Square dancing is an endangered species that has been on the brink many times—and just as many times it has rebounded.
New waves of culture have always threatened to wash away old rituals. In the early 20th century, a man named Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who was raised in the counties of Buncombe and Madison in North Carolina, saw Appalachian culture being erased by “progress”—railroads, highways and commerce. He began to worry that many songs, ballads, and dance figures would be lost.
A friend of his from Haywood County worked in Clinton for the East Tennessee Nursery Company and talked him into taking a job there. Lunsford took the position of a traveling salesman, riding on horseback throughout the region with an illustrated catalog of flowers, shrubs, and fruit trees.
This work afforded him a golden opportunity. Though he had been collecting songs for a time, he wrote in his journals that the job extended his territory and brought him “in close contact with rural folk” who played and sung hymns, songs and ballads—and square danced—on their porches and in their living rooms at night when they hosted Lunsford.
“I was able to cover to a great extent the counties in western North Carolina, and dip into the adjoining states of Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina,” he wrote. “Songs from the valleys of Cheoah and Stecoah in Graham County, where Miss Lela Ammons and others sang, were added to my collection, such as ‘Old Stepstone’ and ‘Old Garden Gate.’ From the valleys of the beautiful Hiawassee in north Georgia, and Clay and Cherokee counties in North Carolina, and from the communities of Gum Log, Hightower, Shooting Creek, Tusquittee and Bear Meat, I acquired other songs.”
In Minstrel of the Appalachians (1984), Loyal Jones writes that Lunsford “would cross hell on a rotten rail to get a folk song.”
He would often give a fruit tree to his hosts at the end of his stay, or a few trees if he had an especially good time. His boss once wrote him, “You and your horse ate up five hundred dollars’ worth of fruit trees in Henderson County.”
Lunsford was invited to many square dances, where he collected calls and figures: “I attended dances on Mills River near the Pink Beds where Rack Kimsey and Bob Reed did the calling. The Posey girls and Ella Warlick, splendid square dancers, were there, and the Posey boys sang and played this little couplet: ‘Shout, little Lula, shout your best/Your old grandma’s gone to rest.’”
After his job with the nursery company in Clinton ended (perhaps the company finally could not afford him), he took a job harvesting honey throughout the mountains, which put him in another invaluable position as a music collector.
He wrote, “The higher we went into the mountains, the better the pasturage for bees. Naturally most of the yards were located high up where the linden and poplar blooms insure a good crop. This also insured to me a good harvest in balladry.”
Many now credit Lunsford as the greatest collector of Appalachian folk traditions. He started the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville in 1928, which brought square dancers from different parts of the mountains into competition with each other; perhaps this was truly the beginning of the Western square dance tradition, as it became performance-oriented and competitive at the festival.
And perhaps Lunsford saved Appalachian dance figures from the brink of extinction. Just as importantly, he almost certainly saved countless old-time songs from falling by the wayside. Those songs are the ones today that propel and uphold the square-dance tradition.