The White Top Folk Festival: What We (Have Not) Learned

 

 

David E. Whisnant

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

 

Presented to

Virginia Highlands Festival

Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center

Abingdon, Virginia

 

August 6, 1998

 

Copyright 1998 by David E. Whisnant

Not to be reproduced without permission of the author

 

 

My first memory of going to an old-time music festival comes from my early teenage years, when I attended Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival at the old city auditorium in Asheville, North Carolina. The magic of hearing those fiddlers and guitar and banjo pickers, and of seeing the marvelously virtuosic square dancers and cloggers has not dimmed a bit in the more than forty years that have passed since then. I loved it, and it touched something deep and profoundly resonant in me. And although after I turned eighteen I was out of touch with old-time and country music for some years, when I was about thirty I came back to it. It has been a major part of my life ever since, and no doubt will always be.

Since the late 1960s I have spent a great deal of time at festivals: attending them, working for them, doing research and writing about them, and trying my best to understand them. My most sustained attempt to understand and write about a festival focused upon one you have all heard about -- the one Annabel Morris Buchanan, John Blakemore and John Powell ran on White Top during the 1930s. It has been more than fifteen years since I did my work on that festival, but I remember vividly poring over Mrs. Buchanan’s papers in the library at the University of North Carolina, and driving to Charlottesville to read the rather spotty remaining record of John Powell’s work. I also spent some rainy and cold winter days here in Abingdon talking with John Blakemore, and sitting by myself in a motel room reading through the boxes of material he had saved from his work on the festival.

In the time we have together tonight, I want first to present a brief precís of the festival, especially for those of you who have heard of it but have no detailed knowledge of it. The White Top Folk Festival was in some ways a great festival, and there were things about it that are still worth remembering and celebrating. But like all festivals, it also had its problems, and so the second thing I want to do is to bring a few of those problems to your attention, and to reflect upon what we might learn from them as we plan, produce, and attend festivals in the future. Beyond just talking about this one festival, however, I want also to think with you about what has happened since the 1930s-- in the world, in the United States, and in the Appalachian region -- that might have some bearing upon how we think about and produce our festivals in the future. And finally I want to highlight some ways in which historians and students of culture have in recent years come to think differently about Appalachia and about culture, and to ask what implications these new notions might have for our experiencing any festival we might encounter. Along the way, I hope what I say here might nudge you to think about some larger questions: Why do we find festivals so appealing, and what is it we enjoy about them? What can festivals accomplish, and for whom? Who benefits from them, and how? Are there social and cultural costs associated with them, and if so, upon whom are they likely to fall, and with what effects?

But first things first: Who was Annabel Morris Buchanan, and what sort of festival did she, John Blakemore and John Powell put together on the mountaintop? What musicians came, and what did their music sound like?

The White Top Folk Festival

A native of Texas, Annabel Morris was a musical prodigy as a child, and she grew up hearing all kinds of music -- traditional and popular; classical and religious; black and white. After graduating from a conservatory and teaching in several small colleges for a few years, she came with her parents to southwest Virignia, where she married John Buchanan and bore four children. She was an amazing woman: bright and talented as she could be, full of energy and ideas, prodigiously creative and productive. She was a gifted composer and performer, a collector and presenter of local music, an extraordinary gardener, an officer in numerous national organizations. She was also a thoughtful and kind person, one who cared about other people and their lives.

The White Top festival was not orginally her idea. It developed out of Konnarock musician Ike Sturgill’s suggestion to Abingdon attorney John Blakemore that a 4th of July fiddler’s contest be held on the mountain in 1931. Blakemore mentioned the idea to his cousin John Buchanan, who passed it along to his wife. She had already for some years been presenting small programs of local music for the Monday Afternoon Music Club in Marion, so the idea appealed to her. She took the fiddler’s contest idea to her friend John Powell, a classical composer who used traditional musical materials in his compositions. Soon Buchanan, Powell, and Blakemore were laying plans for a festival on the mountain that would be much more elaborate than a fiddlers’ contest. "It seems that they want to make it . . . a contest of old fashion music, folk music, I believe they call it," Blakemore wrote somewhat vaguely.

