Bascom Lamar Lunsford, born in 1882 in Madison County, was a fruit tree salesman, teacher, and lawyer, who is celebrated for his lifelong devotion to Appalachian music and dance. Lunsford learned to play the banjo and fiddle, and collected songs and tunes. He began his repertoire during the folk revival of the 1920s.
One voice seized me more than the rest. Over a simply picked banjo, the voice sang mournfully about a mole in the ground. Elsewhere, the same voice preached, over that same simple banjo, about dry bones. Like so many folk tunes, these told strange, elliptical stories, dense with images, exploding with emotion. (Chris King, recounting the first time he heard Bascom Lamar Lunsford.)
Lunsford’s interest in collecting folk songs brought him to the attention of the growing number of folklorists following the British collector Cecil Sharp, who toured the southern mountains between 1916 and 1918. Although Lunsford never met Sharp, he did make the acquaintance of his assistant, Maud Karpeles. Lunsford contributed innumerable items to Frank C. Brown of Duke University for the North Carolina Folklore collection.
In 1925 he accompanied Dr. Robert W. Gordon, the first head of the Library of Congress Archive of Folksong, on a search for ballads and songs in western North Carolina and South Carolina. Gordon encouraged Lunsford to continue collecting and preserving the songs and to be thorough and systematic in his approach. Dr. Dorothy Scarborough, from Columbia University, also toured the mountains with Lunsford in 1930. As a result of these contacts, in March 1935 Lunsford received an invitation to go to New York to record his “personal memory collection” for Columbia; the collection included 315 items. In 1949, in a two-week marathon session, Lunsford recorded 330 items for the Library of Congress. Up to that time his was the largest repertory that a single informant had contributed to the Archive of Folksong.
An excellent book is available, Minstrel of the Appalachians: The Story of Bascom Lamar Lunsford. It is said that Bascom Lamar Lunsford would “cross hell on a rotten rail to get a folk song”. He preserved and promoted the Appalachian mountain tradition for generations of people, founding in 1928 the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, an annual event that has shaped America’s festival movement. Loyal Jones pens a lively biography of a man considered to be Appalachian music royalty.
In 1964 Lunsford was the subject of a documentary film, shot with a 16mm hand held camera, by New York City filmmaker, David Hoffman. This film tells his story and includes music, clog and square dancing, never before seen footage from southern musicians, as well as Bluegrass and Mountain music legends. Lunsford is on the road for most of the film, introducing Hoffman to great backcountry musicians. People like Obray Ramsey (banjo), Artus Moser, Mike Seeger, Alan Lomax, Tommy Hunter (fiddle), Roger Sprung (banjo), “Red” Raper, Ray Lundsford and many others.