The Death of White Top

How David Whisnant spoiled and mountain.

White Top Mountain, Grayson County VA

In the very early morning of August 11, 1933, Albert Hash and his three brothers got their morning chores done early.  The excitement they felt must have been contagious as they ran up and down the mountains and hollows of the highlands of Virginia, travelling by foot from their remote three-room home in Fees Branch to the very top of the second highest mountain in Virginia. Albert was just 16 and had already built his fourth fiddle.  He had carefully placed it inside a gunny sack that morning to prevent his neighbors from judging his fiddling ways.  After that day, the Third Annual White Top Interstate Folk Festival, he would never hide his fiddling or his fiddle playing again (Smith, 8-10).

            As the three young men approached the mountain top, after nearly four hours of hiking, they very likely gasped in unison at what they saw.  Spread out across the rounded peak and sides of the mountain were nearly 22,000 people; more than the population of the entire county, more people, cars, horse carts, tents, and musicians than they had ever seen in their lives.  These folks, including the First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, had made the perilous back road journey up the mountain for one unified purpose: to hear the music and see the local dances of the Appalachian Mountains as pure as possible, in their “native” environment, and to listen, dance, and shout themselves with the intensity of feelings the music elicited from them.

            For nine years, 1931-1939, the White Top Mountain Festival became a national celebration of the music and culture of the Southern highlands, launching the early careers of many young traditional musicians like Albert Hash, and solidifying the careers of many other more well-known musicians attending and competing.  Some would become legends of old-time music like Fields and Wade Ward of the Galax, Virginia, band The Bogtrotters; Frank and Ed Blevins of The Tar Heel Rattler’s fame; Hobart Smith and his sister, Texas Gladden, and Emmet Lundy.  Others would find new joy in trading regional tunes and playing together long into the night.

Listen to Albert Hash fiddle “My White Top Mountain Home”

   It would not be hard to assume that in a region that is considered the birthplace of all country music, that is considered the font of old-time fiddle music and mountain ballads, that such a famous series of gatherings would be continually celebrated and chronicled in the academic literature of folk music in America.  Alas, it is not. White Top’s fame, notoriety, and any celebratory or positive research of its impact on the music of the southern mountains have been quashed long ago.  Its status as the “whipping post” of the cultural elite became solidified with the publication, in 1983, of one book: David Whisnant’s All That Is Native and Fine (Chap. 3).  

Whisnant, an English professor who had grown up near Ashville, North Carolina, and then left the mountains for many years only to return with a big-city education and an attitude about what was best, native, and fine, quickly climbed to the top of the mountain in the new burgeoning field of Appalachian Studies. His academic pontification purported that the White Top Mountain Festival was one of three cases (the only three he has ever given us) of what he termed “systemic cultural intervention.”

            Whisnant defined these interventions as occurring when “someone (or some institution) consciously and programmatically takes action within a culture with an intent of affecting it in some specific way that the intervenor thinks desirable.”  He goes on to specify that these interventions, whether “active” or “passive,” can have unintended or intended positive or negative effects upon the receiving culture (pg. 13-14).  He also believed, based on three case studies, that the results were almost certainly damning to any culture.

            The three cases that Whisnant chose to illustrate are interestingly and notably led by women. They include, aside from his biting rebuke of the White Top Mountain festivals of the 1930s, the efficacy as cultural interventions of the Hindman Settlement School in Kentucky founded in 1904, and the development of the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, in 1926.  It should be noted that the women who were spearheading each of these three movements deeply believed in one unifying purpose: that mountain culture was well worth saving, sharing, and celebrating (Mathews and Kirby).

            In the case of the White Top Festivals, Whisnant blamed the naivete of folk song collector and festival founder Annabel Morris Buchanan on allowing the intervention to become what Whisnant calls “manipulation of reality” (p. 247).  Along with composer, scholar, tune collector, and pianist extraordinaire, John Powell, an admitted fan of Anglo-Saxon music over other forms, and lawyer and entrepreneur John Blakemore (who happened to own the top of White Top Mountain), Buchanan became intrigued with the idea of creating a large venue to showcase the music she deeply loved, the music of the mountains.

