A regional folk dance tradition lives on.
Bascom Lamar Lunsford was known as the Minstrel of the Appalachians.
Trained by his father and mother in the traditional balladry of his native North Carolina, he’d travel up and down the state, performing on the fiddle and the banjo at weddings and dances.
Even after earning his law degree from Duke, Lunsford returned to the hills of Madison County…not specifically to play music. Actually, he had taken up a job as a fruit tree salesman; apparently the lawyer thing didn’t work out for him. But in visiting farmers in remote mountaintop villages, his interest dawned anew in the old-timey music he’d grown up with.
Traveling up and down the spine of the Great Smoky Mountains in search of songs, Bascom Lamar Lunsford (I just can’t not say his full name–it’s too great) recorded the music both on paper and on wax cylinders.
Intent to dispel the “hillbilly” stereotype, he wore starched shirts and bow ties while delivering lectures that showcased the history and ethnography of these songs, performing them on the banjo in a West North Carolina variation of clawhammer style that changed the downstroke for a rhythmic upstroke.
As his fame grew, it was said that “Lunsford would cross hell on a rotten rail for a good song.”
Lunsford himself boasted that he had spent nights in more houses from Harpers Ferry to Iron Mountain than God had.
Bascom Lamar Lunsford installed a special dance floor at his home for buck dancing, the energetic fusion of Scottish/Irish/Cherokee/African-American dance styles that served as percussion for mountain songs. Before long, Lunsford became the Dick Clark of his day, hosting regular buck dancing competitions and launching the style into a national fad.
After recording his first catalogue of Appalachian folk songs in 1922 for the Smithsonian archive, Bascom Lamar Lunsford organized a troupe of musicians and dancers to perform at the first Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, organized by the Asheville Chamber of Commerce. The 1928 show attracted more than 5,000 people and was repeated year after year–it’s thought of now as the very first folk music festival. Like, anywhere.
The newfound popularity of this dancing style inspired locals of the region, who had of course been doing it for ages, to get back into it. Only a few years after that inaugural festival organized by Lunsford, a Swannanoa Valley farmer and his father-in-law built a dance hall on their property, not far from Warren Wilson College. They began holding Saturday night shindigs in this dance hall; as many as a hundred family, neighbors and friends would come, bringing cakes, pies and coffee, to visit and dance. They took up a collection to pay the musicians who played late into the night for them.
They called it the Farmers’ Ball.
Word spread so wide that the Peak family expanded the hall, started charging for admission and concessions, and offered a lesson for beginners.
As bigger name musicians began showing up to play–Wilton Watkins, Jeter Riddle, J.C. McCool–bigger personalities began appearing to join the party. Poet Carl Sandburg, who moved to Asheville in 1945, is rumored to have sat on the bench with the onlookers.
(Nobody can remember dancing with him.)
Throughout, Raymond Peak presided as the caller. He guided dancers through the Virginia Reel, the Georgia Rang Tang, the Shoo-Fly Swing, and Promenade with London Bridges.
Occasionally, the circles would break into couple dances, like the waltz, the two-step, even the jitterbug. The most daring would perform hotshot solos in the middle of the rings: clogging, Charlestoning, and of course the buck dance that began it all.
And then, in 1950, Raymond Peak retired. He sold the property to someone else, and moved to another part of the mountains. For thirty years, that was the end of the Farmers’ Ball.
But it wasn’t the end of the music. It lived on in small dance gatherings and local jam bands throughout Asheville.
And in 1982, four dance callers reunited at Peak’s old property, calling the event the Old Farmers’ Ball. At first, only a few dozen dance loyalists showed up. But just like in the ’20s, the fun solicited more and more people from around the region to join the ring. And when the 1993 “Blizzard of the Century” caved in the roof of the old dance hall, the Old Farmers’ Ball moved to Warren Wilson College’s Bryson Gym, where it doubled its popularity by catching on with the students.
Thursday nights see dewy-faced coeds dancing with grizzled old-timers, unwashed hippies locked arm-in-arm with nattily bowtied and suspendered hipsters. The cavernous hall rings with the sound of fiddles and footstomps. Dances range from English contra to southern squares; you certainly don’t have to know anything about it, though, to participate. Just beg a partner–man or lady, doesn’t matter–from the sidelines and follow as the caller walks you through the steps at half-time.
Pay close attention, though–the caller will only go through the steps once. The music starts up a lot faster than you’ll expect.
It’s not necessarily easier to be partnered with a pro–they’re likely to throw a number of traditional variations at you. It also doesn’t help to watch the guy next to you for cues–if he’s one of the many kids with a flair for improvisation, he’s likely to be throwing in swing or salsa moves to impress his partner. And odds are that you’ll be his next victim, since most of the dances involve changing partners.
The great part, though, is that if you screw up, you have a few dozen chances to get it right as you repeat the pattern, moving up the line. And the mood is decidedly jovial–everyone, regardless of skill level, is just there to have a good time. The end of each dance will leave you feeling ragged, elated, and inspired.
The Old Farmers’ Ball takes place Thursday nights at Warren Wilson College.