Doug Orr: A Young Pete Seeger Encounters Music of the Appalachians
We welcome to the blog today a guest post by Doug Orr, coauthor, with Fiona Ritchie, of the New York Times bestselling book, Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a steady stream of Scots migrated to Ulster and eventually onward across the Atlantic to resettle in the United States. Many of these Scots-Irish immigrants made their way into the mountains of the southern Appalachian region. They brought with them a wealth of traditional ballads and tunes from the British Isles and Ireland, a carrying stream that merged with sounds and songs of English, German, Welsh, African American, French, and Cherokee origin. Their enduring legacy of music flows today from Appalachia back to Ireland and Scotland and around the globe. Ritchie and Orr guide readers on a musical voyage across oceans, linking people and songs through centuries of adaptation and change.
In a previous post, Orr traced the historical influence that African American music and culture had on the development of Appalachian music. In today’s post, Orr celebrates the life of the late Pete Seeger (1943–2014) on the one-year anniversary of his death, recounting young Seeger’s life-changing encounter with Bascom Lamar Lunsford, banjos, and Appalachian music at the 1936 Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville.
“Your granddaddy changed my life.” Just a few months before Pete Seeger passed away last January at age 94, he uttered this greeting in meeting Ed Herron, grandson of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Appalachian song collector, banjo and fiddle player known as the “Minstrel of the Mountains.” Ed had made it a point to cross paths with Pete in Connecticut, where Pete was traveling through, displaying the energy and zest for life that characterized his long life. Pete enthusiastically grabbed Ed by the shoulders, expressing heartfelt gratitude for a life-changing experience seventy-seven years before.
Lunsford, who was from Madison County, just outside of Asheville, North Carolina, had founded in 1928 the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, which exists today as the oldest continuous folk festival in the nation. It is a celebration of Appalachian music and dance featuring a three-night gala of performers young and old. Lunsford was one of the foremost Appalachian “songcatchers,” and up until his death in 1973 at age 91, he collected over 3000 songs, fiddle tunes, square-dance calls, and stories, journeying the back roads into the deepest mountain coves and hollows to seek out the timeless music. His music also took him to Europe, and he was invited to the Roosevelt White House to perform for Britain’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
Pete was seventeen years of age in 1936 when he accompanied his father to Asheville to attend Lunsford’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. During Fiona Ritchie and my Wayfaring Strangers book interview with Pete at his home above the Hudson River, Pete recalled that “ordinary working people were making fantastically good music.” The youthful Pete Seeger was mesmerized as Lunsford presided on the spotlighted stage over a parade of square-dance teams, family string bands, singers, fiddlers, and banjo players. There Pete had his formative exposure to the five-string banjo played by Samantha Bumgarner, from whom he acquired his first such instrument. Pete recalled that Lunsford patiently showed him basic banjo licks that Pete would practice and perfect over subsequent years. He would go on to invent the long neck or Seeger banjo, and it became his lifetime musical partner as he would take his songs and deeply felt causes to audiences worldwide.
It was indeed life changing that warm summer’s evening in 1936 when a young, impressionable Pete Seeger peered into the deep wellspring of a music nurtured and passed on over the centuries and sustained throughout the surrounding mountains.
Doug Orr is president emeritus of Warren Wilson College, where he founded the Swannanoa Gathering music workshops. His New York Times bestselling book, coauthored with Fiona Ritchie, is Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia.
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