to greet attendees as they stream into the auditorium.
Bringing it all back home
Though Carol Peterson, co-vice chair of the nonprofit Folk Heritage Committee, is elated to resume traditional operations, she says it was important for her and fellow board members to adapt in 2020 — not merely to keep the festival’s streak going, but to maintain strong ties with its network of performers.
For the pivot, the FHC dug into its collection of archival footage and invited area musicians to submit video performances or record at Asheville’s First Baptist Church, which set up a pandemic-appropriate studio for the occasion. WWNC radio host John Roten emceed the three nights remotely, and the FHC kept the performances online for two months for people to view for free.
“It was really a great coming together of the music, dancing and storytelling folks,” Peterson says. “We were pretty proud of that.”
And while the 2020 digital edition was a success, getting the festival back to an in-person event remained at the forefront of Peterson’s mind — and those of many others in the community. Peterson says wherever she and her husband, Bruce, went last year, people would ask about the future of both the festival and Shindig on the Green, the organization’s other major event. She credits this interest to area residents’ commitment to Southern Appalachian art forms, as well as the welcoming nature of the disciplines themselves.
“This type of music and dance is such a communal thing,” Peterson says. “Anybody can square dance. Anybody can get a guitar or sing in the background or raise their voice and tell a story or be involved in some way.”
In planning the 2021 festival, the FHC had the good fortune of UNCA’s commitment to hosting. Long before statewide indoor gathering restrictions were lifted, the university reserved Lipinsky Hall for the organization’s traditional opening weekend of August in case conditions improved. Once Gov. Roy Cooper allowed for full-capacity events, the festival was officially back on.
Peterson notes that prior hosts, including the Diana Wortham Theatre and A-B Tech, have been wonderful; with UNCA, however, the FHC feels as if it has found its “forever home.” Strengthening that bond is the fact that UNCA’s Ramsey Library houses the FHC’s archives and will create a display for the festival.
The FHC’s loyalty to its performers in 2020 was also rewarded as numerous acts agreed to be “on call” as they awaited word of the event’s return to UNCA. The lineup for this year’s gathering includes such highlights as Jim Lauderdale and Songs From the Road Band; storytellers Connie Regan-Blake and Michael Reno Harrell; and a number of dance groups, among them the J. Creek Cloggers and the Little River Cloggers.
Relevancy at the century mark
In addition to these performers, the bill features the inaugural Youth Talent Celebration on Aug. 7, 4-5 p.m., wherein students from the nonprofit Junior Appalachian Musicians program and the Academy for the Arts will showcase their skills. An educator by trade, Peterson oversaw square dance teams at Asheville-area high schools, taught lessons at UNCA and learned the craft from her parents, who founded the area’s first square dancing team, the Valley Springs Dancers. Though Peterson is not currently teaching, these experiences have made her well aware of the importance of keeping these traditions alive for future generations.
Peterson also hopes that the addition helps continue the spirit of the Mountain Youth Jamboree, which local folklorist and promoter Hubert Hayes founded in 1948. Following his death in 1964, Hayes’ widow, Leona, sustained the popular event through 1973, but opportunities for local young people to share traditional music and dance have largely been absent in the interim.
Along with the Youth Talent Celebration forging a strong connection across generations, Peterson sees a powerful link between the struggles during the pandemic and the origins of the festival’s performance arts, which should make the 2021 edition even more meaningful.
“It really came from hardscrabble people who had to find a way to entertain themselves, and they did it through this music and dance. And when you listen to the words of the songs that are sung and the stories that they tell, it speaks to the people’s lives,” she says.
“Many of our people make their living or supplement their livelihood by jamming around at the different venues in town and in Western North Carolina,” Peterson continues. “That’s been cut out to them, so that’s coming from an area of hardship, too.”
WHAT: 94th annual Mountain Dance and Folk Festival
WHERE: Lipinsky Hall, UNC Asheville
WHEN: Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 5-7, nightly at 6:30 p.m. $25 adults, $10 students, $5 children ages 6-12 years, or $50 adults for a full-festival pass