Participation Type


Session Title

Music, Environment, and Community Resilience: “Stitching Lessons” from Bluff Mountain

Session Abstract or Summary

When a US Forest Service timber sale threatened the community’s iconic mountain with clearcutting in the 1990s, residents of largely rural Madison County, North Carolina responded with determined resistance. After a series of setbacks they decided to organize a festival, the Bluff Mountain Music Festival. The festival celebrated the community’s rich music and dance traditions while drawing attention to the clearcutting threat and raising funds for forest protection and other community priorities. It played a key role in the eventually successful effort to preserve Bluff Mountain’s beloved forest commons from large-scale timber harvests and road-building. The festival also became so popular that it has continued annually ever since, with proceeds supporting a variety of nonprofits once the forest crisis was resolved. In its more than two decades the festival has raised tens of thousands of dollars for local efforts and strengthened community ties within and beyond the forests. Through their innovative work with forests and music, Bluff Mountain advocates proved themselves master seam-stitchers. Faced with an immensely complex threat to their community’s environmental and cultural fabric, they found practical, creative solutions that reaffirmed and celebrated their connections to each other and to shared landscapes. As Appalachians everywhere work to address a range of contemporary challenges, Bluff Mountain offers outstanding “sewing lessons.” This panel, built collaboratively by activists and scholars--including participation by far more people than can actually attend the conference--offers those lessons from a variety of perspectives.

Presentation #1 Title

An insider's view of organizing an Environmental Music Festival

Presentation #1 Abstract or Summary

In this presentation Rodney Sutton, an Appalachian traditional music and dance eminence who was also a founder of the Bluff Mountain Festival and festival director for 15 years, will reflect on his decades working with the annual Madison County, North Carolina event. His focus will be: How an extra weekend in May led to a beloved music festival that helped stop a timber sale, and how it has continued for 22 years

At-A-Glance Bio- Presenter #1

Rodney Sutton has a passion for promoting traditional mountain culture.

Sutton was an early member of the Green Grass Cloggers, and today is part of the GGC Asheville Team, who have danced in recent years at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the Lake Eden Arts Festival (LEAF), the Appalachian Stringband Music Festival, and MerleFest. The Green Grass Cloggers were inducted into the Blue Ridge Music Trail Hall of Fame in 2014. Sutton is also a co-founder of the Fiddle Puppets, now known as Footworks, a traditionally based dance team that has toured around the world. Rodney Sutton has traveled across the United States and Canada and throughout the British Isles performing, teaching, and calling dances. He has taught traditional dance in western North Carolina schools through the NC Visiting Artist Program, and is a regular instructor at such camps as the Swannanoa Gathering at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, Augusta Heritage Center programs in West Virginia, and Ashokan Fiddle and Dance Camps in New York. Sutton has served on the Board of Directors of many nonprofits, including the Mountain Heritage Committee that produces Shindig and the Mountain Music and Dance Festival in Asheville and the Regional Junior Appalachian Musicians that oversees over 40 JAM groups that are teaching hundreds of kids to play traditional music.

Presentation #2 Title

We Can Go Home Again: The Fight to Save Bluff Mountain

Presentation #2 Abstract or Summary

This presentation will use excerpts from a forthcoming documentary film project to explore Bluff Mountain's past and present, with a focus on the intertwined history of forest and festival.

Something special exists in these Southern Appalachian Highlands. Scientists marvel at the magnificent biodiversity here, nourished by lush river valleys that carve pathways through the ancient mountains. A unique environment, unrivaled in richness, developed during the harsh Pleistocene epoch, when glaciers spanned the globe, with the resilient plant and animal species here adapted to a warming climate.

These mountains have protected and preserved more than just the flora and fauna that thrive on their high ridges, in moist coves, headwater creeks and hardwood forests. They have also cultivated communities of people who cherish not only the land and water but also the stories, lore, and music of this place, amid times that change like the ancient climate.

It was those people, in 1995 who returned the favor by standing up to the Forest Service as they threatened to log their home in and around Bluff Mountain, Madison County. When nothing else seemed to work, it was the resilience of this deep musical culture that transformed the conversation from one of division and polarization to one of collaboration and commonality.

