Banjo picker Wayne Erbsen, on a North Carolina Arts Council visiting artist residency in Charlotte, NC, must have wondered whether he was barking up the wrong tree, playing old-time stringband music amid the skyscrapers and suburban sprawl of the biggest city in the Carolinas. But it wasn’t long before he met up with homegrown guitarist/square dancer Marilyn Meacham Price, who loved the music as much as he did. With Wayne’s encouragement, Marilyn started presenting traditional music events, and in 1982 she sent out a call to those who shared her love of traditional music. This was the birth of the Charlotte Folk Society.
Today CFS celebrates over 40 years of music, looking back on more than a quarter century of promoting the enjoyment and preservation of traditional and contemporary folk music, dance, crafts, and lore in the Piedmont Carolinas. It turns out that even big city residents, native Southerners and newcomers alike, are hungry for connections to their traditions.
The heartbeat of CFS is the regular public Gathering held the second Saturday of each month. It may have outgrown the Central Piedmont Community College where Wayne Erbsen taught all those years ago, but it has a new home, putting on its productions at the Great Aunt Stella Center on Elizabeth Road in Charlotte, and several time a year outdoors at the Anne Springs Close Greenway in Ft. Mill, S.C. Each Gathering kicks off with jamming, and a song circle, then an hour and half long concert, followed by refreshments and visiting with the artists and fellow Folk Society members — time for folks to get to know each other and build a community. Every season’s lineup of local and regional performers reflects Society members varied interests in all manner of musical traditions.
Over the years, the Society has introduced thousands of people in the greater Charlotte community to the roots and branches of Piedmont Carolinas music. And this hasn’t just been at the Gatherings! In the 80s, the Society held successful festivals at Latta Plantation Park in Charlotte and presented concerts with the likes of Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson. Members hosted programs on cable television and public radio, including Fiona Ritchie, whose Thistle & Shamrock has become one of America’s most beloved and enduring tradition-based radio offerings. Marilyn Price coordinated folk instrument classes at CPCC taught by CFS members, including a popular Sunday Night Jam Class that continued for fourteen years and gave hundreds of players their first opportunity to experience the joy of communal music making.
But this dedication to our mission didn’t stop in the 80s. Bringing youngsters into the fold has always been an important CFS theme. One Gathering each year showcases youth talent. Two high school age junior members serve on the Society’s Board of Directors. And in 2002 the organization inaugurated the Marilyn Meacham Price Scholarship to the Swannanoa Gathering Folk Arts Workshops for musicians age 12 to 21. This scholarship allows young people to attend a week of master instruction on the Warren Wilson College campus near Asheville, NC.
Collaboration is an important strategy for the organization, which is completely volunteer-run. Beginning in the 1990s, CFS launched a seven-year partnership with the Charlotte Blues Society, Levine Museum of the New South and CPCC to mount an annual spring Folk Frolic festival. In 2004, grants from Foundation for the Carolinas and the local Arts & Science Council enabled CFS to offer two summer Folk Arts Camps to children ages 8-12. Another exciting collaboration came in 2005 when CFS teamed with the Charlotte Museum of History to bring performers from Appalachian State University’s Black Banjo Gathering. In 2022 the Charlotte Folk Society celebrated its 40th anniversary, and is looking forward preserving tradition and embracing the ever evolving musical landscape for many more years. Come join us !
The Society works to preserve musical traditions that might otherwise be lost to future generations. NEA Heritage Award winner Mary Jane Queen’s traditional ballad singing was first captured on the CFS recording, Fist Full of Songs, with liner notes by Sheila Kay Adams. CFS members also produced the recording The Gospel Christian Singers: A Capella Since 1929, named one of best traditional recordings of 1987 by the Library of Congress American Folklife Center.
CFS began presenting its own Folk Heritage Awards in 1992, with the first honor going to Mary Jane Queen. Since then, recipients have included the Quay Smathers Family, Doc Watson, Alan O’Bryant, Wade Mainer, Harper and Wansie Van Hoy, Wayne Erbsen, Fiona Ritchie, and Joe Thompson. Society member Chester Lorenz was recognized for compiling eight volumes of Forget Me Nots, songs he collected and recorded, then painstakingly transcribed with pen and typewriter. Ruth Kee Wherry and the Kee Family received the Award for their role in Charlotte’s live country music radio of the ’40s and ’50s, and Member Tom Phlegar was honored for founding and hosting the Society’s Old-Time Music Jam Weekend on his family farm in the Virginia mountains; each July since 1988 some 400-500 people have gathered to jam and socialize.
The North Carolina Folklore Society honored the Charlotte Folk Society for its contributions to the continuation and appreciation of state folklife with its 2002 Community Traditions Award.
Many leaders who have shared traditional music throughout the Carolinas have gotten their start in the Folk Society, including Doug Orr, founder of the Swannanoa Gathering, and Tom Hanchett, long-time host of Back Porch MusicÂ on WUNC Chapel Hill. Society members have gone on to found the Charlotte Blues Society, the Charlotte Autoharp Club, the Charlotte Appalachian Dulcimer Club, the Charlotte Accordion Club, and, farther afield, the High Lonesome Strings Bluegrass Association in Greensboro, and the Low Country Music and Dance Society in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Today CFS is as active as ever. A newsletter/calendar goes out to members each month. In July 2007 the fifth annual CFS Ice Cream Social & Old Time Jam drew 1500 people to the tree-shaded grounds of the Charlotte Museum of History. In September, thousands more enjoyed four days of music and storytelling presented on the CFS Folk Stage at Charlotte’s long-running Festival in the Park.
You are invited to join the Society by becoming a member today. Come and join our community as we preserve the traditions of the Piedmont’s past and support the traditions of it’s future!