The Gatlinburg Folk Festival of the Smokies

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Photo by Fotolia/Andrii Muzyka
The festival had the air of one huge commune, with good things happening.

You know what commercialism in the music industry is after you’ve been to the annual Folk Festival of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. There’s no commercialism there.

When Libba Cotton appeared from behind the curtain and sat down on a metal chair in front of a microphone, you just sensed something genuine was about to happen. She played and sang her famous Freight Train as if she were playing for grandchildren on her back porch. Libba then talked to the audience – young and old, long hair and short – the way she would talk to them in her living room.

The festival had the air of one huge commune, with good things happening — on schedule and off — inside the Gatlinburg auditorium, outside on the grass and in the nearby parking lot.

The original Scottish Highland fling was taught to a small group one afternoon on the grass. That night – in the parking lot – when a band with bass, guitar, banjo and mandolin got together to play old style country songs, the spirit got to a couple of bystanders who suddenly started clogging.

At one point, Paul Simon was spotted in the audience and several eager guitarists approached him. They talked Paul into listening to their songs but never asked him to play for them, or for the audience. The star system was never more absent than it was in Gatlinburg.

The other half of the festival was the giant display of mountain crafts. Good conversation — rather than sales — was the primary commerce among the people. Names and addresses were exchanged with promises of “let’s get together”. The spirit was moving all three days.

A large group of craftmakers came from Murray, Kentucky. One woman brought her art work, mainly prints, which she said represented her various moods. Her hand was a certain translator of those moods as it ranged over the canvas with great expressiveness.

Somehow the festival was the same way, with a mixture of informality and deep creative currents. The humor of the mountain culture was coupled with its poverty; the great accent on the family unit (represented by the Berger Folk, whose smallest child sucked his thumb as the rest sang), coupled with the isolation of the mountain culture.

The most important parts of the festival, however, were the workshops and the informal meetings among musicians who swapped stories, lyrics and picking techniques. Not being a musician myself, I couldn’t get into this scene as well as the others, but friends said these exchanges were why they had come in the first place.

“Of course,” joked a guitarist who played for Paul Simon, “he may have had a tape recorder in his lapel to rip off my music.”

But then, this mountain culture has withstood a lot of ripping off by musicologists, song writers and the lot. The Gatlinburg folk festival not only shows its endurance, but also demonstrates that the culture is really in the spirit of the people: Old and young. Long hair and short.