Friday, June 06, 2003

The Virginia Highlands Festival, or why there are no jury trials in Abingdon in the first two weeks of August

In federal court in Abingdon, Virginia, it is always possible to have a trial rescheduled away from the first two weeks of August, when 100,00+ visitors invade the town. Today's Washington Post has this today on the Virginia Highlands festival held in Abingdon each year, occupying Main Street outside the federal courthouse and most of the town:

"For two weeks every summer, the Virginia Highlands Festival takes over Abingdon, a 225-year-old community graced by brick sidewalks, grand old shade trees and a 20-block historic district larded with Federal and Victorian architecture. The celebration of the region's cultures and customs weaves together threads of music, dance, local history, the great outdoors and more. Highlights include street parties and Celtic, gospel, classical, bluegrass and country concerts, held almost around the clock. There are also workshops in poetry, creative writing classes (taught by Appalachian author Lee Smith) and classes in fiber arts, weaving, needlework and instrument making. The festival also has a sprawling antiques market and more than 100 arts and crafts vendors. Outdoor activities include nature hikes, caving trips and bike rides. Other entertainment includes children's workshops and plays; living history portrayals; house tours; the third annual Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights; three more plays at the historic Barter Theatre; and lectures and slide shows on subjects ranging from "Growing Ginseng" to "Native American Symbols and Colors."

. . . Much of the festival happens on Abingdon's Main Street, where visitors will find vendors' tents filling the yards of the homes and buildings along the road, interspersed with a handful of antiques shops, art galleries and boutiques.

More vendors can be found on Barter Green, next to the Martha Washington Inn, a stately and elegant brick structure that dominates the center of town. The arts and crafts range from utilitarian -- pottery, spoons, clothing, furniture -- to fine art. Many artists are working on their crafts as visitors browse through the works on sale.

One of the artists from last year, Maurice Cook of Birmingham, was painting acrylic pictures of family gatherings -- reunions, birthdays, holiday get-togethers. The pictures were filled with joy and movement, but his black figures were faceless, which was explained in a statement in the tent: "I want all people to be able to relate to my paintings; that is the reason there are no faces. I try to tell a story using body language."

A huge tent on the side of the green is home to the daily lineup of concerts, storytellers, poetry readings and other performances. Abingdon is only 18 miles from Bristol, a city that straddles the Virginia-Tennessee line and is better known as the "Birthplace of Country Music." (See accompanying box on the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which showcases the Bristol Sessions and Appalachian music this year.) This proximity to Bristol has influenced the numerous free concerts presented at the festival. The form can be open; one night the emcee invited anyone who wanted to perform to just sign up. A Native American singer who was "just passing through town and heard the music" retrieved his guitar from his car and played a few songs and told a few stories.

Scheduled performers this year will include Boys of the Lough (Celtic); Ralph Blizard & the New Southern Ramblers, the Solomon Branch Band and James Leva & Memory Theatre (bluegrass); Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver from Bristol and the Rochesters from South Carolina (bluegrass gospel); the McAllister Family, also known as "Heaven's Gems" (gospel); Buck Ram's Platters (classic rock); Sammy Blue, Blue Rapture and WIYO's, South African percussionist Mogauwane Mahloele; (African drumming); Spectral Voices (harmonic singing); Michael Reno Harrell (Appalachian); and Jimmy Fleenor & Friends (swing). Dance troupes include Jump Rhythm Jazz Project from Chicago, Latin Ballet of Virginia and the Highlands Ballet.

Another popular event is the annual block party, which takes place right on Main Street. This year's party theme is "Dancin' in the Streets." It runs from 6 to 10 July 26. Buck Ram's Platters will perform, with dancing and other entertainment.

Porterfield's 70-year-old Barter Theatre also has a role in the festival. The 500-seat theater will present three plays during the festival: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "1776" and "Pirates & Pinafores: A Musical Tribute to Gilbert & Sullivan." The Barter also produces the Appalachian Festival of Plays and Playwrights, which is held in Barter II, a 150-seat theater in a brick building across the street next to Barter Green. This festival's plays are Ron Coleman's "The Hanging of John Harden," based on a real event, and Ron Osborne's "First Baptist of Ivory Gap," a story of love and faith.

(The theater got its name from Porterfield's creative ticket-selling policy when he started the theater in 1933 during the Depression. Porterfield offered tickets for 40 cents or an equivalent amount of farm produce. The "ham for 'Hamlet' " policy caught on and the theater survived -- adapting the policy of bartering as its name. Legend says Thornton Wilder accepted a ham as payment for royalties and George Bernard Shaw, a vegetarian, got his royalties paid in spinach. Such stars as Gregory Peck, Ernest Borgnine, Patricia Neal, Hume Cronyn and Kevin Spacey also acted on its stage early in their careers. Its success led Virginia to declare it the state's official theater in 1946).

Art, music and drama are great fun, but there is one more attraction at this festival: the mountains and forests around Abingdon. The Virginia Creeper Trail, a 33.4-mile shared-use trail connecting Abingdon with the Virginia-North Carolina border east of Whitetop Station, Va., starts in town and is great for biking and hiking. Daytime and moonlight bike rides on the trail are offered during the festival. Other nature activities scheduled during the festival include beginning and intermediate caving trips, a high-forest hike, birding trips and wine-tasting tours.

It's just too much to do in a single weekend."

No comments: