Our First 20 Years – A Retrospective

(A form of this text first appeared in our 2011 20th Anniversary catalog)

In 1991, the Persian Gulf War was broadcast live on TV, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, Jay Leno took over the Tonight Show from Johnny Carson, Nolan Ryan pitched a record seventh no-hitter, and at a small, southern mountain campus, the Swannanoa Gathering was born.

One day in late November, Doug Orr, the newly-appointed president of Warren Wilson College, called up Jim Magill, an old folk music friend, and suggested they get together to discuss an idea Doug had. Over lunch, they brainstormed the rough outlines of a series of week-long workshops in various types of folk music and dance to be held in the summer on the Warren Wilson campus, to be called The Swannanoa Gathering. Doug had recently received a Presidential Leadership Grant from the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation which provided funds for one-time start-up programs, and some of those funds were designated for the Gathering. Jim would become the program’s Director and report directly to the college president.

The first Swannanoa Gathering was scheduled for July of 1992, just seven months away – barely enough time to create the program, recruit the teaching staff, and promote the Gathering to an unsuspecting folk world, so plans shifted into overdrive. In January, Doug and Jim met with graphic designer Steve Millard to create our first promo materials: our logo (devised by calligrapher Annie Cicale), and the three-panel brochure shown below, with a tear-away panel to be mailed in to receive our catalog. That’s Steve in the photo below Doug’s signature, showing some banjo licks to a four year-old future staff member, Andrew Finn Magill. The brochure’s intoductory text began with this excerpt from the poem, “The Fiddler of Dooney,” by William Butler Yeats:

For the good are always the merry
Save by an evil chance
And the merry love the fiddle
And the merry love to dance …


In February, with five months to go until our big premiere, with programs, classes and schedules still to be determined, staff yet to be hired and a catalog yet to be created, Jim headed off, brochures in hand, to the annual conference of the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance (now Folk Alliance International) in Calgary, Alberta, to announce the Swannanoa Gathering to the world.

That first year, we ‘piggy-backed’ our new programs onto the front end of a summer program that had been running on campus for a few years – the Great Smokies Song Chase, a songwriting camp run by legendary songwriter and WWC alumnus, Billy Edd Wheeler. We debuted with three theme weeks offering a variety of classes in music, dance and crafts. Scottish Week was paired with Bluegrass Week, followed by Old-Time Music & Dance Week, and we concluded with the Song Chase. A total of 93 brave souls took a chance on us that summer, and we were off and running. The Swannanoa Gathering would grow and continue to set attendance records for seventeen of the next eighteen years.

For our second season, Scottish Week and Old-Time Week ran as stand-alone programs, and the Great Smokies Song Chase was replaced by our own songwriting workshop – Contemporary Folk Week. By the following year, Scottish Week had expanded to include Irish music and was renamed Celtic Week, and we’d added new programs in Mountain Dulcimer and Blues.

A photo of our dear friend, the great Tennessee fiddler Ralph Blizard, had been featured in the brochure and continued to grace the cover of our first three catalogs, but in 1995, we began printing the cover using a variety of design motifs. However, Ralph remains featured to this day on each year’s summer concert posters. That same year, we added a Children’s Program and Performance Lab, a low-enrollment specialty workshop that provided an intensive program for performers, and Dulcimer Week expanded to include hammered dulcimers, also.

1996 saw the transformation of Blues Week into an expanded Guitar Week. It was also our fifth anniversary, and to mark the occasion, we established an award to honor the lifetime achievement of those we called Master Music Makers, whose photos can be seen on these pages. Its first recipients were Ralph Blizard, and folk icon, Tom Paxton. The next few years saw the addition of a Dance Week, and another Master Music Maker, the great Scottish singer and folklorist, Margaret Bennett.

With the turn of the new millenium in 2000, our good friend from Charlotte, Thistle & Shamrock host Fiona Ritchie, became our fourth Master Music Maker. Dance Week had given way to a new program combining dance with music and song, called Sing Swing & String Week, coordinated by Elise Witt, and, to celebrate the region’s native American culture, we introduced Cherokee Heritage Weekend, a three-day immersion in native arts & crafts, presented in partnership with the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. This was also the year we established our Youth Scholarships, funded entirely by gifts, most of which come from key and meal card deposits donated by the generosity of our attendees. With the untimely loss to cancer in 2001 of our dear friend and long-time Celtic Week staffer Tony Cuffe, we began the tradition of memorial youth scholarships, which we now award each year in the names of Tony CuffeRalph BlizardFreyda Epstein and Regis Malady, a member of our Advisory Board for twenty years.

