By John Ross
He was known by all as the Minstrel of the Appalachians, this granddaddy to folk festivals pretnear everywhere. Asheville was booming in 1928 when Bascom Lamar Lunsford gathered up a passel of pickers, fiddlers and dancers on Pack Square for the city’s first Mountain Dance and Folk Festival now in its 92nd year.
Lunsford may have been having a little fun with highfalutin’ Ashevillians. The ‘20s were roaring. As Thomas Wolfe recalled in “Boom Town”: “It was fantastic! Everyone was a real estate man… barbers, lawyers, clothiers…. And there seemed to be only one rule…buy, always to buy…and to sell again within any two days at any price….”
Down the hill, Asheville’s county office building and art deco city hall were opening. And four years earlier on the tiny lot where Wolfe’s father carved tombstones, Lynwood Jackson erected WNC’s first skyscraper. Its 15 stories were topped by an 18 million candle power searchlight to attract tourists.
Living out on South Turkey Creek in Leicester, Lunsford often sounded pretty folksy. Yet there was nothing at all simple about this self-made lawyer and one-time legislative clerk with a superb ear for mountain music and dialect. He launched the festival to remind everyone of the roots of the region from which he sprang.
He was born in 1882 in Mars Hill where his father, it was claimed, had a “divine thirst for knowledge,” and taught school. His mother and her family were well-known musicians. The family soon moved to Leicester. Lunsford graduated from Camp Hill Academy and attended Rutherford College and then Trinity College, the forebear of Duke University.
After a year teaching in public school, he became a professor of English and history, practiced law, edited two newspapers and served for a while as an agent for the Justice Department. As a fruit tree salesman, he traveled the Southern Appalachians gathering songs, much in the pattern of famed English folk musicologist Cecil Sharp. He never met Sharp, but knew his associate Maud Karpeles.
Lunsford’s law practice brought him no judicial renown. But in notes on the back of his signature album Music from South Turkey Creek, Loyal Jones, namesake of Berea College’s Appalachian Center, reports that Lunsford’s experiences before the bench provided the redolent mash from which he distilled his most famous song, Old Mountain Dew.
Lunsford may have been proud to a fault. “When he stands, he stands all reared back,” wrote Harold Martin in a profile in The Saturday Evening Post, “like a man of substance, with his thumbs thrust in his vest and his watermelon paunch protruding beneath his sober blue serge suit.”
Charles Seeger, legendary folk singer Pete Seeger’s father, employed Lunsford to promote mountain music around the country. That led to President Roosevelt’s invitation to come to the White House to perform for King George VI in 1939. When Lunsford played, he usually favored his “mandoline,” the body of a mandolin with the long neck of a five-string banjo attached.
Young Pete may have been introduced to a banjo with a phenomenally long neck on the front porch of Lunsford’s home on South Turkey Creek Road in Leicester. When the living room rug was rolled back, that little white house Lunsford and his wife Nellie built from salvaged lumber often quaked with square dancing.
Across the road up on the hill, Lunsford erected a platform. Often, when the weather was fair, music and singing floated down South Turkey Creek valley on the cool evening air. When you drive by the house, listen carefully and you just might catch a bit of it.
The 52nd Bascom Lamar Lunsford “Minstrel of Appalachia” Festival will be held October 5, from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Mars Hill University in Mars Hill. To learn more about the festival, visit MHU.edu.