Catching the Folkmoot Bug: 2006 host band, performers dissolve cultural barriers with song

Ted White, a bass player with Whitewater Bluegrass Company, was warming up backstage at a Folkmoot performance last year when a Cyprus fiddler struck upon a melody everyone recognized, spurring a lively, impromptu jam among a hodge-podge of international musicians.

“There were nine musicians in a circle who didn’t speak each other’s language. The only language we had in common was the music,” White said. “We were so excited we found something we all knew, and we jumped in there with it. It was such a wonderful thing. We were laughing so hard. We had this one song we had all lit on.”

The song? “Angeline the Baker,” a folk melody dating back to 1850.

The camaraderie of the jam session that night captured the essence of Folkmoot — an international friendship exchange centered on the folk music and dance unique to each culture.

“It hit me as I’m looking around this circle that the political views of these counties were very, very different,” White said.

But in true Folkmoot form, differences melted away in the presence of a shared song.

“With a very a simple tune like ‘Angeline the Baker’ you have crossed these very complicated barriers in a room backstage,” White said. “These moments are quite short-lived and very precious ones in life.”

It’s what makes White and the rest of Whitewater Bluegrass Company proud to serve as the host band for Folkmoot this year for the second year in a row.

“It was a huge honor to be invited to be the host band. We want to make sure we represent not only Western North Carolina but the whole country,” said Bill Byerly, a guitar player for the group.


Bluegrass and clogging: Exotic?

Whitewater Bluegrass Company is based in is a nationally recognized bluegrass band based in Haywood County. Byerly has enjoyed the chance to get up close and personal with the folk performers of other countries.

“When you get Argentineans up here doing a bolo dance with that thing tied around their ankle and Russians dancing with swords, it gets pretty interesting,” Byerly said.

Of course, clogging routines performed alongside Whitewater Bluegrass Company last year seemed equally exotic and foreign to the visiting countries.

“When they come and see traditional mountain dance, that to them is totally amazing. I’ll never forget seeing the Latvians wondering what these kids were doing out there with taps on their shoes,” Byerly said.

Meanwhile, Byerly spent the festival marveling over the different instruments the international musicians had in tow. To the visiting musicians, however, the banjo leapt out as being somewhat alien.

“They were really mesmerized by the banjo. I would catch one of them over to the side really intently watching and listening to what in the world these boys were doing,” Byerly said.


Going the distance

Whitewater Bluegrass Company took to their role as host band like a pick to guitar strings.

“I feel like I am representing the United States in front of 12 different countries,” Byerly said.

Over the course of the two-week Folkmoot festivities, each country hosts a late-night party for the rest of the group. When Whitewater Bluegrass Company took their turn hosting one of the late-niters, they engaged everyone in a simple square dance. For good measure, they threw in what White called “party games” – the Hokey Pokey, Joe the Button Man and Hole in the Bottom of the Sea.

The band made fast friends with some of the international musicians last year. Pruett still has a card on his desk from an Armenian fiddler who jumped on stage with them at the late-niter and began playing “Oh Susanna.”

“He got up there and just sawed it off,” Pruett said. “We just fell right into it.”

During that first host band experience, Whitewater Bluegrass members caught the Folkmoot bug and found themselves spending their free time at the Folkmoot Friendship Center where the performers are housed.


The inaugural tour

When Whitewater Bluegrass Company agreed to be the 2005 host band, banjo player Marc Pruett didn’t realize just how deep his Folkmoot roots were. Thirty years ago, a 25-year-old Pruett was invited to tour Poland with the New Day Country Band and a clogging team as part of a cultural exchange. It was 1976 and Poland was still a Soviet country.

The trip proved eye-opening for Pruett when a Polish banjo player approached Pruett at a performance and explained through an interpreter how difficult it was to find picks like the ones used by American banjo players. So Pruett reached into his case and pulled out a couple of metal thimble-like picks as a gift. The Polish man astonished Pruett by getting down on his knees to say thank you.

“Picks were nothing for me,” Pruett said. “In that moment I really felt the repression.”

When the group was relaxing in a park one day, their interpreter moved in closer to make a hushed announcement.

“She said ‘Don’t look, but the man on the bench over there is the KGB agent assigned to watch you all,’” Pruett said.

The young musicians were continually surprised by little things, like no salt and pepper on the tables in restaurants. One clogger was particularly depressed by the lack of cold Coca-Colas, Pruett recalled.

The bluegrass band and a clogging team toured the country for two weeks performing, or as Pruett called it “putting the best face of America on for the Polish people.”

In exchange, Poland sent a soccer team to the United States.

“It was an odd swap,” Pruett admitted.

That 1976 tour through Poland was organized by a man named Dr. Clinton Border, the eventual founder of Folkmoot.

“He was deeply proud of the heritage we have here in the mountains and was big on cultural exchange,” Pruett said. “I felt like we were reaching out.”

Pruett learned only recently that Border concocted the idea for Folkmoot on that trip, a vision that didn’t come to fruition for another seven years in 1984. For the years, when the festival rolled around each July, Pruett enjoyed the parade, the colorful pictures that filled the newspapers and the occasional performance.

“But I didn’t really know what Folkmoot was,” Pruett said.

Until last year when the new Folkmoot director Jayme Cooper reinstated the tradition of an American host band and asked Whitewater Bluegrass Company to do the honors. Before the festival, Pruett went by the Folkmoot office to talk about the program with Cooper and was surprised by what he saw.

“When I walked into the Folkmoot building for the first time and saw Clinton Border’s picture on the wall, I said ‘Why there’s my friend Clinton Border,’” Pruett recalled. “She said ‘Yes you were on the first trip he put together to help make this happen.’ That’s when it all came together for me.”

Pruett said the experience serving as the host band last year and again this year is a privilege.

“It’s the deep sense of feeling like you are sharing the culture we have with the world,” said Pruett.

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