At-A-Glance Bio- Presenter #2

Hannah Furgiuele is a photographer and traditional fiddler working on a film project focused on Bluff Mountain. She earned a B.A. in environmental studies and visual arts from Oberlin College, and an M.A. in Appalachian Studies from Appalachian State University. She worked for six years at Mars Hill University’s Ramsey Center for Regional Studies, where she served as Program Coordinator and Director of the annual Bascom Lamar Lunsford festival. While at Mars Hill she spearheaded a documentary film project about virtuoso Madison County fiddler Roger Howell, entitled Mighty Fine Memory: Stories and Tunes from the Fiddler of Banjo Branch, released in 2015.

Presentation #3 Title

Bluff Mountain "Soundscape" Project

Presentation #3 Abstract or Summary

This presentation explores Bluff Mountain's vibrant ecology and forest history woven through sound and video. In a condensed "soundscape,” forest activists Mary and Rob Kelly guide us along the Betty Place Trail, calling attention to the significant environmental and cultural landscapes of Bluff Mountain. This digital exhibit serves as a tool for education, community engagement, and the grassroots advocacy effort.

At-A-Glance Bio- Presenter #3

Emma Kiser is a graduate student in history at the University of Kentucky. A native of Georgia, her work focuses on oral history, mountain landscapes, and digital humanities, with a particular focus on “soundscape” development.. She spent the summer of 2017 in Madison County, documenting Bluff Mountain through oral history, photography, and sound recording. She spent years documenting a forested mountain community in North Georgia before beginning research on other important and innovative mountain communities and their neighboring woods. She earned her BA in history from the University of Georgia, and is currently a member of UK’s Graduate Appalachian Research Community.

Presentation #4 Title

Living Forest and Community Commons: Bluff Mountain in Historical Perspective

Presentation #4 Abstract or Summary

This presentation will consider the Bluff Mountain case in historical perspective, as a vivid example demonstrating the power of deep-seated Appalachian commons traditions to "stitch" community fabrics and address community challenges. Activists in Madison County drew on a potent set of shared cultural resources--music and dance traditions--to protect a valued set of shared natural resources--forests, waters, and the aesthetic beauty of Bluff Mountain. Throughout the process they invited people in and sought to make their advocacy and their festival work on behalf of many segments of the community. By doing so, they preserved and strengthened both sets of resources (natural and cultural) in ways that continue to yield positive results decades later. This example of creative and determined problem-solving offers lessons for Appalachians, and Americans generally, as we face an array of present-day challenges to community, regional, and national fabrics.

At-A-Glance Bio- Presenter #4

Kathryn Newfont is with the University of Kentucky history department and Appalachian Studies program. Her first book, Blue Ridge Commons: Environmental Activism and Forest History in Western North Carolina, (University of Georgia Press, 2012) looked at wilderness, petroleum, and clearcut timber harvesting on the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests in the 1970s-1980s. It won ASA’s 2012 Weatherford Award for Non-fiction and the 2012 Thomas Wolfe Literary Award. Her recent project, The Land Speaks: Voices from the Intersection of Oral and Environmental History, co-edited with Debbie Lee of the University of Washington, is the first book-length anthology to explore these two vibrant fields, and was recently published by Oxford University Press (Fall 2017). She is currently working on a book about Bluff Mountain. In addition to her scholarship, she has worked with environmental organizations such as the Western North Carolina Alliance, Friends of Big Ivy, MountainTrue, and Madison County Forest Watch, as well as the Institute for Georgia Environmental Leadership.

Conference Subthemes

Environmental Sustainability

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An insider's view of organizing an Environmental Music Festival

In this presentation Rodney Sutton, an Appalachian traditional music and dance eminence who was also a founder of the Bluff Mountain Festival and festival director for 15 years, will reflect on his decades working with the annual Madison County, North Carolina event. His focus will be: How an extra weekend in May led to a beloved music festival that helped stop a timber sale, and how it has continued for 22 years