The first of the White Top festivals was scheduled for August 15, 1931. Blakemore was to handle the logistics and the business side of it; Buchanan and Powell were to find the musicians and present them.

What sorts of music were they looking for? I will return to that question shortly, but for the moment let’s just say they wanted the old-time "folk" music of white mountaineers, and they emphatically did not want what they called the "tawdry" commercial hillbilly or country music that could be heard on phonograph records or the radio. To get what they wanted, they knew they would have to exercise considerable control over the musicians. "We’d better designate types of songs to be sung," Mrs. Buchanan said. "If we don’t, they are just as likely to sing When You and I Were Young, Maggie.’" Thus the flier that announced the first festival specified that "Only old time music [will be] considered in the contests: no modern songs, tunes, or dances."

Local musicians responded in considerable numbers: the Osborne brothers from the Mouth of Wilson, fiddler R. W. Gose of Castlewood, cloggers Harve Sheets and his daughter Josie from Konnarock, the Dixie Serenaders string band from East Radford, Jake Rosenbaum and his White Top Jiggers from Bristol, the Moonlight Ramblers from across the line in Lansing, North Carolina, and many others [pp. 189f.]. The tunes the musicians offered to play were carefully screened. "Salty Dog" and "Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down" were not acceptable, but "Jimmy Sutton" and "Cumberland Gap" were.

To prepare the mountaintop [slide #1: Whitetop mountain from Konnarock] for the festival, John Blakemore rented a 40 x 60 foot tent, built a simple platform and some rough benches for spectators, and arranged for a barbecue lunch to be served by some ladies from Konnarock. A hundred or so contestants registered -- nearly two-thirds of them from southwest Virginia and the rest from nearby counties in Tennessee and North Carolina. About three thousand people gathered [slide #2: people, cars on mountain] to see the three dozen or so performers who actually made it to the festival. Performers competed for monetary prizes that were much coveted in those Depression days: ten dollars each for the fiddle, banjo and string band winners, five dollars for the singers and cloggers, and two dollars and a half for the best harmonica player.

The next year’s festival was a slightly expanded replay of the first one. The tent was a bit larger, and some handicrafts exhibits were added, and the event stretched over two days. An informal program and square dance were held on Friday evening, preliminary contests on Saturday morning, final contests in the afternoon, followed by a program by the winners, and a dance in the evening. An audience of nearly four thousand listened to more than seventy-five individuals and groups perform [191]. [slide #3: 1932 performers w/Myrtle Stout] Mrs. Buchanan was ecstatic. "Oh, it gets me thrilled, every time I think of it," she wrote to John Powell after it was all over. "And I wake up in the night, happy and thrilled again . . . at being a part of this folk work. Oh, Mr. Powell, don’t you feel that we are pioneers in something that may be really making American musical history?"[191]

So far, so good. There was music and dancing on the mountain during the darkest days of the Depression, and there was a lot to be said for that. Musicians played before large audiences of their friends and neighbors, and heard and learned from each other. People ate, visited with each other, and enjoyed hearing the music they had grown up listening to. Such pleasures were all too scarce, and the festival was able to provide them at a crucial time.

During the next several years, the festival grew beyond even Mrs. Buchanan’s wildest nocturnal imaginings. In November 1932, Franklin Roosevelt was elected President. His wife Eleanor’s interest in working people, minorities, and the dispossessed led her to write to Annabel in the spring of 1933 that she would like to attend the festival. As news of Mrs. Roosevelt’s probable visit leaked out, John Blakemore fended off countless offers from entrepreneurs who hoped to profit by hawking themselves or their wares: a merry-go-round operator, a seller of "music playing cards," an acrobat, a team of parachutists, and a hot-air balloonist. Anticipating the crowds Mrs. Roosevelt’s visit would draw, Blakemore widened roads and had an architect design a rustic shingled festival pavilion with chestnut siding and a massive stone fireplace. .

