Mountain music is a multicultural mix
by Rob Neufeld
When Beale Fletcher was a boy in Arden, the African American workers on his father’s farm gave him lessons in mountain music. In the dairy barn, they played rhythms into milk cans and he cut steps in sawdust.
Fletcher went on to form the Fletcher School of Dance in Asheville. His childhood initiation had also involved oom-pah bands in town parades; English square dances at socials; and ballroom and ballet in classes.
The establishment of Southern Appalachia’s strong, distinct music and dance culture grew from a mix of traditions.
Sam Queen, founder of the world-famous Soco Gap Dance Team in Haywood County, included Cherokee step dancers and fiddlers in his shows.
“The Cherokee loved the fiddle and the square dance, and they had a tradition of their own,” says Queen’s grandson, Joe Sam Queen, architect, dance caller, and Haywood County cultural leader. In this region, he continues, “we took the Scots-Irish sets of four and combined it with the big circle, a Cherokee influence.”
German clogging, Irish high stepping, formal English figures, and African American buck dancing all found their way into new forms, which sometimes required a caller to help people follow the changes.
“My grandfather,” Joe Sam Queen notes, “credits a Black man, John Love, for teaching him many steps and figures, such as ‘the grand right and left’ (a plantation house formality) and ‘right hand across and left hand back’ (a greeting dance).”
Before the performance heyday of clogging, brought on by Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville in 1928, dancing took place mostly in people’s living rooms—after the furniture had been cleared out—sometimes with African-American musicians.
Couples formed a big circle, where, led by a caller, they performed figures in smooth-stepping fashion. The only percussive step-dancing that took place was in individual break-outs. During these interludes, the African American musicians would occasionally demonstrate buck-dancing.
“We were on the western waters, which were settled by Revolutionary War families,” notes Richard Dillingham, Mars Hill historian. The children of various European backgrounds “quickly married each other.” The dances involved a lot of flirtation, yet, at the same time, also reinforced familiarity with other partners, young and old, attached and unattached.
“Now I got a gal named Mary Jane, she can dance and she can sang,” a caller recited with stresses on the downbeat to keep dancers in step. Most of the time, in order to conserve breath, callers just named the to-be-performed figures without the poetry. But the poetry did flourish, reflecting on life, indulging in nonsense, and undergoing local variations. The Mary Jane story evolves into a lovers’ quarrel: “She danced with Tom all ni’t long. I said Mary Jane you done me wrong.”
In another instance, the Bailey Mountain Cloggers of Mars Hill College perform a traditional square dance in which the caller begins, “Dive for the oyster, dig for the clam, shoot the hole in the old tin can.” Out east, where the rhyme had originated, it had been “bring them home in an old tin can.” When the patter moved west, it became “lasso the old tin can.”
The joy of dancing didn’t always conform to pioneer moral standards. Dillingham tells how his grandfather had once held a square dance in his home while his wife had been at a revival. A church elder, who had also been at the revival, learned about it and moved to have Elder Dillingham churched. He later dropped the charges upon discovering that his daughters, too, had hosted a dance at home.
Bascom Lamar Lunsford plays his “dehorned” fiddle, with Mr. and Mrs. Lyda Brooks, and Gaither Robinson. Bascom Lamar Lunsford Scrapbook, Southern Appalachian Archives, Mars Hill College.
Registration has opened for Mars Hill College’s 21st annual Blue Ridge Old Time Music Week, June 3 – 9. National figures offer classes, workshops, and performances featuring the fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass, dulcimer, mandolin, and voice. Visit www.mhc.edu/oldtimemusic. Call 689-1167.