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Banjo picker Wayne Erbsen, on a North Carolina Arts Council visiting artist residency in Charlotte, NC, must have wondered whether he was barking up the wrong tree, playing old-time stringband music amid the skyscrapers and suburban sprawl of the biggest city in the Carolinas.
But it wasn't long before he met up with homegrown guitarist/square dancer Marilyn Meacham Price, who loved the music as much as he did. With Wayne's encouragement, Marilyn started presenting traditional music events. In 1982 she sent out a call to those who shared her love of traditional music. The result became the Charlotte Folk Society.
Today CFS celebrates its almost 30 years of music, looking back on a quarter century of promoting the enjoyment and preservation of traditional and contemporary folk music, dance, crafts, and lore in the Piedmont Carolinas. Turns out that even big city residents, native Southerners and newcomers alike are hungry for connections to their traditions.
The heartbeat of CFS is the regular public Gathering held the second Friday of each month. It's outgrown the Central Piedmont Community College, where Wayne Erbsen taught all those years ago, and now puts on its productions at the Great Aunt Stella Center on Elizabeth Road. And it's still free, with a hat passed for voluntary donations. Each evening kicks off with an hour-long concert, followed by refreshments, visiting, jamming, and a song circle -- time for folks to get to know each other and build a community. Every season's lineup of local and regional performers reflects Society members varied interests in old-time, bluegrass, Celtic, black string band, gospel, Native American, contemporary folk, storytelling, and ballad traditions.
Bringing youngsters into the fold is an important CFS theme. One Gathering each year showcases youth talent. Two high school age junior members serve on the Society's Board of Directors. And in 2002 the organization inaugurated the Marilyn Meacham Price Scholarship to the Swannanoa Gathering Folk Arts Workshops for musicians age 12 to 21. To date, six talented young people have attended a week of master instruction on the Warren Wilson College campus near Asheville, NC.
Over the years, the Society has introduced thousands of people in the greater Charlotte community to the roots and branches of Piedmont Carolinas music. In the 1980s the Society held successful festivals at Latta Plantation Park in Charlotte and presented concerts with the likes of Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson. Members hosted programs on cable television and public radio, including Fiona Ritchie, whose Thistle & Shamrock has become one of America's most beloved and enduring tradition-based radio offerings. Closer to home, Marilyn Price coordinated folk instrument classes at CPCC taught by CFS members, including a popular Sunday Night Jam Class that continued for fourteen years and gave hundreds of players their first opportunity to experience the joy of communal music making.
Collaboration is an important strategy for the organization, which is completely volunteer-run. Beginning in the 1990s, CFS launched a seven-year partnership with the Charlotte Blues Society, Levine Museum of the New South and CPCC to mount an annual spring Folk Frolic festival. In 2004, grants from Foundation for the Carolinas and the local Arts & Science Council enabled CFS to offer two summer Folk Arts Camps to children ages 8-12. Another exciting collaboration came in 2005 when CFS teamed with the Charlotte Museum of History to bring performers from Appalachian State University's Black Banjo Gathering.
Out of the Charlotte Folk Society have come leaders who have shared traditional music throughout the Carolinas, including Doug Orr, founder of the Swannanoa Gathering, and Tom Hanchett, long-time host of Back Porch Music on WUNC Chapel Hill. Society members have gone on to found the Charlotte Blues Society, the Charlotte Autoharp Club, the Charlotte Appalachian Dulcimer Club, the Charlotte Accordion Club, and, farther afield, the High Lonesome Strings Bluegrass Association in Greensboro, and the Low Country Music and Dance Society in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
The Society works to preserve musical traditions that might otherwise be lost to future generations. NEA Heritage Award winner Mary Jane Queen's traditional ballad singing was first captured on the CFS recording, Fist Full of Songs, with liner notes by Sheila Kay Adams. CFS members also produced the recording The Gospel Christian Singers: A Capella Since 1929, named one of best traditional recordings of 1987 by the Library of Congress American Folklife Center.
CFS began presenting its own Folk Heritage Awards in 1992, with the first honor going to Mary Jane Queen. Since then, recipients have included the Quay Smathers Family, Doc Watson, Alan O'Bryant, Wade Mainer, Harper and Wansie Van Hoy, Wayne Erbsen, Fiona Ritchie, and Joe Thompson. Society member Chester Lorenz was recognized for compiling eight volumes of Forget Me Nots, songs he collected and recorded, then painstakingly transcribed with pen and typewriter. Ruth Kee Wherry and the Kee Family received the Award for their role in Charlotte's live country music radio of the '40s and '50s. Member Tom Phlegar was honored for founding and hosting the Society's Old-Time Music Jam Weekend on his family farm in the Virginia mountains; each July since 1988 some 400-500 people have gathered to jam and socialize.
The North Carolina Folklore Society honored the Charlotte Folk Society for its contributions to the continuation and appreciation of state folklife with its 2002 Community Traditions Award. Today CFS is as active as ever. A twelve-page newsletter/calendar goes out to members each month, bolstered by a constantly updated website www.folksociety.org. In July 2007 the fifth annual CFS Ice Cream Social & Old Time Jam drew 1500 people to the tree-shaded grounds of the Charlotte Museum of History. In September, thousands more enjoyed four days of music and storytelling presented on the fourteenth CFS Folk Stage at Charlotte's long-running Festival in the Park.
The highlight of 2007 came in October. Charlotte Folk Society celebrated its 25th anniversary with a trio of events: a reunion potluck, free workshops, jams, demonstrations, mini-concerts, and a ticketed concert. Wayne Erbsen came down from Asheville with his banjo to make music once again with Marilyn Price. African American fiddler Joe Thompson just named a National Endowment Folk Heritage Award winner thanks to a drive coordinated by a CFS member shared the stage with dozens of other local and regional favorites.
You are invited to join the Society in celebrating its past as it prepares to move into its future.