            White Top was certainly not the first folk festival to showcase the music of the Appalachians. Entrepreneur and salesman Bascom Lamar Lunsford had already successfully developed and was evolving the annual Mountain Dance and Music Festival in Asheville, and Jean Thomas was successfully hosting the American Folk Song Festival to promote Kentucky mountain music. They were soon followed by the establishment of The National Folk Festival, organized by Sarah Gertrude Knott. Even Whisnant found that these four monumental festivals shared a noble premise, to “bring the performers out of their isolated surroundings and place them before an appreciative audience.”  He went on to surmise, “That approval would heighten the performers’ sense of self-worth and pride in their imperiled culture” (Native and Fine, p. 185).

            Although similar in nature and structure, Whisnant never attacked the other three major Folk Festivals of the ‘20s and ‘30s.  In fact, in a 1979 piece published in the Appalachian Journal, he spent nearly 20 pages heaping praise upon Lunsford’s Mountain Music and Dance Festival upon which the White Top Festival had been partially based (Mountain Music and Dance).  What did Whisnant see that separated White Top from these other major “systemic cultural interventions?  Why has one fallen into the cracks of historical significance while the other three continue to be lauded in academic and popular history?  Why did Whisnant brilliantly decimate the reputation of White Top?

            Whisnant castigates the White Top organizers for being too focused on the virtues of Anglo mountain music and its purity and superiority as representing a fragile culture (Native and Fine).  On the other hand, he depicts Lunsford’s noble cause as “to seek at last a position of parity for the fiddler by the opera door, and to thereby inject a note of cultural realism and authenticity into the imported booster fantasy” (Music and Dance, 138).  One elevates the fiddler above opera, the other, White Top, hopes to elevate the fiddler to be considered playing a valid and vibrant music that could add much to the compositions of classical and operatic programs. Were not both noble grounds upon which to build festival premises?

            Whisnant’s criticisms have not been without detractors.  However, for the most part and for unknown reasons, his 1983 book has rarely been challenged by academics and most of the criticism has come from non-academics.  In a rare rebuke, researcher Helen Lewis and musician and musicologist Rich Kirby saw the book as “marred by its contentiousness and tendency to overdramatize (p. 654).  Few others have been so bold. 

            One of Whisnant’s primary complaints about White Top was the not-so-hidden proclivities of its founders, John Powell, towards racism.  This is certainly a valid criticism, especially coupled with the fact that during its nine years, the White Top festival directors did not allow Black musicians to play from the stage or compete in the contests.  However, remember that this festival, like Lunsford’s, took place in the deep South in 1930’s America and had grown out of the smaller fiddler contest movement that had been happening in the South since the 1700s.  

To this day, with hundreds of old-time and bluegrass music festivals and contests being held across the nation, it is rare to see black participants and performers at these festivals.  In 2019, for example, The National Appalachian String Band Festival, held for the past 30 years in Clifftop, West Virginia, with nearly 3,000 participants from across the world, had its first Black winner in any of the numerous categories of competitions offered during the week-long festival.  It is both by musical heritage, constituency, and subtle bigotry that this trend has continued.  

However, Whisnant’s complaint could be leveled against the board of nearly every major fiddle contest in the country, from the Galax Festival to MerleFest, to both be predominantly white and to promote primarily Anglo music over other more integrated musical genres.  There are and always have been representations of many cultures in what we know as “traditional” American folk music of the South, but for whatever reasons, they have remained, until more recently, primarily segregated by venue and festival type.  This is, was, and will be an ongoing challenge to folk music organizers, but certainly wasn’t unique to the White Top founders.

It is also a fact that currently, according to music journalist Jemayel Khawaja writing in The Guardian in 2017, that all American music festivals remain largely controlled by and attended by primarily white participants. One of the iconic current music festivals, Burning Man, has an 87% white attendance.  Coachella, another iconic nationally attended music festival, has under 5% black attendees.  Khawaja finds that nearly all American music festivals have been less than friendly to black participants over their long history.  The problem, according to Khawaja, is that festival organizers, promoters, and sponsors are Caucasian.