From the railroad station in Abingdon Mrs. Roosevelt motored to White Top through throngs of local folks, more than twelve thousand of whom awaited her appearance on the mountain. Among the performers she heard at a special musical program were a six year-old mandolin player and an eighty year-old dulcimer player. [slide #4: ER with performers] Star performers who were to return to White Top year after year -- fiddler Jack Reedy, banjo player C. B. Wohlford, ballad singers Horton Barker [slide #5: Horton Barker] and Texas Gladden, and the Old Virginia Band from Harrisonburg [slide #6: Old Virginia Band] -- treated her to a series of old-time tunes such as "Cluck Old Hen," "Jenny Put the Kettle On," "The Farmer’s Curst Wife, and "Pretty Saro." Mountain people presented her a handwoven bedspread and handcarved canes of maple and dogwood [193].

As the years passed, the festival became more elaborate, and it came to take itself quite seriously as a cultural event. At a conference for folklorists and composers held in connection with the festival in the mid-1930s, John Powell gave a course of lectures on "the origin, structure, modality, and recording of English-American folk tunes and their place in American composition." He stressed "the wholesome influence exerted by the festival . . . on the mountain people themselves, giving them, along with greater confidence in the whorthwhileness of their culture, an added self-respect and dignity." Mrs. Buchanan urged that the artistic traditions of the area be collected and preserved so that they would be available to serious art composers. Musicologist George Pullen Jackson told his colleagues that the festival was "keeping alive" the old traditions. [196] John Powell was lyrical in his assessment of the festival’s effect on those who attended. "For two days," he said,

music and dancing take possession of the great mountain. Every visitor becomes instantly part of all that goes on, and his own traditional heritage pours into the general stream. . . . Thoughts fly back to Pioneer days, to sailing ships bearing immigrants from England to the New World, to Elizabethan merrymaking, to Chaucer and the Canterbury pilgrims. . . . Through the music . . . we are put into contact with our own lives in a mysterious and electrifying fashion. . . . There is a sense that we are a folk and that in that fact lies some of the secret of the Golden Age. [199]

Some of Powell’s confidence was shared by the increasing numbers of academic folklorists, music critics, journalists, and heads of national cultural organizations who attended the festival. By 1936 these sorts of attendees were numerous enough to hold a ten-day White Top Folk Conference at Marion College prior to the opening of the festival. [204] From Powell’s perspective, then, White Top was a resounding success.

But Powell’s was not the only perspective. Others had their doubts -- and had had them since the beginning. As we this evening celebrate what was good about the White Top festival, it is also prudent to look at its problems, so that we might learn all that we can from it.

The Problems of the White Top Festival

Even before the third annual festival opened, Annabel Buchanan herself had doubts about it. "For two cents I’d throw up the whole thing," she wrote to Powell. "I believe we are doing more harm than good." She did not say why, but others were more explicit. Newspaper editor Bruce Crawford, who edited Crawford’s Weekly in the southwest Virginia coalfields a few miles west of White Top, found the festival something of an anachronistic fantasy. Modernity and industrialization in the mines and mills have more to do with the real lives of these people, he argued, than do "Pretty Saro" and "Cluck, Old Hen."

It was also becoming clearer each year that, instead of playing the tunes they knew and liked best, the more savvy musicians who wished to have a shot at the five- or ten-dollar prizes were learning -- from books, records, other musicians, or wherever they could -- the tunes they knew the White Top organizers preferred. Perhaps the most enterprising and eager to please was West Virginia’s "Fiddlin’ Fool" Jess Johnson and his band [slide #7: Jess Johnson], who were willing to learn and play just about anything Buchanan and Powell wanted. "I have been working very hard on folk tunes since our last festival," he wrote to Buchanan in 1936. "I feel like I can render some numbers that will come up to the requirements." [233]

These contradictions and others were increasingly evident. After visiting the 1936 festival, the eminent musicologist Charles Seeger -- then working for the Rural Resettlement Administration -- was very skeptical of the "well-meaning, self-advertising city cultivators of the folk" who were running the White Top festival.[205] It was, he said, a "feast of paradox" where the "holy folk" are idealized, but where the controls on them are very strict, lest they try to play or sing something they prefer to the oldest of the old-time tunes, or use (God forbid!) metal picks on their fingers, or allow a modal tune to drift into a major key. To hear their performances, Seeger noted, their poverty-stricken neighbors had to stand around the outside of the chestnut-paneled pavilion because they couldn’t afford the forty cents it costs to sit on the shaded benches inside.

