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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,028

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This is the grave of Bascom Lunsford.

Born in 1882 in Mars Hill, North Carolina, Lunsford grew up in the southern Appalachian world of music. His father was a fiddler and he was sure to get one of those for his son. This was a time and place where what today we would call old-time music, particularly fiddle and banjo, was part of everyday life. There weren’t a lot of opportunities for entertainment around here. Music was the way to do it and these were the instruments of Appalachian life, along with the guitar and to a far less extent at this point, the mandolin. If you were a good fiddler or banjoist, you could make some extra money playing dances, weddings, and other events. So that was the Lunsford family. Bascom ended up more a banjo player than a fiddler, though he could certainly do both with ease.

However, the Lunsford family was not quite your typical impoverished Appalachian family. Lunsford was able to go to college to become a teacher. He graduated from Rutherford College, which no longer exists. Then he got jobs teaching at some of the very rural schools of western North Carolina. He wasn’t totally satisfied with this, so he went and got a law degree at Trinity College, which is today Duke University. What this meant is that Lunsford became a pretty well-respected and well-off man for his time and place. There weren’t a lot of lawyers in early 20th century Appalachia who were also great musicians. Lunsford did his work, but his real passion was picking and then later preserving the culture of his people.

From the moment Lunsford started playing music as a lawyer, he wanted to push back against Appalachian stereotypes. He would not wear the overalls that multi-millionaires like Buck Owens would later wear on Hee-Haw. He played in a suit. For him, Appalachian music was as modern as Beethoven and Bach and deserved the same respect.

In the late 1920s, musical recording had become sophisticated enough that people could take a recording machine on the road and record people wherever they were. At the same time, radio developed, providing a medium to sell this music. This is how the country music industry began, with the legendary early Bristol sessions when The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers showed up to record. Both The Carter Family and Rodgers were modern bands with roots in the past. They weren’t old-time bands locked in amber. This was tremendously modern music for the time and place. Well, Lunsford was also playing this music. He didn’t have some big country music career. But as early as 1922, a collector named Frank Brown recorded a bunch of wax cylinders of Lunsford. These were saved, though largely forgotten about. Lunsford kept doing his thing, the country music industry grew, but there wasn’t much interest as the music changed in this old-timey stuff. But then a folk collector named Harry Smith came along and wanted to publicize this old-timey music. He was fascinated with American folk traditions and worried they were dying. So in 1952, Smith put out his edited collection of old tunes. Anthology of American Folk Music might be the single most influential compilation album in music history. It provided a template for the entire folk revival of the early 60s, which was mostly horrible, but did spawn Bob Dylan and revived the careers of so many musicians who would have been lost, both aging bluesmen and young pickers such as Doc Watson who found an audience doing their thing.

Lunsford did not need the money from playing a bunch of shows for folk audiences per se, but he was included on Smith’s compilation and so media attention came to him as the 1960s hit. In many ways, he was the ideal person to bridge the divide from some New York folkie and the people who played this music. Because he was an educated, sophisticated guy who knew everyone, he could serve as a guide to old-timey music and those who wanted to record it. He had continued recording periodically as well, including a set of 1949 recordings for the Library of Congress. So he also had a good catalog on his own that people could pick up on. Wanting to represent his people well, he stayed away from anything bawdy or too reinforcing of the stereotypes he despised. Moreover, Lunsford directed what is perhaps the first folk festival in American history. In 1927, Asheville, North Carolina wanted to increase tourism. At this time, this was still just local people, hardly the brewery and outdoor paradise that it is today. So the Chamber of Commerce asked Lunsford to organize a music festival. He agreed and then lead the Rhododendron Festival from that moment until he suffered a stroke in 1965. Through this alone, he kept so much music alive and relevant through the region and when it became popular again, gave a conduit to get people noticed and recorded by the outside world. Later, in the 1960s, Lunsford started another festival called the Minstrel of Appalachia Festival which still runs today at Mars Hill University in Lunsford’s home town.

Again, Lunsford was a sophisticated guy and an important political figure in western North Carolina. He had the stereotypes of his day–what southern man didn’t–and did perform in blackface, which is horrible and also makes him basically no different than any white musician of the South in the 1930s and lots of northern white musicians too. He was also a huge New Dealer and did a lot of work in the region to promote the development projects of Roosevelt’s programs. He was the campaign manager for Zebulon Weaver, who was the long-time congressman from western North Carolina (today this region is represented by the one and only Madison Cawthorn so….). Charles Seeger, father of Pete and Peggy, hired him in the 30s to organize folk singers to promote New Deal programs. Moreover, when King George VI visited the U.S. in 1939, FDR invited Lunsford to the White House to play for royalty. This makes more sense than you might think since Appalachian musicians were quite conscious of keeping alive Scotch-Irish traditions.

Lunsford also recorded the first radio commercial for Mountain Dew, a disgusting soda, but money is money. That song was the old-time tune “Good Old Mountain Dew.”

In 1964, with the folk revival in full effect, the New York-based filmmaker David Hoffman came down to North Carolina to make a documentary on Lunsford. I’ve seen The Complete Bascom Lamar Lunsford Bluegrass Story and definitely recommend it. Hoffman at least as of a few years was still active on YouTube promoting this and his other films. Here’s a 4 minute clip from it.

In 1965, Lunsford suffered a stroke and was never the same again. He died in 1973, at the age of 91.

Let’s listen to some more of Lunsford’s work:

Live footage from 1928 is not common.

Bascom Lunsford is buried in Leicester Episcopal Church Yard, Leicester, North Carolina. And in this part of the world, not much more is needed to say that Lunsford was far closer to an elite than most people there than that he was Episcopalian instead of Baptist.

If you would like this series to visit other Appalachian musical legends, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith is in Humphreys County, Tennessee and Jimmie Skinner is in Hamilton, Ohio. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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