Square dance calling — the spoken instructions said over the music — makes participation easy. But there are other aspects — like the prevalence of gendered language such as “ladies and gents” — that can make square dancing an unwelcoming or confusing space. One group of friends in the Appalachian square dance scene are taking action to make the tradition more welcoming for all participants.Continue Reading Take Me to More News
FLOYD, VIRGINIA — Every Friday, people from throughout eastern Appalachia ascend the steep slopes of the Blue Ridge to gather to sing, dance and play music at a long-running jamboree.
People from all walks of life travel from Roanoke, Blacksburg and places far beyond to reach Floyd, Virginia — a one-stoplight town in a sprawling county of about 15,000 people on the Blue Ridge Plateau. It’s home to the Friday Night Jamboree at the Floyd Country Store.
In the summer, music spills from the country store’s stage and dance floor, out onto the sidewalk. On a warm July evening, Chad Ritchie fiddled and Robbie Harmon played banjo on the street. They had traveled up two hours from Wilkesboro, North Carolina, for a single reason: music.
“Coming up here, wow, it’s like everything revolves around the music,” Harmon said. “Where we’re from, music, you fit it in with your life. Around here, music is life.”
The main event each Friday is the jamboree that takes place inside the Floyd Country Store. But there’s a whole scene.
“We have the gospel band [from] 6:30 to 7:30; dance band is 7:30 p.m. to 10,” explained David Easterly, one of the greeters inside the jamboree. “Come in here, go outside. People dance in here, dance outside.”
Inside or outside, you find all kinds of folks. There are locals like Curtis Newell.
“We’ve got a lot of friends here that’s been coming for 20 or 30 years, and you come every week basically to see them,” Newell said.
Tracy Elliott and her husband drive 226 miles with her husband to attend the jamboree nearly weekly. They first learned about it from the internet.
“We had never heard this type of music, we had never danced a day in our life,” Elliott said. “And now we dance every week.
Like much of Appalachia, Floyd County tends to vote Republican. GOP candidates generally win about two-thirds of the vote. People of all political persuasions attend the jamboree, though, dancing, singing and playing music together.
“We can pleasantly tease each other politically,” said Kirsten Griffiths, “because we are going to be on complete and utter opposite ends of the spectrum. But we will dance together — most of the time,” she laughed.
The dance floor at the Friday Night Jamboree is renowned for its friendliness and inclusivity. Floyd local and jamboree regular Roger Dickerson said he was reluctant to dance the first time, but once he tried it, he was hooked. Now, he’s become something of a dance floor ambassador: “I tell people all the time, I say, ‘You come to dance?’ And they say ‘no, we’re just curious, we want to hear the music.’ I say, ‘The music is good. But when you get out on that floor, it’s another world.’”
Children participate in the jamboree, too. In July, one of the first music circles that took shape outside the country store consisted of kids. They were learning how to play fiddles, banjos and guitars at the country store’s Handmade Music School. College student Sophie Moeckel, who’s been teaching the youth class, led them through a rendition of “Shortnin’ Bread.”
Kids have been part of the Friday Night Jamboree since it first started in 1984. Some of them who started coming then have grown into adults who still come now.
“When I was just a boy, I’d come here, and they’d play music over at the fire department too — and I’d go from there to here, from there to here,” said Chris Prillaman, a jamboree regular from Ferrum, Virginia.
Floyd’s Friday Night Jamboree officially started in the mid-80s, when Freeman Cockram started keeping his general store open Friday evenings for people who wanted to play, and hear, string-band music. Since then, the business changed hands several times. But each of its five different owners through the years has kept the jamboree going. Dylan Locke and Heather Krantz, the current owners, bought it eight years ago. But they don’t see themselves as owners so much as stewards.
“It never has never belonged to us,” Krantz said. “It’s not something that I think belongs to anyone you know. It belongs to this community and it belongs to the people that show up every week.”
Krantz, who played guitar in the circle with the kids from the Handmade Music School, said her and Locke’s work keeping the jamboree is not so different from improvising music.
“You have to be listening or else it doesn’t work, right?” Krantz said. “And same with playing music. If you’re playing in a jam or something like, you have to be listening to the other people around you.”
Krantz and Locke have grown the Floyd Country Store’s music schedule to include events on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Sometimes they’ll host a big national act at the store — Bela Fleck, Gillian Welch and Floyd’s own Morgan Wade have all played there.
They’re also honoring the past with a bluegrass distribution business and an attempt to document the region’s musical history through a program called Music in the Mountains. And the Handmade Music School pays it forward by building the next generation of musicians.
All of that contributes to the Friday Night Jamboree — which in turn attracts people from around the world — like a couple who sailed from England, and a woman from Kenya who drove down from Northern Virginia with her husband, in part because bluegrass and country music reminded her of home.
That’s the true magic of the Friday Night Jamboree — it doesn’t matter if you’re from Floyd, or from England, or from Kenya; if you’re a Democrat or a Republican; if you’re 2, or 92. The jamboree just feels like home.