It should also be noted that Lunsford biographer, Loyal Jones, could find no instance of Blacks ever performing at one of the Mountain Music and Dance Festivals.  While Lunsford certainly had no political agenda such as John Powell in excluding Black performers, it is obvious that he did not see them as the right “fit” for his festival.  Thus, it should be noted that White Top did not and does not stand out as a particularly racist construct among the distant and recent history of American festivals.

While Whisnant not only chides the organizers of White Top for excluding Blacks, he also blames one of the organizers, John Blakemore, for having more entrepreneurial interests than merely promoting the music of the mountains. That criticism is a bit suspect following the praise that Whisnant had previously given Mr. Lunsford, who was, like Blakemore, both a lawyer and an entrepreneur who had previously made his living as an “authentic” mountain musician even though he had also been educated at two colleges and an academy, been to law school, taught English and history at Rutherford College, edited newspapers, and worked as a federal agent (Mountain Music and Dance, 140).

In many ways, it seems, Lunsford’s forays into promoting mountain music were for monetary concerns as well as ideological undertakings.  Reportedly, he was often viewed as “shiftless” by local musicians. Even by Whisnant’s measure, he was a ruthless self-promoter who loved to see his picture on handbills, and often referred to himself as “the minstrel of the Appalachians.”  In contrast, none of the White Top organizers tried to further their own reputations through the festivals, but stuck to their ideological, financial, and more humble interests in promoting mountain music.  While Blakemore owned the festival grounds, he generously spent hundreds of dollars on improving the festival site to accommodate the large numbers of performers, attendees, and dignitaries who made the trek to the mountaintop over the years.

Another problem with Whisnant’s critique of White Top compared to his adulation for the Mountain Music and Dance Festival was his distaste of Buchanan and Powell’s requirement that White Top performers adhere to the rule that “Only old time music [will be] considered in contests: no modern songs, tunes or dances” (Native and Fine, 229).  On the other hand, Lunsford dictated to his performers that they not wear cowboy or hillbilly garb and often guided their choice of music to play on stage. Again, the organizers of fiddle festivals from the 1740s to the present day have been very clear in dictating what type of music can and can’t be played, but few, if any, have actually told the performers how to dress.  

One of the current longest running fiddler conventions in the U.S., The Old Fiddler’s Convention at Galax, VA., has more than 27 rules performers must adhere to, including type of song, length, format, composition of musical personnel, style of playing, and much more (Galax Rules). Contests and festivals have always tried to limit their performers to certain genres , similar to both Lunsford’s festival and the White Top Festivals.  Whisnant’s contention that Buchanan and Powell’s demands that performers not play “modern” tunes and limit themselves to “archaic fiddle and banjo tunes with Child ballads” does not seem particularly limiting if you consider that the purpose of the event, like Lunsford’s and others’, was to promote music that was indigenous, not modern or “hillbilly” music that was quickly overshadowing through radio and mass distribution of recordings the folk music of the Appalachians.

While Whisnant took great afront at the fact that many performers went back to their homes and sought to find more “authentic” tunes and songs to perform at the festival, this appeared to be one of the legs of any folk process, to seek out tunes from older times, to learn them as close to the source, either written or by hearing them in person, and then presenting them to a wider audience.  What Whisnant found appalling seems to be the process of every folk musician in America, although now “authentic” renditions are often learned off the internet from such sources as Slippery-hill.com.  In many ways the White Top organizers may have helped save many mountain tunes from extinction by their insistence on non-modernized tunes and their ban on “hillbilly” hits.

The areas of extreme praise that Whisnant heaps on what he seems to believe is a positive systemic cultural intervention, The Mountain Music and Dance Festivals, are the positive impacts upon the performers, upon the traditional culture of the region, upon other festivals, and upon the popular image of mountain culture itself.  If these are the standards upon which one judges the relative success of a “systemic cultural intervention,” then one must examine the neglected constituents in the entirety of All that is Native and Fine; we must consider the impact upon the participants themselves. As Mathews and Kirby put it, Whisnant’s critique has a “curious lack of testimony from the ‘other side,’ from the people whose culture was being interfered with” (p. 653).

In the case of the White Top festival, Whisnant did manage to interview one participant, Albert Hash, even though many of the hundreds of performers who had participated and many local people who attended were still living when Whisnant went to White Top to do his research.