Although Seeger was only passing through as an observer, he correctly sensed that beneath the benign exterior lay serious problems. The most worrisome of them derived from the divergent values and agendas of Buchanan, Blakemore, and Powell.

Annabel Buchanan herself was a decent woman who truly valued the cultural practices of local people. To be sure she was rather elitist and narrow in her views of those practices, but not moreso than was quite common at the time. She saw the festival as an instrument of good among her southwest Virginia neighbors, whom she valued both as performers and as individual human beings.

John Blakemore was quite another case. As the principal stockholder in the White Top Company, which owned the mountain, he was quick to grasp the festival’s commercial potential. From his position as a powerful figure in Democratic politics in the Ninth District, he was used to getting what he asked for from the State. For the festival he thought a better road up the mountain might be nice, and the State quickly obliged.

Blakemore’s and Buchanan’s views of and hopes for the festival were about as different as they could be. For instance, he gladly paid the expenses of influential dignitaries who wanted to attend, but refused to provide the few dollars Buchanan asked for to help a penniless ballad singer who needed meals and a place to sleep at the festival.

The most dramatic example of Blakemore’s skewed values emerged in his treatment of the local Cruise family, many of whom performed every year at White Top. [slide #8: Cruise family] Council Cruise in particular worked tirelessly for the festival. Despite his poverty and his occasional problem with drinking, he collected tunes, performed both alone and with his family, and facilitated appearances by neighbors and acquaintances. Mrs. Buchanan valued him deeply, and confessed that she had learned greatly from him. A few days before the 1938 festival, however, Cruise wrote to Blakemore to ask him to co-sign a note for $25.00 for ninety days, so he could get medical treatment for his father, who had cancer. Blakemore turned him down. "I was indeed sorry to hear that your father has cancer," he said, "and trust that he may be able to get some relief." [212]

As the years passed, the tension between Buchanan and Blakemore over using the festival for private commercial gain intensified. When Blakemore proposed establishing a school on the mountain to teach "the old folk arts" and train local folks "in the old ways of honesty and good living" -- and incidentally to serve as a tax shelter for the White Top Company -- Buchanan was incensed. Using the festival or a school as a tax shelter while supposedly teaching honesty to folks whose culture was being obliterated by the corporation that owned the mountain where they fiddled and danced for free under the full moons of August didn’t strike her as exactly ethical. [214]

Ultimately, however, Blakemore was not the worst of the festival’s problems. John Powell was. When Charles Seeger said that the political-cultural ideas that undergirded the festival were sinister and "reactionary to the core," he was referring principally to Powell. For all his cultivated elegance as a classical composer and pianist and champion of the folk, Powell was a thoroughgoing racist who had worked for years to maintain and strengthen the racist social and political structure of Virginia. As early as 1922 he had organized the Anglo-Saxon Club of America in Richmond, which was dedicated to "the maintenance of Anglo-Saxon institutions and ideals." It was open only to white males. The Club proposed, promoted, and gained passage of Virginia’s Racial Integrity (that is to say, anti-miscegenation) Law of 1923. In articles written for newspapers, Powell warned darkly of the "dangers of injecting into a white population a mass of primitive savages."[240f]

It turned out that Powell’s racist ideas meshed neatly with his folk-based compositions and the cultural promotion work he did at White Top. The underlying aim in each case was to develop a national culture expressive of the values and esthetics of a lily white America. [242] Powell read musical and cultural history in strictly racial terms: "Negro music," he said, was "meagre and monotonous," but the "beauty of Anglo-Saxon folk music surpasses any other in the whole world . . . [and] promises a solution to our [national] problem." [243] Thus C. B. Wohlford’s picking of "Cluck Old Hen" on his banjo or Council Cruise’s singing of "Pretty Polly" on the mountaintop seemed to Powell a welcome "prophecy of the cultural future of Virginia."

