Last semester I found myself talking to an Appalachian Studies class about Appalachian Music and used the song Good Old Mountain Dew as an example of a traditional song. After the class, as I walked back to my office I was humming the song and thinking about the lyrics and wondering , since many of the lyrics dealt with what seemed to be an actual story, if it was indeed a traditional song. Luckily, living in the age of computers and instant information as we are, I was able to very quickly answer my question and prove myself wrong both at the same time. Expecting no real information, I opened Google and typed “Who wrote “Good Old Mountain Dew”?
Right there on the computer screen in the first “find” on the page I learned that Mountain Dew was written by Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Being a collector of sorts of interesting names, I could not resist learning more about the person with such a fascinating name. As it turns out there was a lot to learn.
Bascom Lamar Lunsford, born in Mars Hill, North Carolinain 1882, was what amounts to the first Appalachian ethnomusicologist- but not at first. Before pursuing that lofty goal he was a lawyer, which is where he got the source material for Mountain Dew. As it happened, out one of the cases he was trying was a moonshiner who was reputed to make some of the finest moonshine around. After some fancy footwork in the courthouse Bascom got the man “off” after getting him to bring the judge a sample of his wares!
On my first day in court I wish to report
Now witness my story so true.
When the state closed its case a young man raised his face
And began all these facts to review.
Yes they call it that old mountain dew,
Said those who refuse it are few.
While I know I’ve done wrong, the temptation is strong
When they call for that old mountain dew.
While you may be familiar with the song Mountain Dew, that verse probably isn’t familiar to you. The reason is, that Bascom might not have been the most savvy businessman but he was a practical one. The song as written by Bascom was published in 1928 and was well received and respected. As the story goes, in 1937 Bascom attended the National Folk Festival and was visiting Scott Wiseman (of the group Lulu Belle and Scotty) and the subject of the song came up. Wiseman liked the music but thought the song would have more appeal publicly if the words were somewhat changed. Bascom, being a practical sort and knowing he did not have the train fare in his pocket to make it back home offered to sell Scott Wiseman the rights to the song for the price of a train ticket ($25). It would eventually become an extremely valuable song when it was used to both name and advertise the soft drink of the same name. Wiseman, being a decent fellow always credited Bascom as a co-author and made sure that half of the royalty checks for it made their way to him though so the story isn’t as tragic as it might have been!
After some time, a career in law lost some of its charm and so Bascom decided to devote his days to doing what he loved best, collecting folk tunes from the people of Appalachia. To fund his travels, he accepted a job as a fruit tree seller. He had samples of various fruit trees and he was supposed to take orders for these trees. The only problem is, he gave away so many “samples” as appreciation gifts to the people he collected songs from that the fruit company decided it would be better for Bascom to spend all of his time as an ethnomusicologist and no time as a fruit tree seller!
When I say he collected songs, I mean he sat and listened to the people sing and play them and he learned them and recorded them. Something interesting and almost brilliant in what he did is that he always seemed to be able to add something to the songs thanks to a very good memory and ability to draw lines from one song to another. He would dance, sing along, add verses or play an instrument which further endeared him to those showing him the music.
Another thing he did, which perhaps, was more important than any of his musical acheivments, was his dancing. Bascom loved to dance (as did his wife who would accompany him on his collecting trips) and he saw dance as a very important part of Appalachian life and culture. There will be more on this below,but for those who may not know, buck dancing is a free spirited, interpretive, mountain dance that allows the dancer to move to the music how and when he feels it. It looks like a fun time too!
While on his collecting trips and apparently almost all the time, Bascom wore a suit and tie. One of his reasons was that he greatly disliked Appalachian people’s tendency to disregard their ways of life and their music too. He found in his travels that people were increasingly associating banjo and fiddle music with being uneducated and ignorant and this really bothered Bascom. He felt that by wearing a suit and tie and acting genteel and educated that he would help the people to remember and understand that Appalachian music and culture were just as valid a lifestyle as the big city lifestyle that was more and more coming into their realization thanks to radio and news etc. Bascom greatly disliked Appalachian people wearing cowboy hats and acting “other” than what they naturally were. Honestly, there seems a bit of irony in that he would “dress to impress” yet held great disdain in others dressing in non-Appalachian ways. Whatever the cause- his clothes or his personality- the truth is, when he came to visit, the people responded well to him and his message: they and their way of life were valid and useful and deserved respect came through loud and clear.
One of Bascom’s goals in collecting these songs was to preserve the music for the Appalachian people. I don’t know if he originally intended to make his own recordings of these songs, but that is what happened. In 1922 he recorded several songs and they helped him to come to the idea that he could be an agent to bring Appalachian music and culture to the general (non-Appalachian) public. This idea became a true reality in 1927 when the city of Asheville NC asked Bascom to participate in what was known as the Rhododendron Festival which was designed to increase tourism. Bascom, as the authority on the matter was asked to bring some Appalachian musicians and dancers to the festival which he gladly did. This went very well and he was asked back year after year to do this and before too long his music and dance show became the biggest and most popular part of the Rhododendron Festival. It even outlasted the Rhododendron Festival and continues even now.
Seeing the importance of this dance and music show, and realizing that the dance part of the show was really what pleased the audience the most, Bascom started having the mountain dancers come to his own house to practice and learn routines. These groups ended up being the birth of organized clogging and clogging troupes. This seems another oddly out of place and ironic twist to me- was he creating a spectacle for entertainmant purposes or preserving mountain dancing? I think the former but in the end the public embraced his shows, the Appalachian people were uplifted and perhaps a home-based industry was born. His inconsistencies and prejudices over outfits also made him occasionally unpopular with the musicians, especially when he wouldn’t allow certain of them whose outfits he disapproved of perform in the shows. There is a story of how he refused to allow some very important and influential Appalachian musicians perform in the festival because they were wearing western attire.
Bascom Lamar Lunsford died in 1973 but his efforts, his songs and his efforts towards preserving Appalachian music and dance live on. Want to learn more about this fascinating man? Here is a CD, video and book that you can start with. (I very highly recommend the video, Ballad of a mountain man, which is a documentary style film shot when he was still living.)
Ballads, banjo tunes, and sacred songs of western North Carolina [sound recording] / Bascom Lamar Lunsford
- Recordings-CDs – Level 4 - M1629.7.N85 L86 1996
Ballad of a mountain man [videorecording] : the story of Bascom Lamar Lunsford / a varied Directions, Inc production ; WGBH Educational Foundation ; WNET/Thirteen
- Videocassettes – Level 4 - ML420.L935 B35 1990
Minstrel of the Appalachians : the story of Bascom Lamar Lunsford / by Loyal Jones ; music transcribed by John M. Forbes
- Main Collection – Level 4 - ML420.L935 J6 1984