Hash, a young fiddler of 14 who had already built several fiddles when he attended the first White Top Festival in 1931, saw the festival as a major turning point in his musical life.  As recounted earlier, he had carried his fiddle in a gunny sack to the festival to hide it from the scornful eyes of neighbors who did not all approve of fiddle music because of longstanding religious beliefs in the primitive mountain churches.  When young Hash was invited to help play for dancers at the festival,  then was invited to play with one of his idols, Fries, VA., musician and balladeer Henry Whitter, and saw the accolades his fiddling drew, he never hid his fiddle again (Smith, Chap. 1).  

            Hash related to Whisnant, nearly 50 years following the festival, that a Colonel Kettlewell from England took a picture of his home-made fiddle. He realized for the first time in his life that his pursuit of music was taken much more seriously than he had considered and that for the first time, he felt “justified in what he was doing” (Native and Fine, 232).  That is no small statement from a young man who would go on to build over 300 fiddles in his lifetime, play at the Smithsonian, Wolf Trap, The World’s Fair, and venues nationwide, teach fiddling and fiddle building at folk schools across the South, launch hundreds of luthiers, including Virginia guitar-building icon Wayne Henderson, and establish the first school-based program for young people in the U.S. dedicated to teaching young people the traditional music of Appalachia, now known as Junior Appalachian Musicians.  When Hash died in 1982, the Virginia Legislature noted his life with a proclamation and a moment of silence.  Hash often credited it all to that long trek up White Top Mountain (Smith). 

Hash’s life alone stands as lasting tribute to the cultural value of the White Top festivals but Hash was not the only regional participant who was deeply affected by the festivals.  Among those who benefited were many names that have become legendary among folk enthusiasts:

Frank and EDD Blevins with Mrs Roosevelt at Whitetop
  • Frank and Edd Blevins:  These two brothers had already recorded as members of the Tar Heel Rattlers and had ended their careers to work at a furniture factory in Marion, VA.  Specifically, for White Top, and at the urging of Mrs. Buchanan, they formed a new band with banjoist Jack Reedy and became the Southern Buccaneers, reviving their careers and winning many prizes at the festival. During this time, they became the foremost country string band in Southwest Virginia, with a diverse local repertoire and frequent broadcasts over radio stations across the area.  They often attributed the tutelage of White Top founder Annabel Morris Buchanan for their continued success. In 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt herself pinned two blue ribbons on Frank, whose recordings would later be considered among the finest examples of early southern music ever recorded.  Their influence on the music of the area continued until 1944 when Ed tragically died, and Frank hung up his fiddle.
  • Wade, Crockett and Fields Ward, Eck Dunford, and Doc Davis: The Bogtrotters: Legendary banjoist Wade Ward, from Independence, VA., his brother, Fields Ward, and his brother’s son, Fields Ward, had formed a group that premiered at the White Top festivals. Known as the Bogtrotters, they were to become one of the most enduring string bands in American history.  Although the original group lasted until the 1950s, a newer version of the band continues to play many of their original tunes in Southwest Virginia today. Wade’s banjo playing earned the attention of Folklorists John and Alan Lomax, who recorded several sides with him and the Bogtrotters following one of their trips to White Top. Their unique style of string band music captured the attention of a worldwide audience and served as a foundation for the formation of the Galax Fiddler’s convention where they became known as the house band.  In the 1950s, folklorist and performer Mike Seeger rediscovered Ward’s recordings and helped issue several sets of recordings that have carried his reputation as one of the greatest of all old-time banjoists into the current era. (Carlin)
Art Wooten

