Folklife festival seeks out the traditions of today

Now in its 40th year, the Blue Ridge Folklife Festival has adapted its events and displays to reflect the changing culture of the region.

by JACOB DEMMITT | 381-1661 |  Posted by The Roanoke Times, Sunday, October 27, 2013

 FERRUM — Roddy Moore sat relaxed in his office Saturday morning, fixing problems as quickly as he could answer each phone call. But outside, funnel cakes were frying, classic cars were popping their hoods and coon dogs were warming up their vocal cords — the 40th annual Blue Ridge Folklife Festival was officially underway.

Moore hadn’t stepped outside yet, but he could already tell it was going to be a good day. As Blue Ridge Institute d irector, he’s organized the event every year since its inception. By now he knows what to expect, though he said the festival is constantly adapting.

The goal of the event is to present an accurate image of the region’s culture as it is today. If that culture changes, so does the festival.

“It’s a celebration of the traditions of this region that are still being practiced,” Moore said of the event on the Ferrum College campus. “If something happens and that tradition is not being carried on anymore, we don’t look for someone who is a revivalist. We look for people who these traditions came down within their family and within their community. If you’re doing something and someone asks why, you can tell them. It’s not a hobby, it’s something they already had been doing, a lot of them as a child.”

One demonstrator showed how he splits logs for fences using an ax and wooden mallet; another gutted a pig while an audience gathered around.

One of the largest crowds of the day was drawn in by the coon dog treeing contest, where dogs bark up a pole at a raccoon-scented stuffed animal. The winner is the dog that barks the most number of times in 30 seconds.

Other events from years past were missing, however. Trades disappear from the lineup as they fall out of fashion or the last remaining tradition bearer dies.

This year had a noticeable absence at the moonshine storytelling session, one of the most popular attractions. Retired moonshiners and law enforcement officers usually sit together, sharing the folklore of who was selling liquor to Al Capone and who got away from whom after chases through the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Jack Powell, who wrote four books of stories from his career as a state Alcoholic Beverage Control agent, was long a mainstay at the session. The 80-year-old died Oct. 19, one week before he was scheduled to appear at this year’s event.

“He would be right here,” said Lane Rakes, a former local moonshiner who frequents the panel. “You couldn’t get a word in edgewise with him. … He could tell ’em, he could tell ’em.”

Rakes had a run-in with Powell once when he was making brandy in Franklin County about 30 years ago — or so the story goes. When a lookout gave him the signal, Rakes said he looked up to see “good ole Jack” coming at him.

“He didn’t get me. I went up the mountain to the other side and left his hind end. That thing could run, though,” Rakes said.

Enough moonshiners still make it to the festival to share their stories, but Moore said that era is coming to an end.

He remembers when the festival included more basket weavers, braided-rug makers and even a woman who handpicked and carded cotton for quilt batting. Each craft was once a major part of the festival and the culture of the region, but each has faded with time.

“We lose a couple each year; that’s just what happens,” Moore said. “So you’re always looking for new things and you’re looking for replacements.

“We’re not interested in putting a globe over these people and not changing because people change — they have to. We just record the changes that take place.”

Jon Butler, of Rocky Mount, was one of the new faces at this year’s event. He brought tires that he cut, turned inside out and painted so they can be used as garden planters.

Decades ago, Butler said, you would see these kinds of planters all over town. Today they’ve fallen out of fashion.

“This isn’t exactly the easiest craft to do,” he said. “You have to cut it, turn it. I joke about it being like wrestling with a pig.”

Moore said he’s always scouting new talent like Butler, traveling to events and talking to people. Many times, the trick to finding the festival’s next addition is a little bit of luck.

“We’re still going to have crafts. They can change, but there will still be crafts being done,” Moore said. “But finding this kind of craft is getting harder and harder because most of these people are not on a circuit and don’t do craft fairs. … A lot of these crafts are things they might do at home and might be for their neighbors, and that’s it. They’re the hard ones to find.”