International festival has become a WNC tradition

coverBringing together world culture and Southern Appalachia traditions, Folkmoot USA transcends any and all barriers.

Whether it’s language, physical boundaries or appearance, the art of live performance found at this international dance and music festival erases any differences by creating an ambiance that’s as embracing as it is unique. Entering its 30th year, the festival has solidified itself in the landscape of Western North Carolina.  


Alongside the thousands of performers who have visited the region during the past three decades are innumerable members of the WNC community who have taken part in and helped produce the positive message Folkmoot provides. They are business leaders, politicians and musicians, and everyday people who appreciate the festival’s character.

The Smoky Mountain News caught up with a handful of these people to find out what they think about Folkmoot USA. We wanted to know what it means to them, what memories stick out and how they see the future for this institution of culture, creativity and camaraderie.


Gavin Brown, Mayor of Waynesville

Personally, Folkmoot brings the world to my doorstep. I’ve been fortunate to have traveled some, but to have visited the countries that have been exposed to me would have been an impossibility. The Travel Channel is great to watch, but Folkmoot brings the world up close and personal. 

Folkmoot has given Waynesville a unique identity. We’re at the crossroads of the world for two weeks every year. Just as important is the positive economic impact it creates. I can’t give you facts and figures, but in my estimation, we have been repaid 10 fold on our investment. 

I enjoyed the opening ceremony for the 25th event. It was my first year as mayor. (Former North Carolina) Gov. Mike Easley and his wife came to the event as I recall. I felt quite honored to stand at the podium and welcome the groups on behalf of the Town of Waynesville and the community at large.

Quite obviously, the event will need to morph with current economic conditions. For instance, it is difficult to sell tickets to an event when the same performance is provided free of charge. Better housing may need to be located. Hopefully, Folkmoot continues to make Waynesville the doorstep of the world for another 30 years.  


Joe Sam Queen, N.C. State Representative, D-Waynesville

Folkmoot is our state’s official international festival, and we all know how important global relationships are. It’s Western North Carolina’s gateway to the world and a great opportunity for our citizens, and a great reason to come to here. We’re the host of the world. It’s part of our southern mountain heritage. 

I really enjoyed the Siberian Eskimos. They were older, mostly women, and they were the real thing. They had a great humor and were incredible people.

One year, we had a Mongolian dance team. I was emceeing the world music stage in downtown Waynesville. Their band showed up, eight of them, and didn’t have any instruments. I thought they were lost, but then they each pulled out a mouth harp for their pockets and all played together. It was amazing.

I love the idea that we cover all the continents. It’s astounding. I’ve always enjoyed, and my father before me as well, helping with the housing and the food. Good fresh, local food. There’d be hundreds of people from all different places. They were Christian, Muslim and Buddhist. Everybody would join together and talk culture, family, politics. Both of my children were guides, and it’s great that hundreds of young people from this area are personal guides and seeing the culture first hand. It’s an infusion of diverse culture.

Folkmoot will continue to mature and evolve. It has a great format with multiple counties involved. They just need to stick with it, and secure their place, making sure it sustains with public support and private donations. People need to realize how important it is to our region – it’s the flavor of the world.


CeCe Hipps, President, Haywood County Chamber of Commerce

Folkmoot is a great event that sets Haywood County apart from everyone else. It has a very loyal following, which brings visitors to our area each year to either participate or enjoy. It’s a given that our community should support an event with the magnitude and outreach of Folkmoot. [I remember] doing dishes at midnight, and experiencing the diversity and energy of the entertainers.


Anne Lough, Musician, Director of Folkmoot International Band

“Folkmoot is Friendship, Folkmoot is Peace, Folkmoot is Harmony, Folkmoot is Love.” These are the words of the “Folkmoot Hymn” that is sung at the candlelight closing ceremony every year, and I think they express what Folkmoot means to me, to the wonderful dancers, singers and musicians who bring their culture and gifts to us, and to our community of Western North Carolina.

As these words are sung each year, the powerful expressions of friendship, community, common bonds and experiences are evident on every face and in every tear. As director of the International Band, I see folks from all over the world coming together and “speaking” in harmony with the international language of music. And they are doing so with joy and abandon.  

The folk traditions of music and dance are some of the oldest creative expressions of all cultures, and, in the words of Cecil Sharp, some of the most stable and permanent. It’s fascinating to witness the similarities, as well as the differences in these traditions as the world comes to us. What a privilege for Waynesville and Haywood County to host such a cross-cultural exchange and have the opportunity to showcase heartland America with our down-to-earth, small-town values of friendliness, compassion, community spirit and a slower pace of life.  

These are images of America that we are all proud of and that many of our international visitors have never seen. I truly hope we all have a chance to be a part of this special event, whether in attending a performance, volunteering or hosting, or simply exchanging a smile, a wave or a hand of friendship.  


Kay Miller, Former Executive Director of the Haywood County Arts Council

Folkmoot means our community members have a unique opportunity to share their hospitality and friendship with the groups of dancers and musicians from all over the world. It’s a true gathering together of like-minded people who are interested in learning about one another’s culture.

It helps us be ambassadors to the world from home. What if we’re the only Americans that these visitors have ever met? We have a great opportunity to show them what Americans are really like and how wonderful our country is, not what they may hear about Americans or America from their leaders and governments. We benefit by learning about and enjoying the traditional music and dance of other countries without ever leaving the state. And, we get to share with folk groups something we treasure — our local music and dance heritage.

When I lived in Texas, I visited my brother and his family in Waynesville on several occasions. In 1994, I visited during the Folkmoot and attended the Parade of Nations. When I saw the folk group from Mexico, I was astonished to see that it was the identical group I’d seen performing two months prior at a beautiful hotel in Oaxaca City in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. What a small world.

When I was director of the Haywood County Arts Council, I staged an international themed exhibit in the gallery each summer during the festival. I also started the “Passport to the Arts” children’s area, where the kids were issued passports so they could “travel” to different countries and create a craft unique to the country being visited. 

We need to keep Folkmoot on the minds of people throughout the year. This could involve civic groups, local artists, schools and churches in addition to businesses. Folkmoot is something special that you don’t find in every small town you visit. I think it’s a plus to associate with a small town and work to involve the community more in attracting folks to come here for the festival performances.


Greg Boothroyd, Chairman, Haywood County Chamber of Commerce; Co-owner and Advertising Director, The Smoky Mountain News

Folkmoot introduces many people to Haywood County and Western North Carolina for the first time. It gives all of us a taste of world culture right in our own backyard, not to mention it’s a great opportunity for many local businesses.

The opening night gala is always a great time. A must-see is definitely the closing ceremonies. All of the groups are truly incredible to witness first-hand. Folkmoot is in the driver’s seat these days, a place it wants to be. I would imagine it has and will become the largest festival in this region, and that’s something to be proud of. 


Teresa Pennington, Owner and artist, T. Pennington Art Gallery

I travel and do a lot of art shows and festivals across the eastern seaboard, and there’s nothing else out there like Folkmoot. In a world where we place so much emphasis on our differences, it’s so nice to celebrate the ways we are the same and find the things we have in common.

Waynesville has become known for Folkmoot. It is part of our heritage. When my son was little, he loved to come to Main Street to watch the dancers. I would really love to see more of the participants interacting with the downtown merchants, especially on “International Festival Day.”


Steve Sutton, Banjoist, Darren Nicholson Band

Folkmoot has always been a great opportunity for different cultures to share with each other in the most relaxed environment in the world, through song, music and dance. No politics, no religion. Nothing can leave an impression like happiness and laughter, and we can all take a lesson from that.

My best memories have always been with the other musicians from different countries. When Kenny Wyatt owned Bogart’s Restaurant and Tavern, we would close doors after hours except for the musicians from around the world. We would play all night. Even though we couldn’t talk to each other in language, we could through music. And we became friends, seeing one another only once a year. That was certainly some of the strangest banjo music I’ve ever played.

It seems like when the economy is struggling, so does funding for the arts. But, that’s often when something “good” emerges. Hard times bring on better times. Necessity often brings out creativity in artists.


Darren Nicholson, Mandolinist, Balsam Range

When I think of Folkmoot, I think of the world’s greatest music and dance. And the most beautiful part is that cultures from all around the globe come to these hills, maybe even unable to speak the same language, but communicating through music and dance. It’s a very fun atmosphere.

It’s a major tourism draw and gets positive attention to our area. There’s also an education value in exploring the world’s cultures, likes and differences. Generations of folks in Western North Carolina can take something from seeing this kind of magic when all boundaries are blurred for greater good by music. It’s a beautiful thing.

One night, I went with (banjoist) Steve Sutton to one of the big shindigs in Maggie Valley; I was immediately embraced by folks from everywhere. We couldn’t talk to each other, but we all smiled, danced and made music into the wee hours. So much fun – that’s living. It’s such a positive thing on all levels from where I see it. I feel like it could go anywhere it wants to.


Chris Wenzel, President, Folkmoot USA Board of Directors; Physician

Folkmoot is a chance to travel the world from home, a chance to experience world cultures first hand. It’s truly a unique experience that few communities in our country can offer. And the experience comes alive with the personalities of the dancers who really love to share their cultures and the history of their countries.  

It’s Haywood County’s gem. Only through Folkmoot can the people of our small county be a proud ambassador to other countries. While we offer our generosity and hospitality, we also have a huge economic impact in the county and part of the economic success of our county hinges on events like this. The fact that we have been around 30 years shows what Folkmoot means to the Haywood County. 

Perhaps the fondest memories of Folkmoot are shared by the younger generations, as it opens their minds and reminds them that there is a much larger world out there beyond our Haywood County. My fondest memories are the experiences I had as a young volunteer and guide for the dance groups. I eventually ended up as a student for a year in France and later went to Romania to my future bride.

As the world evolves, technology and transport has made it a smaller place, with fewer differences in culture. Folkmoot’s future is ironically to preserve the past, to preserve the diversity of traditions and cultures from across the globe. To move forward, it is important to remember where we came from.

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