  • Arthur Wooten:  Wooten had grown up and always lived in rural Alleghany County, NC, and came to White Top festivals as a young fiddler at the beginning of his career. He often performed with a contraption he built that allowed him to play the guitar and organ at the same time. His fiddling was noted by many during his performances at White Top and that directly led him to be hired by Bluegrass Master Bill Monroe and in 1939 to become the first fiddler in Monroe’s band.  Following that he became a beloved member of the Stanley Brother’s Clinch Mountain Band and helped them define their classic Bluegrass sound. (Blueridgeheritage.com)
  • Harold Hensley: Hensley was a shy teenager when he took the stage at the 1938 White Top festival.  Born on the mountain, this was his first real public exposure.  In the 1940s he headed to California armed with a fiddle built for him by neighbor and fellow fiddler Albert Hash.  Hensley would go on to have a nearly 40-year career as a fiddler, actor, and showman.  In 1943, he was the featured act on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry.  He also was a regular on WHO’s Iowa Barn Dance Frolic, and the Hometown Jamboree.  He appeared infrequently on the popular TV show the Walton’s as a fiddler, and was inducted into the Western Swing Society Hall of Fame. He also penned many songs, including “You’ll find Her Name Written There” that was recorded by Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys.
  • Roy “Speedy” Tolliver:  Roy Tolliver, like his lifelong friend, Harold Hensley, who he met in a jam session at a White Top festival, became inspired at the White Top festivals to pursue a life in music. He had walked to the festivals from his house, banjo in hand.  JWhen he was well received in the banjo contest, his life took a turn and he decided to be a professional musician.  In 1939 he moved to Fairfax, VA., to play in a band with John Stringer, a powerful young fiddler he had first met at a White Top festival.  For five years they played in the Washington, DC, area as the Melody Trail Boys, sharing old time mountain music with an urban crowd.  In the ‘40s the two formed a new band known as the Lee Highway Boys that quickly became a favorite of the transplanted Appalachians who had moved to the city to find work.  Later he played with legendary bands such as The Stoneman’s and in Roy Clark’s (of Hee Haw television fame) band.  During his career he performed at the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian, toured Europe with a show organized by folklorist Joe Wilson, and played for President Jimmy Carter at the Whitehouse.  He received the Virginia Heritage Award and a Speedy Tolliver Fiddle and Banjo Contest is held each year in Arlington, VA.  (Spencer).

In fact, most, like William “Uncle Bud” Spencer, saw the “systemic cultural intervention” as one of the highlights of their lives.  Spencer, who lived right below the mountain, won the traditional dancing competition in 1933.  When the First Lady of the United States herself pinned the two blue ribbons he won on his chest in front of a roaring crowd, he vowed to always remember that moment.  Spencer, who became the grandfather to world renowned fiddler Thornton Spencer of the famed traditional string band The White Top Mountain Band, stayed true to his word.  When he died, he requested that those two ribbons, still carefully pinned to the vest he danced in at the festival, be placed on his corpse. 

These are just a few of the stories of the powerful cultural influence that the White Top Mountain Interstate Folk Festivals had on its participants, stories that Whisnant either denied or failed to investigate.  Nearly all of the folks mentioned were still living in the White Top area when Whisnant interviewed Albert Hash.  However, they were not alone.  It is highly suggested that links to the cultural influence of White Top be investigated for Hobart Smith and his sister Texas Gladden, Horton Baker, Emmet Lundy, John Cruise and family, O.C. Roark, C.B. Wholford, Francis Atkins, Jake Rosenbaum and members of The Peakes Band, The Moonlight Ramblers, The White Top Jiggers, The Old Virginia Band, and countless others.

In summation, the validity and worth of a systemic cultural intervention cannot be judged solely on the proclivities of the founders of an event.  It must be measured against the worth it had in the culture itself, by the people who live in that culture.  To simply surmise that because the founders of an intervention are elites or have archaic views does not mean their contribution is worthless. If that were the case, then Whisnant’s beloved Mountain and Music and Dance Festivals would surely be admonished for being run by a huckster and elitist who pawned himself off as “the balladeer of the Appalachians.” In order to determine the value of any cultural intervention, one must examine the lives and voices of the people of the culture and in the culture.

In August of 2019, a group of 50 local musicians gathered on top of White Top Mountain to celebrate the history of the White Top Festivals.  They spent a day eating barbeque and playing the archaic tunes that were loved by the founders of the festival.  Even though the remnants of lodges and tents that once proudly adorned the mountain are gone, the participants found joy, strength, and confidence in the music of their ancestors.  Among the musicians were direct descendants of White Top’s influence, including guitarist and guitar builder Wayne Henderson. It is hoped to be an annual event for many years to come. Like the Festival itself, it had a humble resurgence.  Let us hope this revival will not be judged as harshly as its predecessor.

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