The history of Americana old-time string music and its people only appears in elusive glimpses as it becomes visible to us today—much as when the foggy mists that float in the hollows of the Appalachian Mountains clears in patches to reveal a beautiful view only to quickly hide it once more as it swirls on its way. Such is the story of Bascom Lamar Lunsford with whom few are familiar in today’s world.
Bascom Lamar Lunsford (March 21, 1882 – September 4, 1973) was born at Mars Hill, Madison County, NC. During his long eventful lifetime in western North Carolina, he was a lawyer, folklorist, performer of traditional Appalachian music, and promoter of early music festivals.
From a very early age, Lunsford was immersed into the mountain music of the region. His father, who was a teacher, gave him a fiddle and his mother, who possessed a fine singing voice, introduced him to religious songs and traditional ballads. In addition, Lunsford learned to play banjo. While still quite young he began to perform at weddings and square dances.
Bascom studied at Rutherford College to qualify as a teacher. From that training, he taught at schools in Madison County. In 1913, Lunsford studied law at Trinity College, later to become Duke University, and qualified as a lawyer.
After qualifying as a teacher, Lunsford, with his deep interest in music and traditional folklore, began to travel the Appalachian hills and valleys to collect material on the subject. He would often meet folks on isolated farms to collect songs, music, and stories that they could relate to him.
Once his knowledge base on the subject deepened, Bascom began to deliver lectures and performances. It is important to note that he always dressed in a starched white shirt and black bow tie for these events as a campaign against the stereotyping of the people of the area as hillbillies.
Less you think Lunsford was as obscure amateur, in 1922 song collector Frank C. Brown recorded 32 items on wax cylinders from Bascom; in 1928, Lunsford recorded three selections on the Brunswick record label; and in 1922 song collector, Harry Smith, included a performance by Lunsford on an American folk music anthology. Smith repeated this action on a 1952 anthology release. A CD collection of Lunsford’s recordings, from over the years was released by Smithsonian Folkways Records in 1996.
As a music promoter, Bascom Lunsford was no shadow either. In 1927 the Asheville Chamber of Commerce organized a ‘Rhododendron Festival’ to encourage tourism and asked Lunsford to invite local musicians and dancers to be a part of the festival. The next year, 1928, the festival morphed into the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival (folks have often claimed this event as the first to be described as a Folk Festival). This festival continues to the present day; with Bascom organizing and performimg at the festival every year until he suffered a stroke in 1965. Further, Lunsford co-founded the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Minstrel of Appalachia Festival (still going after 40-some continuous years). This festival is held at Mars Hill University in Mars Hill, NC located 20 minutes north of Asheville, NC.
In years past, when rural folks used music and storytelling as family time and community time with little thought to it generating material gain, Bascom Lunsford, Appalachian folk singer, earned his nickname Minstrel of the Appalachians—would that we could somehow recapture that simplicity in today’s times.