Fri. July 17-19: Life w/ Folks at FolkLife Festival

July 17-19: Life w/ Folks. Folklife Festival Reunion. by Susanna Robinson-Kenga

When I was young, there was this farm where we’d go. There was music and poetry, art and activism, food and drinking, bonfires and outhouses, and friends and lovers all about. It was the Appalachian South Folklife Center in Pipestem, WV, aka “The Don West Farm”, and it represented peace, community, and creative thoughts and expression, yet, not without controversy in those days when the world was younger, as were we who spent time there. And now, celebrating 50 years of service, still dedicated to a proud mountain heritage of freedom, strength, compassion, and self-reliance, the Folklife Center will hold a reunion this Friday, July 17th to 19th.

The festival will begin with a Symposium to honor the legacy of Don and Connie West, the founders, with a daylong event on Friday the 17th at the Alexander Fine Arts Center at Concord University in Athens. It will address the importance of their poetry, writing, art, and the rich history of activism, bringing together artists, activists, and scholars to discuss the impact of their work and to focus on renewing the Center’s efforts to continue it. The schedule will include panel discussions regarding heritage preservation, poetry and art appreciation, culminating with an interactive evening concert to be held at the Folklife Center (“Singing Our History”) featuring Michael and Carrie Kline, Sue Massek, David Morris, Sparky and Rhonda Rucker, and ending with the Appalachian Stompgrass of The Poor Taters.

Following will be two more days of music, dance, crafts, workshops, vendors, scholars, discussions, food, all in a beautiful rural setting, with its hillsides and its porches, dining hall, camping, and friends, old and new, who have travelled from near and far.

The musicians who will be performing make up a pretty diverse and compelling multiplicity of performing styles. Included are: Beckley’s “First Lady of Soul”, singer, songwriter, actress, radio show hostess Lady D; the aforementioned always entertaining and fun-loving, (and often twice-baked), Poor Taters; the absolutely rockin’ in-your-face make-me-cry JCBC (featuring founding members Jerry Cruise and Bob Campion, with Dylan McInturff just rocking it out on the drums); singer/songwriter/famed collaborator Todd Burge, whose originality in songwriting is incomparable; WV’s premier rhythm & blues group, The Carpenter Ants, whose rollicking soulful gospel-influenced sound is always something amazing to hear; fiddler and Vandalia founder John Morris (and whose Ivydale Festival in days of Yore was legendary); historic archivist and fiddling champion Bobby Taylor; one-of-a-kind performer of the blues and more (whose music evokes a yearning in me like a tale of a forbidden speakeasy) Bullfrog Willard McGhee; jazz harmonica wizard Bob McGraw’s band Doc Greenberg’s Patient Jazz; The Clinton Collins Band, Margo and the Bluegills; Tim and Maggie Mainland; Adam Cox; mama and daughter duo Melissa (founder of Stages Music School) and Kayla McKinney; new-age jam band Option 22, and my own jazzy little combo, The Robinson-Kenga Trio, featuring the smooth style of Bill Hoffman on guitar.

For more info, complete schedule, list of vendors, history, service, opportunity, information on every scholar and historian involved, ticket info, directions, photo archives, and more, go to their home page at, and also check their updates on their Facebook page.

And tickets are so reasonable! $10 per day, or $25 for the full weekend, and camping is $5 per night, $7 per for the full weekend. Day pass for kids is $5, full weekend pass is $12, and kids 5 & under are FREE.

So, I’m going to wrap this thing up with a little bit of what I was asked to write for their website, regarding my memories:

“I wasn’t at the first festival 50 years ago, but I was at maybe the third or fourth. It was like nothing I’d felt up until that time, even being a child of the 60’s, being a small-town college professor’s child on the safest street in the safest town anywhere. And then as a guest of one Alice Bell and her extremely open-minded and politically aware parents, off we went to the “Don West Farm”, where music and poetry and a fresh sense of change flowed like a waterfall. It was comforting and life-changing and eye-opening, all at once.
And so it began.

The Folklife Center became another home to me, at least for an August weekend every year, where I found myself in the company of all kinds of folks, from old-time musicians to ne’er do wells to poets, stragglers, teachers, artists, and so much more. I got in some of my biggest trouble at times there, around campfires and tents, the music sailing up over the hillside, so pure and so uncorrupted, and I was there, living it. I remember many a sunburn from the day’s rays, but I remember best how the mood would change when twilight came, when the grass turned cold under our bare feet, sending us back to our jeeps and tents to put on shoes and socks, ahhh, warm socks, and a blanket to wrap in for the evening, while fiddle music wafted toward our ears, beckoning to us from the old stage at the foot of the hill…and so we’d go. People we knew gathered, people we didn’t, also. Friends for life, strangers for moments, what fine memories it all brings…

Through the years, I found myself many times on those stages, singing in one band or another, from traditional folk and twang, to from bluesy folk groups, to hot sizzlin’ jazz. My own musical history. I sang at joyful weddings there. I sang at heartbreaking funerals there. I revisited this place, this windy, windy hillside, it seems like a thousand times over the last 45 years or so. And I’m happy to return to be part of the celebration, the homecoming, the reunion. Join us, and make your own history. I’ll be listening to the echoes of the notes played through the years, and that place mirrors back to me my own reflection of a life well-lived, then and now.”

– Susanna Robinson-Kenga. LBSPY June, 2015.


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