The first weekend in October when the air is crisp and all the trees are showing off there beautiful fall colors of yellow, orange and red,
you can feel it.
It begins for me around late August when all the students of Mars Hill University return to class. You can feel the energy of the entire town of Mars Hill shift. Around the first of September this little excited vibration will begin in your chest and as the month continues this little vibration becomes a beat that becomes stronger and stronger,
Then you hear them…
I am obviously not the only one affected in this way. For the last 48 years Mars Hill University has hosted the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival.
People come from all over the United States to witness and be a part of what is now a tradition in this area. The magnitude of this event will astound even the skeptic, in its history and significance.
Bascom Lamar Lunsford (1882-1972) At a very young age Bascom’s father gave both Bascom and his brother a fiddle and a banjo. Bascom was inspired by this and his Mother, who softly sang ballads and religious songs at church and around the house. The inspiration and love of this traditional music would last throughout his lifetime. He became recognized by playing at dances, weddings and other social occasions.
Because of his love and interest in preservation, Lunsford also enjoyed children’s songs, ballads, old spirituals and parlor songs. He always avoided racy or controversial lyrics.
Bascom was incredibly prolific as a song writer/collector, a recorder, and a performer. In 1922 in his very first recording session he recorder 32 tunes on wax cylinders for a song collector. He went on to record thousands of songs he had learned that are now archived under American Music at the Library of Congress. One of his most noted performances was at the White House in 1939 when he delighted the King and Queen of Great Britain with several ballads.
Lunsford also played a “Mandoline” an instrument with a mandolin body and a 5 string banjo neck, his trademark was his delivery, featuring a gravelly tight voice combined with high notes. You can hear the similarities in the early works of Bob Dylan. Music fans and historians quickly recognize the sweeping influence Lunsford has had on generations of performers. You can also hear this trademark delivery in ” Good Old Mountain Dew” one of many hits for Lunsford, that was also used in the very first Mountain Dew Commercials.
Lunsford’s gifts were not only as a musician. He had some interesting professions as well. He was a fruit tree salesman and traveled the region with a Cherokee beekeeper. He exchanged lyrics and tunes with wood be customers, in 1909 after finishing at Rutherford College he became a teacher. Later he would study law at Trinity College (now Duke University)he passed the bar in 1813 and became a licensed solicitor -even working several years with the NC Legislature. Throughout it all he never relinquished his love of music and his Appalachian Roots.
In1927 Asheville NC was planning a Rhododendron Festival. They asked Lunsford to invite local musicians and dancers to what would eventually become the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. Still held annually, it is recognized as the first event in the country to be labeled “Folk Festival” Lunsford preformed there almost 40 years until he suffered a stroke in 1965.
Today Lunsford is remembered as one of the true musical treasures to emerge out of the Southern Appalachians . His legacy is preserved in the National Archives and in films, recordings and festivals. Mars Hill University in Madison County NC (Out Side Our Back Door) houses the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Scrap Book and Ballard Collection in its Appalachia Room. Lunsford’s instruments are also housed at the University and each year for the past 48 years the University host the annual festival named for him where performers grace the Lunsford Stage.
Bascom Lamar Lunsford died in 1972
However his Life and his music still live safely cherished and valuable part of our mountain heritage.
Essay by Timothy N. Osment
History M.A. WCU