Kick Off Your Shoes at a Country Festival

The Black Mountain Festival is one of tens of thousands celebrating everything from Shakespeare to swing music

THE search for foot-stompin' fiddle music ends here. Tunes ride like a roller coaster through the crowd, in between pine trees, and up the mountains.Twice a year, over two consecutive weekends, the Black Mountain Festival becomes a magnet for merrymaking in scenic Black Mountain, N.C. - not far from Asheville. People come from all over the Southeast and as far away as Vermont and Texas to enjoy music, dancing, storytelling, crafts, camping, and conversation in the great outdoors. "I came here to get away from the everyday hassles of life," says Steve Smith, a writer from Columbia, S.C., who's here with his fiancee. "You see all these mountains? Once you see the mountains, all the problems and woolly monsters can't get to you." This summer millions of Americans are kicking off their shoes at festivals celebrating everything from Shakespeare to swing music to Swedish heritage to strawberries. Many will find the ultimate refuge - if only for a day - in trading their cars for canoes, power lunches for picnics, and faxes for fiddles. With fresh air in their hair and cool grass underfoot, some will dance off their cares and spend that "quality time" with family and friends. "This is a good retreat from the craziness," says Jim Wolf, a storyteller here. "I like bringing people together and that's what this place does. It's real family atmosphere." Tens of thousands of festivals are held in the United States each year, most of them in the summer, says Bruce Skinner, executive director for the International Festivals Association. The past 10 years has seen the number of festivals rise because of increasing corporate sponsorship. On the surface, not much may distinguish the Black Mountain festival from other outdoor music and dance festivals. "They're all different, but they're all basically the same," observes Tara Nevins, who has performed at many festivals playing fiddle in a group called the Heartbeats. Live entertainment and outdoor recreation are givens. This festival is on the small side, with attendance around 4,000 each weekend. Many people camp overnight in tents along Lake Eden, host to swimmers and canoers during the day. Dancing is a big draw - contra, square, swing, and free-form. But all involved are quick to point out the significance of the festival's site, an historic holy land of the avant-garde. The grounds (Camp Rockmont for Boys) were the home of Black Mountain College, a small experimental college that closed in the late '50s. Founded in the early 1930s by John Andrew Rice, the college helped mold modern art in America. Here, Merce Cunningham formed his dance company and Buckminster Fuller built his first geodesic dome. As a student, Arthur Penn taught acting. Others involved with the college included Albert Einstein, architect Walter Gropius, composer John Cage, painters Josef Albers, Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, and Franz Kline; choreographer Agnes de Mille, poets Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams, and Robert Creeley; and many more. "That's part of the magic. Some of the greatest minds came here!" says Mary James, who books musical acts for the festival. What would some of those great minds think now? "I think they would be happy," says Allen Saum, producer of the festival. "What facet of society is not represented here? The idea of Black Mountain College was to draw unique individuals from around the world and nation to see how crazy they could get," he says, surveying the festival with walkie-talkie in hand. The Black Mountain Festival has always focused on traditional music, dance, and crafts of this region. But this year it has grown to include traditional arts from all over the world. There's a West African drumming workshop, for example, and crafts from Central America. Music leans toward traditional folk, but includes Ethiopian and Indian as well as rock-and-roll, jazz, rhythm and blues, Cajun, bluegrass, and more. Stages are small: "You can't go to any stage here and not feel like you're in someone's l iving room," says Mr. Saum. The most important thing is authenticity, says Ms. James, pausing to clap wildly for one of the acts. "Anybody who's coming from their heart and soul," she adds. James mentions such groups as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Red Clay Ramblers, and the Chickasaw Mudd Puppies. "There's something for everyone. It helps bring out a diverse group of people." Then there's 68-year-old Cordell Jackson, "the first woman of rock-and-roll," who brings a rush of young people to the main stage. Says James: "She's authentic. She's right out of Memphis. I just had to have her." Unique as any country festival may be, people's reasons for attending seem to be universal: "It's peaceful, and people are kind and considerate of each other," says Angela Howard, who recently moved to this area from Washington, D.C. "There are not many places where you can feel comfortable and safe. And you get every age - from the youngest to the oldest." "Good music. Good people," sums up Robert Hudgins, a longtime fan of the festival. "Everybody here smiles all the time, and it's catching."

The next Black Mountain Festival will be held Oct. 11-13 and 18-20.

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