With Powell’s ideas as central as they were to the festival, it is not surprising that none of the more than three thousand blacks who lived in the three adjacent counties from southwest Virginia were allowed up John Blakemore’s newmade road to the top of the mountain as spectators or performers. Black musicians had been documented in the area as early as the 1890s, and there was an especially vital group of black banjo players. Even some spiritual-singing black youngsters from a nearby CCC camp were refused admission to the festival. The only blacks Blakemore ever allowed on the mountain during the festival were the aged John Smith, Eleanor Roosevelt’s father’s servant, who came to present a gift to her in 1933 [slide #9: John Smith], and the two black men who cooked her meals.[slide #10: black cooks]

These ironies were not lost on all observers of the festival. Critic Paul Rosenfeld, who attended in 1939, referred bitterly to "this fascist [who] introduces into the Virginia House of Burgesses bills illegalizing marriage between whites and blacks, and is all for the true folk manner.’" [246]

The festival petered out in the closing years of the decade. Annabel Buchanan withdrew after 1937, leaving the event to Powell, Blakemore and the unashamedly entrepreneurial Jack Tale collector Richard Chase. Local performers were crowded increasingly into the background, in favor of Chase’s ersatz cultural concoctions: puppet shows, Morris dances, and Punch and Judy shows. By the time the United States entered World War II, the festival was dead.

Looking at White Top from the 1990s

So what does all of this mean for us now, who find ourselves still fascinated by festivals and still producing them more than a half-century later? What difference does it make for festivals that so many social and cultural changes have taken place since the 1930s? How have our ideas about culture changed during these intervening sixty years?

We are all acutely aware that the country we live in now is being swept by profound currents of change. A whole series of diasporas have brought ever increasing numbers of Asians and Latin Americans with their cultural beliefs and practices into our midst. Mixed in among the Baptist and Methodist churches in southern towns and cities are an increasing number of synagogues, mosques, and signs announcing services in Korean, Japanese, Spanish, and a smorgasbord of other languages. Neat borders have been replaced by amorphous borderlands where new multicultural worlds of hybridity and creolization are being born. People are moving and changing jobs so frequently that fewer and fewer of us are "native" to wherever we happen to be living at the moment, even if we are indeed native to anywhere. There are more of the very rich and the very poor, and the shrinking middle class feels the pressure.

All of this economic, cultural and political change is creating new festival audiences with new ways of hearing and seeing, new needs and demands, and new expectations of seeing themselves equitably represented on festival stages. At the same time, a political assault on public funding for the arts has reduced severely the amount of money available for public cultural programming of any sort. And new currents of censorship are thriving.

More specifically, the Appalachian region from which the old White Top performers were drawn has changed greatly since the 1930s. Deep mining has for the most part given way to stripmining, throwing many thousands of miners out of work and devastating vast stretches of the southern mountains. Hundreds of the coal camps that dotted the valleys in the thirties have been forever erased from the landscape The federal programs of the 1960s have been almost completely shut down, and many of the small industrial plants they spawned have since gone to Mexico and the far east. The apple crop in western North Carolina is being picked mostly by young men who speak Spanish, and both the cities and the countryside are far more culturally and linguistically varied than they ever were before. The ski, golf, and casino gambling industries are booming, and exclusive gated retirement and leisure communities are springing up by the score. The little "personal appearances" at school houses and the early morning live radio programs that local musicians used to depend on as performing venues have all but disappeared in favor of the star system of a highly commercialized country music industry managed and manipulated by a few mega-scale entertainment companies like Sony and Time-Warner. The old auditorium in Asheville where Bascom Lamar Lunsford presented his mountaineer fiddlers, banjo pickers, ballad singers, and dance teams for nearly a half-century is no more, and the city is now a bastion of New Age culture where it is easier to buy tofu and magic crystals than cornbread and turnip greens. What all of this means is that the political-cultural arena in which we do our festivals -- whether local, regional, or national -- is more varied, complicated and charged than ever before.

The years since White Top have also witnessed major alterations in the ways we define and think about culture -- of whatever variety. We used to think in terms of distinct cultural "groups," each with its own unique cultural characteristics. Mountaineers were depicted as white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, living a mostly pre-modern life year after year back in the hills. They spoke Elizabethan English, were long and lanky, distrusted outsiders, and spent a lot of time either benignly singing ballads and making apple butter, or else viciously feuding amongst themselves.