We celebrated our tenth anniversary in 2001, and marked the occasion with three new Master Music Makers: folk legend Jean Ritchie, singer, songwriter and activist John McCutcheon, and Grammy-winning Appalachian musician David Holt. Irish fiddle master Séamus Connolly joined their ranks in 2002, followed by old-time music’s great champion, Mike Seeger, in 2003, and Scottish harper Billy Jackson in 2004.

The 2005 workshops marked the debut of Fiddle Week, our first new program in four years, paired with Guitar and Contemporary Folk Weeks, as well as a partnership with the Swannanoa School of Culinary Arts (now the Seasonal School of Culinary Arts), a new series of week-long cooking workshops. The indefatigable Stranger Malone, whose musical career spanned the entire history of the recording industry, became our eleventh Master Music Maker that year.

At the end of the 2006 academic year, after fifteen years as president of Warren Wilson College, Doug Orr, the founder of the Swannanoa Gathering, retired, and during that summer’s workshops he was presented with a special Founder’s Award, acknowledging his vision, support and guidance of this unique program. He and his wife Darcy continue to be the unofficial ‘hosts’ of the Gathering each summer. 2006 was also the year the Gathering added a fifth calendar week to give our growing programs a little more breathing space, and Fiddle Week moved to occupy it.

2008 marked the year Sing & Swing Week (the name was shortened in 2005) gave way for Traditional Song Week, a new program coordinated by singer Julee Glaub and dedicated to traditional styles of singing, and Julia Weatherford, our Logistics Assistant, also took over the coordinator’s duties for Fiddle Week, which swapped places in the calendar with our Dulcimer program. Old-Time Week coordinator Phil Jamison, a musician, dancer, dance caller and scholar became our twelfth Master Music Maker.

In 2010, David Roth assumed the coordinator’s duties for Contemporary Folk Week, old-time singer Alice Gerrard joined the ranks of our Master Music Makers, and we all began thinking about reaching our Twentieth Anniversary year in 2011, what we have accomplished, and what the future might hold for the Gathering as we enter our third decade.

This beautiful valley and this unique college have provided an environment where magic can happen, and year after year it does, as friends old and new gather, mingle and share the music they love. The music loves them back, and lives are changed. For many, it is an annual summer tradition. Unforgettable performances and evenings filled with music under the Carolina stars have left us with memories we will cherish forever. Lifetime friendships have been forged here. Some have met their musical or life partners here. Children have grown up here, learned music, become Youth Scholars, then staff instructors. Most importantly, our folk traditions have been nourished, strengthened and passed on to new generations of musicians and dancers.

In twenty years, the Gathering’s annual attendance has grown from less than 100 to more than 1200, and over 13,000 folks from all over the United States and Canada, as well as several European, Asian and South American countries have attended our workshops. We’ve presented fourteen different programs, with over 600 of the world’s greatest folk artists serving as our instructors, many of whose names can be found on the cover of the 2011 catalog. Some of these artists are no longer with us, and for their music, wisdom and generosity of spirit, we celebrate the gift of their lives and honor their memories.

As the Swannanoa Gathering begins a new chapter in its history, we remember those who have gone before, treasure those whose company we still share, and nurture those who will carry the endlessly inspiring music and song of our folk heritage into the future. We are honored by all those who choose to spend their precious time and resources to be with us each summer, and we will continually strive to be worthy of that trust.

Each July, we offer the warmest greetings to all of the Gathering family, newcomers and returnees alike, who join with us here in our mountain valley to once again celebrate our shared traditions. For as Yeats reminds us, the magic of the music we share will soon set our hearts dancing again.

And when the folk there spy me,
They will all come up to me,
With ‘Here is the fiddler of Dooney!’
And dance like a wave of the sea.

To new friends, welcome. To old friends, welcome back. To all, welcome home.

Jim Magill, Director