After 44 years of baying hounds, leaping mules, straining draft horses, belching antique tractors, hammering blacksmiths, baking bread and dripping moonshine, the Blue Ridge Institute’s Folklife Festival has remained relatively commercial free. Sure, you can buy lunch and a few genuine locally-made artifacts, but this isn’t Gatlinburg, nor will it become that.
If anything, the festival is becoming a victim of its own purity, its own success. Ferrum is a short drive from Roanoke–maybe 40 minutes. Yesterday, the final three miles took 40 minutes, traffic backed up that distance for most of the day. Parking is primarily on green hills around the Ferrum College campus, meaning a brisk walk through thousands of people to the festivities on the BRI 19th century farm.
If you want commerce, you can stop at any of the 35 or so yard sales between Rocky Mount and Ferrum, many of them permanent. You can get fairly decent barbecue and hot dogs at the yard sales, too, if you don’t want to wait in a Kings Dominion-length line at the festival to eat. Warning: the buns are strictly white-bread. On the way out there’s an extra inducement: a radio station that plays old-time country and bluegrass music, based in Rocky Mount.
The festival’s top draws are mules that jump, draft horses that pull 2,000-pound iron sleds and hound dogs that chase a dead raccoon across a pond, and “tree” (actually telephone pole) another coon, howling unmercifully the entire time. If the hound’s baying is music to your ears, this is Emmylou Harris in concert.
The most obvious element in its absence, though, remains booths of ticky-tack, “crafts”
that aren’t crafty and fried junk food. I’m sure festival organizers have been tempted to open up to those vendors and they are to be commended for not doing so. There are some genuine crafts available: I bought a knife that had been hand-made Friday (and was dated on the blade) and a beautiful leather hair clip, which promptly fell out of my shirt pocket as I was taking photos and became an unexpected find for some lucky young lady. Enjoy it, dear girl.
This festival belongs to those attending, as it should. Here are some photos of those lucky people. And critters.