We know better now, fortunately. The most recent analyses make it abundantly clear that virtually none of this stereotype had a basis in reality. Moreover, such studies establish that the region is in most respects not very different from plenty of other places in the United States, and really never was.

We also know now, in any case, that culture cannot be adequately understood as a static collection of unique traits. It is above all fluid and dynamic, contingent and negotiated. Which in turn means that it is inherently political. It is also inextricably connected to every other social sector and issue -- to the economy, the media, and the environment; to race, class, and gender; to family, community and nation state, and increasingly to a transnational economy.

So what does all of this mean for festivals? Are things becoming so complicated that we will soon have to give up on them? I think not. However complicated things get, it is clear that festivals are a permanent fixture in our lives. There were fiddlers’ contests in the South at least as early as the 1740s, and fiddlers’ conventions thrived in both urban and rural areas at the end of the nineteenth century, as they still do. White Top was one of four major festivals founded within a decade in the southeast after 1928 (Bascom Lunsford’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, Jean Thomas’s American Folk Song Festival, and Sarah Gertrude Knott’s National Folk Festival). After World War II, there was a veritable explosion of festivals, coming partly out of the urban folk revival, partly out of the advent of bluegrass, partly out of the counterculture of the 1960s, partly out of the rise of tourism, and partly out of rock music. There are now innumerable local festivals that celebrate cotton, peanuts, yams, apples and grapes; azaleas and dogwoods; dogs, hogs, horses, and mules; barbecue, chitlins, and oysters; and every musical idiom under the sun, from blues to zydeco. Festivals are permanently with us; at least that much is clear.

Several other things are also clear, though, and we need to bear them carefully in mind. The first is that any festival that purports to present or represent culture is inherently political, since festivals inevitably act to set some of the terms in which culture is talked about publically, and to define and legitimize images of culture. The second thing that is clear is that festivals are stages not only upon which cultural presentations occur, but also upon which conceptions of culture are enacted. In their various ways, festivals say to their audiences, "Here is what culture is; here is what it means to participate in a cultural system." And so we dare not reinforce in audiences the simplistic notion that culture amounts merely to cute, quaint, and picturesque stuff. If festivals are to continue to be worth doing, we need to figure out how to represent culture in more complex, problematized ways.

But this is pretty high-flown and idealistic, isn’t it? Can you really do these sorts of things with a festival? Can a festival be more than just a brief interval in which a fairly shallow good time is had by all?

Fortunately, a couple of festivals in this part of the country have actually shown that indeed such things can be done. One of them took place just over the mountain in Ashe County, North Carolina almost twenty-five years ago; the other began in Ivanhoe, Virginia, about sixty miles east of where we are sitting, some dozen or so years ago. Each of them successfully wedded a presentation and celebration of local culture to important and intensely conflicted social and political issues. Each of them operated on the assumption that culture is not a fixed, neatly bounded, and immutable thing unto itself, but rather something that is never bounded, always connected to everything else, always in motion, and always and everywhere political.

The first of the two festivals, the Festival for the New River, grew out of local opposition to the Appalachian Power Company’s plan -- first announced in 1962 -- to build two dams on the spectacularly scenic New River. The proposed dams were to be located in Grayson County, Virginia, but the upper one would flood portions of Ashe County, North Carolina.

As more details of the project became known, public opposition in North Carolina mounted. Nearly three hundred homes were to be destroyed, and there would be vast mud flats when the lakes were drawn down for power production, as they would be every day. The state of North Carolina eventually joined local opponents by asking the federal government to designate the New River as a Wild and Scenic River, which would protect it from development. Articles opposing the project appeared in more than two hundred newspapers nationwide, and three presidential candidates (including even Ronald Reagan) declared their opposition to it. The Federal Power Commission nevertheless granted a license for the project in mid-1974.

In their effort to stop the dams, local people employed every means they could think of: public meetings and hearings, letters to Congress and to newspaper editors, petitions, appeals to federal agencies and officials, articles in national newspapers, and numerous legal and procedural challenges in the courts. To Appalachian Power Company the river was merely a "hydroelectric resource," but to local residents it was part of where they had grown up, of the landscape they loved and felt attached to, of the deep feelings and associations they had with Ashe County. In late July, 1975, many of those meanings, feelings, attachments, and associations were mobilized in the Festival for the New River.

