The traditional folkways of the Southern Appalachian Mountains will once again take center stage as the Western Carolina University community presents the 36th annual Mountain Heritage Day on Saturday, Sept. 25.
WCU’s annual festival offers a smorgasbord of traditional mountain culture, with a variety of music, dance, crafts, folk arts, contests and activities that is hard to find in a one-day event, said festival coordinator Trina Royar of WCU’s Mountain Heritage Center.
All Mountain Heritage Day activities, including stage performances, will take place between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., with the exception of the 5-K footrace, which begins at 8 a.m., and registration for the woodcutting contest, which starts at 9 a.m. This year’s festival will be held on fields behind the Cordelia Camp Building, in parking lots and grassy areas around the Camp Building, and in the nearby Mountain Heritage Center, which is located on the ground floor of H.F. Robinson Administration Building.
Each year’s Mountain Heritage Day is the result of months of planning and work by a host of volunteers representing WCU’s student body, faculty and staff, and all that activity culminates with a busy festival day on the last Saturday in September, Royar said. “In particular, the event requires a big commitment by the university’s police force and facilities management department, but the payoff comes for everyone involved with the festival when they see the big crowds and smiling faces at WCU’s largest one-day event,” she said.
Arts, crafts and food
Visitors at this year’s Mountain Heritage Day will find 80 booths of juried arts and crafts, providing a perfect opportunity for local residents to get in some early holiday shopping, Royar said. Items for sale will include everything from ceramics and wood carvings to basketry, jewelry and metalwork. Beginning this year, the layout of the arts and crafts vendor area has been redesigned to provide for a more pleasant shopping experience, with each vendor having a “corner” booth with two open sides. Fifty-nine percent of the arts and crafts vendors at this year’s festival are from Buncombe and other N.C. counties to the west, Royar said.
About 20 food vendors also are scheduled to participate in the festival, offering festival-goers tempting options such as Cherokee frybread, gyros, angus beef burgers, kettlecorn and ice cream.
Stickball and blowguns
The traditional Cherokee game of stickball has been a favorite attraction for festival visitors in recent years, and the Snowbird Stickball Team from Graham County will make its first appearance at Mountain Heritage Day to demonstrate that ancient sport. Before the two dozen members of the team begin play at 11 a.m., they will “take to the waters” of nearby Cullowhee Creek as an act of purification, said team leader Charles “Shorty” Kirkland.
Another Native American tradition will be demonstrated at 1 p.m. when team members join with their female associates in playing the courtship game of “Fish.” Male players use sticks to throw a ball up to hit a wooden fish that sits atop a 24-foot pole, while the female players are allowed to use their hands to throw the ball. Also, the females are allowed to physically harass the male players, “but the man has to be a perfect gentleman,” Kirkland said.
The Snowbird team also will demonstrate the use of traditional Cherokee blowguns at 3 p.m.
Music & clogging
For fans of traditional music and clogging, life doesn’t get much better than the two main stages of Mountain Heritage Day, which will offer continuous free entertainment from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Royar said.
The newly renamed “Mountain Stage” (formerly Norton Stage) and “Heritage Stage” (formerly Traditional Stage) will present many types of traditional music ranging from traditional and contemporary bluegrass to old-time and folk music. A new act at this year’s festival will be the Red Wellies, an Asheville-based traditional Irish band. Visitors can expect to hear many local favorites, such as the bluegrass band Balsam Range, which includes three WCU alumni.
Clogging fans will want to check out performances by the Blue Ridge Highsteppers, the Rough Creek Cloggers, the Cole Mountain Cloggers and the Dixie Darlings, Royar said.
Festival music won’t be limited to the two stages. Visitors will have an opportunity to see some rapid-fire picking up close and personal at the Circle Tent, which will provide a “workshop” sort of musical experience, Royar said. The 11 a.m. “Banjo Circle” will feature Mark Pruett, Steve Sutton and Junior Queen, while a 12:30 p.m. “Fiddle Circle” will showcase the talents of Trevor Stuart, Delbert Queen, Danielle Bishop, Beanie O’Dell and Arvil Freeman. A “Mandolin Circle” at 2 p.m. will include Adam King, Danny Bishop, Barry Clinton and Darren Nicholson.
Other Circle Tent activities will include a 10 a.m. presentation on “The Building of the Glenville Dam and Lake: An Engineering Feat” by the Jackson County Historical Society, and a 3:30 p.m. open jam session of traditional music led by the Porch Music Club, a WCU student group.
Other musical performances that have been a part of every Mountain Heritage Day will take place at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., when singers from around the region will gather to demonstrate the sacred mountain tradition of shape-note singing. The singing will take place in the gymnasium adjacent to the Camp Building, with participants singing from the “Sacred Harp” and “Christian Harmony” hymnals.
Mountain Heritage Day organizers this year are putting more emphasis on providing activities for children, and a new Children’s Tent has been added that will provide fun and educational sessions all day, Royar said.
Heritage activities will be offered from 10 to 11 a.m., and during the afternoon hours musical programs geared toward children will be presented by Joe and Bill Deitz, Phil and Gaye Johnson, and the Whitewater Bluegrass Co., with the bluegrass band leading “play party games” and a “family dance.” Storyteller Bobby McMillon will entertain the kids beginning at 2 p.m., and more heritage activities will be offered from 3 until 5 p.m.
Other important parts of Mountain Heritage Day include the folk arts and living history demonstrations, an auto show, contests and the annual Mountain Heritage Awards for 2010.
These awards are given to one individual and one organization in recognition of their outstanding contributions to the preservation or interpretation of the history and culture of Southern Appalachia. That presentation will take place at 12:15 p.m. on the Heritage Stage.