A mountain festival draws visitors from around the world.
Photographed by Carla Witt Ford
The best part of a mountain jam, musicians might tell you, is the unspoken cooperation between instrumentalists, singers, and dancers. By the simple touch of a knee or a nod of the shoulder, strangers play to the guidance of an invisible conductor and create haunting melodies or foot-stomping tunes.
Modern West Virginia isn’t all flannel shirts, overalls, and banjos, but traditional arts practiced around the state continue to thrive at the Augusta Festival in Elkins. The annual festival brings together the best fiddlers and yodelers from West Virginia as well as a cosmopolitan mix of national and international visitors for a month of heritage arts centered around community and friendship. “I saw Augusta as a really unique networking opportunity, not just on a professional level but a personal level,” says Emily Oleson, coordinator for Augusta’s dance program. “People are united by an interest in traditional arts, and it gives life to a lot of lifelong friendships.”
The Augusta Festival, presented by the Augusta Heritage Center, is a month-long celebration of America’s traditional arts—Appalachian to Irish to Cajun to hip-hop—including music, crafts, and dance. Augusta Heritage takes its name from one of West Virginia’s historic monikers during early settlement periods, and its focus stretches back to early American settlement arts. The festival is broken into five weeks, each with a theme, during which students and instructors live on the campus of Davis & Elkins College (D&E) for intensive class time and workshops. “People come for a full week and participate in really in-depth experiences with whatever they’re interested in,” says Beth King, Augusta director and general manager of D&E’s Myles Center for the Arts. “Someone might come for Early Country Week to study vocals with Ginny Hawker in the morning and take Cajun fiddling classes in the afternoon.” Class instructors are often legends in their fields. “Every week has people who are just stellar,” Beth says. “During Old-Time Week we have Joe Newberry, who you’ll often hear on A Prairie Home Companion, and Jim Watson. During Bluegrass Week we have four-fifths of the Nashville bluegrass band The SteelDrivers teaching.”
Missouri native Joe Newberry has been an Augusta regular since 1993. Joe is an internationally renowned banjo player, guitarist, fiddler, and singer, with a clarity to his music that makes his songs easily recognizable by fans. For the last six years Joe has coordinated Augusta’s Old-Time Week with one of Augusta’s most easily recognized qualities in mind—relationships. “One of my favorite things about Augusta would be the beginning of the week when you see little reunions with people who know each other from years past,” Joe says. “My second favorite is the end of the week with the hugs and the good-byes and knowing next year they’ll have the first-day reunion all over again.” Intimate class sizes and community spirit make the Augusta Festival one-of-a-kind, attendees say. Walking along the grassy lawns at D&E during Augusta, visitors might see pockets of musicians and artists spread among the trees practicing or participating in an impromptu jam session. At night, after classes and meals are over, you can hear it. “It’s like a car radio signal picking up different stations,” Joe says. “Even though different groups are playing different tunes, there’s a flow to it. There’s an intensity. Some jam sessions are big and play like a freight train with a lot of folks. In other sessions people are playing knee-to-knee right at each other. The levels of communication when folks are playing this kind of music is incredible.” Stay late enough and the fog starts rolling down the mountains, giving the campus an otherworldly glow. In the morning, as the mist clears, people are still there and ready to start all over again.
A popular but less impromptu moment at Augusta is the Onion Jam session—one of the most magical events of the Old-Time Week, Joe says. The Onion Jam takes its name from the layers of music and talent involved. The staff begins playing a song and students and instructors alike can move in and out of the session as they choose. This type of event is where the real instruction at Augusta takes place, Joe says. “I didn’t learn music by traditional instruction. I would go find people to play with,” he says. “You start at the outside of the circle with the goal of moving into the middle. People can self-select. A beginning student often thinks they’ll never be able to play, but if you get thrown off the horse there are a bunch of people playing and you can jump back on.”
Participants interact as if in a dance during these sessions, with instrumentalists diving in and bowing out almost seamlessly. If one stumbles, it’s met with a round of friendly laughter, and the dance continues. “People coming to the workshops will take this community love back to where they live and look for jam sessions, build a jam session, or find a singing partner,” Joe says. “The Augusta community helps build a wider community.”
Emily spent two years as a student before returning to Augusta as an instructor and coordinator for the dance program. She’s now spent about 12 years at the festival and watched it ebb and flow with the interests of participants. Always, though, the intimacy that defines Augusta remains. “The class size is an attraction,” she says. “Student-teacher ratio is everything. If you want to go to a large city and study with an internationally known artist with 200 or 300 people in the room, there are plenty of opportunities for that. But at Augusta you’ll have the same quality of instructor and one-on-one time.”
Sprinkled between Augusta’s famous music classes are craft classes ranging from Cajun cooking to blacksmithing and basket making to pottery. Visitors might also find an accordion or fiddle repair class thrown in. Festival and class attendance hits the thousands each year, but prospective students can usually find room, Beth says. “It’s always worth checking to see if there is space in a class, even if it seems too late. We offer such a broad range of classes and levels that we try to make sure there’s room,” she says.
This year’s festival begins July 6 with Cajun/Creole and Early Country Music Week. Blues and Swing Week follows, then Irish Week, Bluegrass Week, and Old-Time, Vocal, and Dance Week. The five weeks are capped with a weekend festival August 8 to 10. The people of Elkins and beyond descend on D&E during the final festival for concerts, food, demonstrations, and shopping handmade crafts. Festival visitors will find dancing, singing, and a bit of neighborly competition to snag the best pieces in the craft show, says Scottie Roberts Wiest, a professional potter and longtime vendor at the festival’s juried craft market. “There are always early shoppers who come out to look for unusual, one-of-a-kind pieces. I personally try to look for Christmas and birthday gifts.”
Due to the juried nature of the show, visitors will find the best of Appalachia’s crafts and the selection draws people from around the world. “I was told before we started going to Augusta that it was the best one-day show in West Virginia, and I’ve found that to be true,” says Tom Doak, a popular furniture builder. In addition to pottery, jewelry, and Tom’s handmade rocking chairs, visitors will find an assortment of handmade instruments from dulcimers to guitars. This year’s festival will feature one of West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s famous Mountain Stage concerts, too. Mountain Stage is a nationally renowned radio show that’s been documenting music for more than 30 years. “It’s a beautiful setting on a nice summer day,” Beth says. “Whether it’s someone performing on an official stage or one of the jams that pops up under a tree, it’s a great day. You hear a touch of bluegrass from one side and a little bit of Irish from another, or an old-time jam and a bit of gospel. People come back year after year to spend the day visiting with friends and taking everything in.”