The festival was held near the river on a farm that had been in the same family for more than two hundred years. Some five thousand people attended. Local craftspeople displayed their work; local people contributed food and supplied much of the music. Costumed actors presented a play that dramatized the history of the area from colonial times, and the river was the subject of a number of newly composed songs. There were speeches by local and state officials, and television broadcast crews beamed the story beyond the mountains.

Not everyone in Ashe County came to the festival, of course, and certainly not everyone was opposed to the dams. Some foresaw profits to be made from tourism and small businesses. Some were opposed to the very idea of federal control, even if it would preserve the river. For some, completely unfettered private property rights were more important than any other consideration. But for a large majority of the county’s residents, the Festival for the New River effectively presented and dramatized their deepest hopes and fears about the place they lived. In his book about the battle over the dams, anthropologist Stephen Foster says the festival made explicit some of the core features of local culture. It provided "an occasion for local people to become more self-conscious about who they were and what constituted their cultural background. It was a social setting for . . . reaffirming identity and defining cultural difference." (140) And it was an important item in the array of strategies that at long last brought an end to Appalachian Power Company’s plan to dam the river. Only a few days ago the New River was named one of the first fourteen American Heritage Rivers, along with the Rio Grande, the Hudson and the Potomac.

The other festival I want to tell you about briefly is the Jubilee festival, held in Ivanhoe, Virginia. It began as a response not to a threat that something awful might happen, as the Festival for the New River had been, but to undeniable evidence that something in fact already had happened. In 1981 the town’s last industry shut down and the last remaining industrial jobs disappeared, bringing to a close what for some fifteen years had had the character of a slow-motion disaster.

Ivanhoe was situated in the mineral-rich upper New River area. Metal mining had begun as early as 1756, and by the late nineteenth century the town was booming with the mining of lead, iron, zinc, and manganese. From 1880 to the end of World War I it was mainly an iron furnace town, but Union Carbide arrived in 1918 to open a lead smelting operation, and it remained a "Carbide town" for almost fifty years. At its peak, Union Carbide offered steady jobs to the majority of the town’s 4500 ethnically and racially diverse residents, and there were other employers as well. But in the mid-sixties a slow downward slide began as employer after employer pulled out. New Jersey Zinc bought some of the old furnace properties, but it tore down the company houses and allowed the properties to grow up in underbrush to save on taxes. People migrated out to whatever jobs they could find elsewhere, and houses stood vacant. The high school closed, and then the elementary school. And then in 1981 New Jersey Zinc itself withdrew. The town’s stores and its theater were no more. Fries Cotton Mill, Burlington Mills, and AT&T also shut down their operations, and the town’s population sank to no more than a quarter of what it had been in the 1940s. The last train left in 1985, and even the tracks were taken up. The only jobs were minimum wage ones at the truck stops on the interstate highway some miles away.

The social impacts of the closings were enormous, of course. People felt disoriented, depressed, and powerless. Couples fought and separated. Children misbehaved until they got old enough to leave, and then they left. Competing for ever scarcer resources, people squabbled amongst themselves. There were even rumors of a cult of devil worshipers in the area. And although Ivanhoe had always been a racially integrated town where blacks could get good jobs for wages equal to those paid whites, racial tension flared into the open, and Confederate flags began to flutter here and there. Community pride virtually disappeared. By the mid-1980s, what there was left of Ivanhoe was a commuter town.

Possibilities for redevelopment were slim. In the mid-seventies Union Carbide had given some land to local counties for an industrial park, but no company would agree to build on it, and in 1986 the counties put it up for sale. The state created an rural enterprise zone in Ivanhoe, but that didn’t pan out, either. An announcement by the counties that the industrial park land was up for sale galvanized those few people who had hung on in Ivanhoe. In 1986 they got together and formed the Ivanhoe Civic League to work on revitalizing the town. They used every means they could think of: They held countless meetings. They tried to recruit industries to bring jobs. They brought in outside experts. In a massive cleanup campaign, they literally scrubbed the town. In late 1986, 3000 people came together to hold hands around the town in a A Hands Across Ivanhoe fund-raising reunion. There was gospel singing, home movies about the town’s past, a community church service, a bonfire, a parade, a balloon launch, and a community supper. Later efforts resulted in the opening of a senior citizens’ program and the inauguration of a summer youth recreation program. Local people began to collect and document their own past for a book about the history of the town. Newspaper reporters and television crews began turning up to document the positive changes.

