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Asheville's Diana Wortham Theatre was mobbed for this sell-out performance of "A Swannanoa Solstice." Begun in 2003 by Doug Orr, former president of Warren Wilson College, the family-friendly concert is a beguiling mix of story-telling and poetry readings, photo and dance exhibition, and an eclectic mixture of music and musical styles that are guaranteed to put a dance in your step.
However, this is more than mere entertainment. Orr's vision to preserve and promote the culture of our region goes back to the founding of the Swannanoa Gathering at WWC in 1992, when a series of summer weeks were devoted to a particular aspect of mountain music making. Swannanoa Solstice is a spin-off of this, and is more like a colloquial cousin of the famous English "Christmas Revels," resulting in one of the most unique holiday events of its kind.
The event has developed so much of a following that two performances are now necessary to accommodate its audience. The stellar line-up of nationally recognized artists is a huge draw. Orr served as host and reader of poems. Grammy and Indie Award-winning guitarist Al Petteway was both music director and performer, frequently playing duets with his wife Amy White. White's versatile gifts were displayed on mandolin, dulcimer, Celtic harp, and piano, as well as in the stunning photography of winter mountain scenes exhibited to musical accompaniment which opened the program's second half. Robin Bullock, cited in the press as a "Celtic guitar god," performed not only on guitar, cittern, and fiddle, but surprised us with a rendition on mandolin of the Prelude from Bach's Suite No. 1 for unaccompanied cello.
EJ Jones was there on pipes, along with his Piper Jones Band members Frances Cunningham on bouzouki, percussionist Kent Spillman, and piper/bombardier Rosalind Buda. Dancer Phil Jamison, known nationally as a dance caller, old-time musician, and author of a recent book on the origins of Southern Appalachian dance, was joined by Ellie Grace in a splendid exhibition of "flatfoot" mountain footwork. Special guest artist and Appalachian music scholar David Holt brought the house down with his deadpan quips, cowboy poetry, mesmerizing yarns, and his ability to make music with an authentic mountain banjo, regular banjo, harmonica, guitar, and just about anything he pulled from his pockets (bones and spoons).
Despite the rousing medleys of tunes played by the pipe band, (notably, the lively "A Dram to Warm the Piper" by Danny Carnahan of the band Wake the Dead), much of the music was of a ruminative quality which underscored the call for stillness and introspection reflected in the poetry selections. This was particularly true of Bullock's variation set on "Good King Wenceslas," his quiet rendering of the "Carol of the Bells," and of the music accompanying the photography slide show. Through the various musical stylings of others, one could hear snatches of "Wassail," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," and the "Cherry Tree Carol."
Holt is a gifted story teller who enchanted the audience with a Cherokee tale about the mythic healing powers found in the Magic Lake of the Animals. In yet another set, he let loose on "Whiskey Before Breakfast" and "The Georgia Camp Meeting." By displaying a few photographs of his family, he had a platform to discuss, then demonstrate the musical gifts he'd inherited from his forebearers. The theme of musical gifts shared and passed down through generations ran deep throughout the entire program.
After "Breaking Up Christmas," a tune from Surrey County which involved the entire cast, the evening ended on a quiet note, with the audience participating in the singing of Jean Ritchie's "Peace Round," and then "Silent Night." Clearly Orr is on to something that people are hungry for this time of year – an escape from our harried and distracted way of life to a few moments of centered, lovely musical connection.