Bascom Lamar Lunsford



Known in his lifetime as “The Minstrels of the Appalachians” and “The Squire of South Turkey Creek”, Bascom Lamar Lunsford was a man of multiple endeavors, with a calling to preserve and entertain with the folk heritage of the Appalachian mountains where he spent all his busy life. Born in 1882 in Madison County, North Carolina, he was raised in a middle-class family which put education and arts above all things but stayed close to the soil and the traditional values of the Southern mountains.

Bascom would be at ease all his life both with urban and country people, making a bridge between both worlds, the old and the new, the entertainment and the scholarship, the stage and the living-room, the church and the dance floor. He claimed that he visited more homes in the mountains than anyone, and thanks to his early occupations of fruit tree seller and beekeeper, he knew well the backwoods people, who were the good musicians and singers and managed to collect hundreds of songs, tunes and tales from them.

Working officially as a lawyer, he nevertheless devoted most of his energy to promote musicians, organize festivals, record and collect folk music with a zeal and passion that was legendary. He “would cross Hell on a rotten tail to get a folk song”. His major achievements were the Mountain Folk and Dance Festival he created in Asheville in 1928 (and sill running today!) and the impressive number of folk songs and tunes he recorded for the Library of Congress (more than 300 items).

Through his work with the festival and his recordings, he had the ambition to restore the pride and dignity of Southern folks and their music and keep this traditions alive against all the threats of modernity . With his five-string banjo and his impeccable suits, his impressive memory and love of his fellow-man, he indeed managed to be an incredible promoter and entertainer of folk music, years before “Folk Revivals” of all kind. When young urban people from the northern cities became interested in Southern music in the 1950′s and 1960′s, his attitude was often conservative and suspicious of the “outsiders”. He had a strong and personal vision of what was “authentic” and what not, even if he had to accept some new trends and changes along the years.

His own performance style never changed much during the 30 years he recorded for collectors or records companies. With his simple but effective two-finger style picking on the banjo and his powerful and mannered voice, he was right in the middle between rougher mountain pickers and the more sophisticated folk singers like John Jacob Niles. He was first recorded in 1922 and 1925 by scholars Frank C. Brown and Robert Winslow Gordon on cylinder discs.

His biggest commercial recording session held in Ashland, Kentucky in 1928 for the Brunswick label where 12 sides were recorded. Most of them were his versions of old-time mountain songs  but it also included two pieces he wrote himself, both songs dealing with the subject of moonshining: The first one,”Old mountain Dew” was maybe his most well-remembered song, one that became a standard and entered the folk tradition. The other song, “Nol Pros” Nellie, was a parody of the famous folk song “Darling Nelly Gray”. “Nol Pros” is a legal term meaning that the charges in the court are not going to be pressed. The “Nellie” of the song is a moonshiner who has fled the law. Unable to locate her, the authorities had to fill a “Nol Pros”.

Bascom would record hundreds of items for the Library of Congress including ballads,songs, fiddle tunes,tales, jokes,singing games,hyms and religious songs,etc…;the whole gamut of the Appalachian folklore he collected during all these years visiting folks in the mountains and organizing the Asheville festival. He called this his “Memory Collection” and it’s maybe the biggest collection in this field. He recorded first in 1935 on aluminium discs and then in 1949. Only a few of this performances were released on commercial discs, and you can hear about 14 of them (it includes also 5 sides from the 1928 Brunswick recording session) on a Smithsonian/Folkways cd called “Ballads, Banjo tunes, and Sacred Songs of Western North Carolina”.

For anyone interested in Bascom Lamar Lunsford, i strongly recommend the book “Minstrel of the Appalachians-The Story of Bascom Lamar Lunsford”, his biography by Loyal Jones. In addition to the whole story of Lunsford’s life, there’s a very complete discography, including a listing of all the items recorded for the Library of Congress and some lyrics and sheet music for Bascom’s songs and fiddle tunes.


One Response to “Bascom Lamar Lunsford”

  1. Mike Resnick Says:

    Mars Hill College in Mars Hill, NC, (the site of a week long summer music camp) has an extensive collection of material relating to Bascomb Lamar Lunsford in their library. Bascomb’s father was one of five founding members of the College. According to a newspaper clipping from the 1930s in a scrapbook there, a mortgage was taken out to help finance the first College building in the 1850s. Collateral put up was one slave (!) who was held in the County jail to assure repayment of the loan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s