Probably the most dramatic and imaginative strategy the town used to raise spirits and focus attention on its determination not to die was its week-long Jubilee festival, held first in 1987 and annually thereafter. Like the Hands Across Ivanhoe event, it featured a parade, picnics, gospel singing, a community church service, a men’s beauty contest, and plenty of food. Held on the site of the defunct industrial park, it offered evidence that the community was taking charge of its own destiny. As the Jubilee festival developed over the years, its parade came to include huge puppets that caricatured ineffectual politicians or portrayed local heroes of the revitalization effort. Old puppets from previous years joined new ones in each year’s parade.

I won’t go on and on about Ivanhoe’s Jubilee festival, but I do want to highlight a few lessons that may be drawn from it and from the revitalization effort of which it was a part. Most of these come from a book that Mary Ann Hinsdale, Helen Lewis, and Maxine Waller wrote about how Ivanhoe turned itself around. In the first place, Jubilee was not a nostalgic festival that merely celebrated a sentimentalized and idealized past, but rather one situated squarely in the midst of disturbing current realities and the challenge of imagining a new future. It defined the domain of culture as including not only people’s songs and dances and foodways, but also the politics of their personal, family, and community relationships, and the conflicts in which residents found themselves enmeshed. It engaged not only the cherished icons of the past, but also people’s beliefs about the past, and their understandings about how the past related to their present and future. The men’s beauty contest was fun, as it was intended to be, but it also stimulated new and frank discussions among husbands and wives about how men and women treated each other. By conceiving of, designing, producing and participating in Jubilee, Ivanhoe people became more aware of themselves, and -- as Hinsdale, Lewis, and Waller point out -- more aware of their awareness. Those changes led in turn to greater community unity.

The Festival for the New River did not by itself stop the dams, nor did the Jubilee festival solve all of Ivanhoe’s problems. But each festival foregrounded and framed those problems in fresh and imaginative ways that allowed people to get a new hold on them. They presented to a broad public an image of both Ashe County and Ivanhoe people and their problems that was chosen and defined by the people themselves. And they helped to generate and sustain the energy, will, and vibrancy required to engage with the problems. For me these two festivals -- and others we might talk about were there time -- suggest the vast possibilities that lie waiting for any of us who design and produce, or even just attend, festivals.

The spectrum that runs between the simplest fiddlers’ contest or peanut festival on the one hand and the conceptually and politically complicated New River or Jubilee festivals on the other is indeed a broad one. Certainly we need not and should not ask that every festival engage the whole spectrum. I suggest merely that as we enter the new millenium -- which I expect will bring us countless festivals both new and old -- we bear all of these possibilities most thoughtfully in mind.

 

 

NOTES

1. See David E. Whisnant, "Finding the Way Between the Old and the New: The Mountain Dance and Folk Festival and Bascom Lamar Lunsford's Work as a Citizen," Appalachian Journal 7 (Autumn 1979): 135-54.

2. See for example David E. Whisnant, Folk Festival Issues: Report From a Seminar (Los Angeles: John Edwards Memorial Foundation, Bibliographical and Special Publications, 1979) [editor].

3. See David E. Whisnant, All That Is Native and Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983).

4. The following account of the festival is based upon Stephen Foster, The Past Is Another Country: Representation, Historical Consciousness, and Resistance in the Blue Ridge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), from which all quotations are taken. On the naming of the New River as an American Heritage River, see the Raleigh (N.C.) News and Observer, 31 July 1998, 6A.

5. My account of this festival is taken from Mary Anne Hinsdale, Helen Lewis, and Maxine Waller, It Comes from the People: Community Development and Local Theology (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995).