Bascom Lamar Lunsford was born on the campus of Mars Hill College, in Madison County, in 1882.
He was born in a time that gave him a grasp of nineteenth-century history and culture, and he grew to understand the great changes that were coming in the new century. His first music collecting trips were on horseback. By 1949, he was flying to Venice, Italy to represent the United States of America at the International Folk Festival. What is more, he grew up in a community that was rich in folk music and culture and in a family that shared in this appreciation. His mother sang many of the old ballads and his uncle was a fine old time fiddler.
Bascom was educated in local one room schools and at Camp Academy in Leicester, NC. After a year at Rutherford College he took a teaching job near Dogget’s Gap in Madison County. After teaching for only one year, he decided to try his hand as a fruit tree salesman. He later went into the honey business--promoting beekeeping and gathering nectar and comb for the market. These jobs gave him the opportunity to visit a plethora of homes over a wide area and to stay with customers, many of whom turned out to be musicians and singers. During these years, he added many tunes and songs to his repertoire.
In 1906 he married Nellie Triplett, his childhood sweetheart from Leicester. Bascom re-enrolled at Rutherford College and after graduating in 1909, he became a teacher in McDowell County. In 1910 he was the supervisor of boys at the state school for the deaf in Morganton, NC. He began studying law at this time and enrolled in the law program at Trinity College, which later became Duke University. He passed the Bar exam and was licensed in 1913.
He became the solicitor for Burke County. Shortly thereafter, he was invited to teach English and History at Rutherford College. There he gave his first formal concert, a lecture and performance on North Carolina Folklore, poetry and songs. Appearing in a finely-pressed suit, white tie, tails, and banjo in-hand, his appearance demonstrated the worth and dignity he saw in mountain music. This was the harbinger of his lifelong battle against insulting stereotypes of mountain society and culture.
After 2 years of college teaching he tried auctioneering and newspaper publishing. During WWI, he became a special agent for the U. S. Justice Department stationed in N.Y. City. After the war he returned to NC and started a newspaper, the McDowell Sentinel, where he became involved in supporting local politicians. All the while, he continued to collect and perform his beloved mountain music.
In 1924 he was sought out by Polk Brockman of Atlanta, who worked for the General Phonograph Company, and made his first 2 commercial recordings: “Jesse James” and “I Wish I Was a Mole in The Ground”.
In 1925 he was enlisted by Ralph Peer of OKEH Records to seek out talent for a commercial recording session in Asheville, a full 2 years before Peer’s session in Bristol, TN. He and his brother, Blackwell, recorded 2 sides which were released commercially. That same year Nellie inherited part of her family’s farm on South Turkey Creek, near Leicester, in Buncombe County and there they moved the family, now six daughters and a son. They lived in a modest home and set up a farming operation run mostly by Nellie. Bascom established a law office in Asheville but his letterhead emphasized that he was a “lecturer, musician, radio artist, folklorist, writer, and record artist.” The law was to get a short shrift.
At first he collected music solely because he loved the lore and wanted to build his own performing repertory. But after a while, with encouragement from folklorists such as Frank C. Brown of Duke University and Robert Winslow Gordon, a writer and collector who would later found the Archive of Folk Song at the Library of Congress, Lunsford came to see himself more as a scholar and preserver of traditional materials that he feared would be lost.
In 1928 he founded what would become the oldest continually running Folk festival in the U. S., the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, still held the first weekend in August in Asheville.
He went on to organize many similar festivals in Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Cherokee, Greensboro and other cities in NC, as well as Renfro Valley, KY, Cincinnati, OH, and Richmond, VA. His Asheville festival inspired Sarah Gertrude Knott to found the National Folk Festival. He was on the board and was a key organizer of the first National Festival in St Louis, MO in 1934 to which he brought 70 performers from NC. He served on the board and was an active promoter and supplier of Western North Carolina musical talent for many years.
In 1929 Lunsford collaborated with classical musician, and WNC native, Lamar Stringfield, to publish 31 Folk Songs from the Southern Mountains (New York: Carl Fischer). From 1924 to 1935, 22 of Lunsford’s items were released commercially on Okeh, Brunswick, Vocalion, and Columbia labels. In 1953 Folkways released an LP Smoky Mountain Ballads, followed in 1956 by another LP, Minstrel of the Appalachians on Riverside. In 1956 Bascom, Red Parham and George Pegram were recorded by Kenneth Goldstein and the material was eventually issued as Music from South Turkey Creek by Rounder Records (Rounder 0065).
Bascom’s non-commercial recordings were extensive. Frank C. Brown was the first to record him, with 32 items on wax cylinders, in 1922. In 1925 Robert W. Gordon recorded him and others on some 39 cylinders. In 1935 at the suggestion of Dorothy Scarborough, George Hibbit and other members of Columbia University’s English Department invited Lunsford to record over 300 items of his “memory collection” on aluminum discs. Fourteen years later, in 1949, his “memory collection” as recorded for the Library of Congress contained about 350 items. It was to be the largest ever recorded for the Archive, according to Duncan Emrich. Other recordings were deposited in the Archive of Folk Culture by Sidney Robertson Cowell, Alan Lomax, Jerome Weisner, Artus Moser, and Benjamin Botkin among others.
While there were many highlights in Bascom’s musical career, there is one in particular he treasured most. In 1939, he performed at the White House for President Franklin and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the King and Queen of England.
Bascom Lamar Lunsford, known as “The Minstrel of the Appalachians”, enjoyed performing and was quite accomplished. His true calling and lifelong mission, however, was to preserve and promote our mountain music, dance, and culture. He was a champion in convincing the outside world of the true worth and value of our culture and a pioneer in providing a platform for it to be enjoyed by a wider audience. He gave Pete Seeger his first banjo lesson, he performed before 10,000 at Madison Square Garden, he wrote the standard “Good Old Mountain Dew”, his music influenced Bob Dylan and Robert Plant but it was his mountain culture that he chose to treasure.