Swannanoa Gathering turns silver into gold

Swannanoa Gathering

Fred McCormick

A cappella isn't the way  most people would imagine hearing folk music icon Janis Ian debut a new song.

But the lyrics of her song “Swannanoa” pierced the humid summer air recently at the Swannanoa Gathering, a fitting celebration of the event's silver anniversary, its 25th.

Janis Ian tells the attendees of the 25th Swannanoa Gathering about her inspiration for her new song "Swannanoa."

Ian, a  two-time Grammy Award winner and poet and author participating in the Swannanoa Gathering for the third time, believes the nationally known five-week program is nearly without parallel.

“As a teacher, it’s an opportunity to pass on the information that I’ve been taught by people like Stella Adler and Leonard Bernstein,” she said. “As a student, because I’m also here as a student, it’s an opportunity to learn from others that have learned from masters.

“As an artist, it’s an opportunity to be in a really supportive environment unlike anything I can think of, with the possible exception of maybe Greenwich Village in the '60s.”

Doug Orr might not have foreseen enrollment to double and  11 new majors added in the 15 years he served as Warren Wilson College president. But the lifelong musician knew the campus provided a perfect setting for an educational music camp in the summer months.

“During the 1980s, I attended a music camp in West Virginia several times,” Orr said. “Consequently, when I came to Warren Wilson one of my first thoughts was, what a perfect place for a summer music camp.”

He wanted to accomplish three goals.

“One was to provide workshops where people from all walks of life could both learn and reconnect with their musical soul,” he said. “Secondly, I wanted to make sure this great tradition of music that is so much a part of the Appalachian mountains was preserved and enhanced. Our third goal, which reinforces the first two, was to create a setting which fosters a music community.”

As a summer program of the college, the planned Swannanoa Gathering would be an academic endeavor. But Orr needed a musician to provide the kind of environment conducive to creating music. So he approached his friend Jim Magill, who has served as the director of the program since.

“I could have gone with someone who had been an administrator elsewhere,” Orr said. “My thought was, for the first two or three years I could teach Jim the administrative aspects of the job. It was more important that the person running it understood the music and played the music.”

Magill and Orr began discussing the idea over lunch.

Scott McKinney, right, presents Doug Orr (far left) and Jim Magill with banjos made by Warren Wilson College students and signed by instructors from the contemporary folk and guitar programs.

“He laid out a rough sketch," Magill said, "based on his experience at the Augusta Heritage Center workshops at Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia. I had never run a music camp, and I said ‘sure.’”

The first year, the Swannanoa Gathering offered three themed weeks and was held at Warren Wilson College with the now-defunct Great Smokies Song Chase songwriting camp run by Billy Edd Wheeler. