In 1984, Flora Gammon agreed to a favor for a colleague and friend, Dr. Clinton Border. He needed her musical expertise for a new festival he was starting called Folkmoot USA. She didn’t know it then, but that favor for a friend would touch off a 27-year relationship with the event and leave ripples of her influence across two-and-a-half decades of Folkmoot history.
Today, Gammon directs the international band, an ensemble made of the musicians who perform in the festival. She also emcees when needed and does various other volunteer duties as a member of the Folkmoot Board of Directors.
But that first year, she took up the daunting task of arranging an interfaith service for festival-goers and participants.
It wasn’t an assignment altogether out of her range; she was then assistant director of music at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, where her mother had long been director. But convincing each cadre of performers, with their separate religions and traditions and language barriers, was a challenge.
The Turkish contingency — a gruff group of men with swords — proved her biggest hurdle.
“The director of the group spoke not one word of English, and I had to sit there and try to get them to understand what we were doing and try to get them to be a part of it,” says Gammon. But in the end, she succeeded. And thus began her career as a kind of cultural liaison with the festival.
It’s just such stories and experiences that Gammon seems to cherish most from her long involvement in the American incarnation of Folkmoot.
She kept directing the interfaith service until it was dropped a few years after the festival’s inception. And when the founder of the international band, Dr. Eva Adcock, died and left the conductor’s baton untended, Gammon took it up.
She started with the group in 1995, and she’s been directing the impromptu folk orchestra ever since. Each year, it’s a surprise what instruments will show up and who will already know the music. Some musicians, she has learned, read music, while some reject it outright, playing solely by ear.
Some will come with conventional symphonic instruments, while some will bring ancient and traditional folk music-makers found in few symphonies.
But, she says, they always make it work.
“They’ve never played music together, and I bring them together and in about 30 minutes we have a band,” says Gammon.
The band plays four songs, and performs at the opening gala, the opening parade and then again at the closing ceremony. They rehearse only once.
Gammon says the lack of rehearsal and mixture of seemingly disparate instruments has never been a problem.
“We have a combination of some totally folk-style instruments and some concert instruments. We have a combination, but at the same time it works, you know. Because even those who come from the countries where they’re playing more classical-type instruments, they’re still playing folk music,” says Gammon.
Gradually, the band has added to its repertoire and increased the number of musicians who return, music in hand, from years past. In 2005, they started playing the Folkmoot USA theme, which had, until then, been played on cassettes that were threatening to wear out.
“I was very pleased to start having them play the theme song,” says Gammon. “We do not allow canned music, but here we were using taped music, and that embarrassed me.”
And as the band and its role have grown and matured with the festival, so has Gammon.
In her first two years with the band, she convinced Dick Trevarthen, a musician and music professor, to do the actual, baton-in-hand direction. She was a singer, mostly, and had no experience whatsoever conducting a band.
“He did it for two years and then said, ‘Here, you can do it.’ He gave me two signals to use, and I said, ‘Well, that’s easy,’” said Gammon. “Though the second year I did it I forgot what ‘stop’ was.”
That was also the year she learned that a finger across the throat was, apparently, a universal sign for ‘cut the music.’
Her fake-it-to-make-it technique was successful, though. Gammon fondly recalls the memory of a Soviet orchestral conductor unexpectedly approaching her after a performance. Expecting a complaint, she was bracing herself when the woman, in a harsh Russian accent, complimented her directing skills. She jokes that, because of this, she’s nicknamed herself Folkmoot’s Great Impostor.
But after 16 years with the band, she is an impostor no longer, having earned the baton that’s directed hundreds of musicians over the years.
For Gammon, and the musicians she leads, the international band, just like the festival itself, is about the people that comprise it, and recognizing their unique talents.
“It’s giving the musicians an outlet, because we’re mainly a folk dance festival, and so the emphasis is often on the dancers. These are professional musicians that come over here and they are thrown in the background,” says Gammon. This gives them a chance, however brief, to shine.
And whether through Turkish swordsmen, Russian directors or reticent Basques being coaxed into a round of the hokey pokey, it’s clear that Gammon has made her mark on Folkmoot. And it, in turn, has made a mark on her and her indefatigable spirit.
“You get people together and you look them in the eye and you smile and you can do anything you need to do,” said Gammon.
That’s a motto you can probably find her living by, smile on her face, this summer, in front of the international band once more.
Used at candlelight closing • Words and Music: R.R. Trevarthan
Folkmoot is friendship, Folkmoot is peace;
Folkmoot is harmony, and Folkmoot is love.
For it is friendship, and it is peace;
And it is harmony, that gives us love.
Friendship, Peace, Harmony and Love.
Come Dance, Come Sing
The Folkmoot Theme Song
Words and Music: John Pollard • Come dance, come sing;
Come meet the world as it flies on the wing.
Come laugh, come cry;
Come meet the people, they’re passing you by.
We’re coming together, folk of the world;
Meeting in friendship, the flags to unfurl.
Brothers in dancing, we’re here for today,
At Folkmoot USA.