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Minstrel of the Applachians
The Story of Bascom Lamar Lunsford
By Loyal Jones
Applachian Consortium Press
1984
249 Pages
ISBN:  0-013230-11-9

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From the Book's Foreword

From about 1880, articles, books, short stories, and novels have been written about Appalachia by journalists, local color writers, and missionaries from the outside These papers have been too general, or too colored, or too specialized to reveal the delicate, complex folkways and lifestyles of the "natives." At worst they have established no more about the mountain people than cliches, stereotypes, and surface observations. By the 1920s some rather acceptable but sweeping studies had come forward, but, in the main, cliches were burned in to the bone. So late as the 1970s I read in The New York Times a review of an Appalachian book by a well-known critic, who, though he had chosen the volume to review for his paper, couldn't bear to end the evaluation without adding, "... Civilization went round the Appalachian barrier and its miserable people." With myriads of such remarks so often repeated it would seem that the sturdy people of the Southern Highlands have been rubberstamped to death.

Can the wrongs be righted? Can the bell be untolled? Will the ages mellow and color the scene? No. Only when the people take the offensive and write of themselves Now is the time for a good new beginning. The Mountains have been discovered again. This time however there is a difference. Natives of the region have been going everywhere to earn degrees in education and in the professions for many decades, seeing their hills from afar and coming to know themselves, knowing their own identity. Upon returning they are at ease with their nurture and culture. Their spirited writings in the forms of articles, stories, studies are beginning to cast a true light on life in the hills. To them Appalachia is the best place in the world to be from—and to come back to.

The present book is a good example of the new approach to life in the mountains. It is written by a native of the area where the subject of the book, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, grew up and flourished for 91 years. Although the author, Loyal Jones, covers a good scope of time and space, he is not a generalizer. He focuses on Western Carolina from before the Civil War to the present. Bascom's father a teacher at Mars Hill, provides Bascom and the other family members" with a good basic education. Not satisfied with the baccalaureate and a teaching career, Bascom goes on to graduate studies in law, and finally is admitted to the bar of his state. Bascom marries a girl from nearby South Turkey Creek, and when a portion of property comes to her, they move to the country. Their six children grow up and go off to schools and colleges. Their country place becomes a center for music groups, dance parties, and later it is sought out by traveling troubadours and folk dance leaders.

Early in his life Bascom was given a fiddle by his father. Even earlier, he and his brother had contrived a cigar-box variety of the rowdy American instrument, the banjo; and they played together for fun and later for dances and parties. The banjo became Bascom's favorite for singing, recording, and continual public appearances. This kind of story of self-sufficiency has often been told in the hills. In this instance it is a beautiful if sacrificial one. Bascom was torn between his two passions—and livelihoods-law and music. As he became the "Squire of South Turkey Creek," his law practice suffered. Especially after a newsbee buzzed in his ear (He thought of a regional festival.) He had generated enough interest about Buncombe County to make something greater of his leadership and talents But a large regional get-together had not often been staged in America, or kept going if one had been. With the Asheville Chamber of Commerce as sponsor, he was persuaded.

The memorable event came on the scene then, casually, in the summer of 1928, "about sundown" on Pack Square. It was crowded with Bascom's musical friends, neighbors, groups of dancers from neighboring counties and beyond. The area was rich in folklore, old-time customs, arts and crafts. They had a marvelous time. The tone of all such festivals thereafter was set by a friendly and casual atmosphere of fun and entertainment. Invited performers had a place and a time to shine on the platform, Bascom varying the procession to the stage from lively dance groups, individual singers, tale-tellers, spiritual and religious groups to buck and clog dance specialties.

Let us keep in mind and reflect on the deep and long background that had made this festival a natural and spontaneous development. It had evolved out of and was supported and fed by the local village and rural community social gatherings that had performed their traditions and oral literature in America for 200 years, and in the Old World for 2,000 years and had been changed and adapted by the mind and imagination to suit the changes of time and place. Bascom, a natural and symbolic leader, felt the moment and called individuals and small groups out in celebration and made folklore public and spectacular. One of his words of wisdom was that he wanted to keep folklore performance "respectable."

With his attitude and charm and humor, Bascom had little opposition. Northern Calvinism had softened by the 20th century, and the more graceful way of the Southern states had mellowed mountain austerity. Bascom's Mountain Dance and Folk Festival was held year after year and is still flourishing. People came from afar to perform and to observe. The importance of this mountain phenomenon—and the beauty of it—now becomes evident. Leaders in school, college church, recreation and drama came from the crossroads and the largest cities to Asheville to learn from Lunsford. An example among many in the text may be mentioned. Sarah Gertrude Knott, a drama teacher who had been with Dr. Frederick Koch in his folk theater of the University of North Carolina, was directing a drama program in St. Louis in 1933. She was unable to make the journey to the sixth festival in Asheville. Observing the affable master of the fiddle and banjo with his sure touch in handling some of the finest folk performers ever assembled, she returned to St. Louis with a vision. In the very next year (1934) she founded the National Folk Festival Association. It is still going as the National Council for the Traditional Arts.

Bascom's rich and varied career is detailed in the text and the reader will want to follow it to the end. How he continued his vocation as an attorney but had to relinquish it as his music avocation grew more demanding and absorbing of his time and spirit. How his children grew up and helped to entertain at home and to tour the region with their father. Bascom was called upon from other regions to come and "open" festivals. He founded several in his home state and others over the nation. Once he was invited to the White House to perform for the visiting king and queen of England. He went abroad to Venice, Italy, and to England to perform before international audiences.

Loyal Jones saw this festival movement rise in his home region, was taken by it, became part of it. After receiving his degree at Berea College he went to the University of North Carolina for a master's degree. Working for the Council of the Southern Mountains in private and governmental programs, he succeeded Perley Ayer as executive director of the Council. Now he is director of the Berea College Appalachian Center where, among other programs, he runs an annual folk festival. Always interested in the folk arts he became knowledgeable of Bascom's festival and its inner spirit-including problems and conflicts. In the text he sets forth these recurring difficulties. There was the old debate about the traditional versus the new and the innovative. Since Bascom had composed several songs and had performed them for years, some by constant request, such as his world famous "Old Mountain Dew," he was tolerant toward adapted folk materials, though he sometimes turned from the stage those who wanted to sing their own songs. There were quibbles about the Devil's instrument, the fiddle, and the snappy plucking of the banjo. The clog step in square dancing had evolved in the region but was almost unknown elsewhere. Bascom let it evolve, but it too got some discussion because dancing became a contest—with prizes. The people had their way here. It stirred the blood of the audience and they cheered it on. These and many more aspects of the festival and its "star" performers are presented with relish and humor in the book.

This is a well-researched and presented study of one remarkable person but also of mountain people in general. It is told by a sympathetic writer, who depicts a way of life as it was—and is. No cliches of the hillfolk, no apologies for their frisking and frolicking, buck-winging and clogging on the platform. No excuses for their sad songs of love and death in the hills. This book is about a man, a people and a movement. It portrays vividly the vitality of our traditional literature and culture. We hope Loyal Jones and others will continue in-depth studies of life in our southern mountains.

Leonard Roberts, Director
Appalachian Studies Center
Pikeville College
Pikeville, Kentucky
1982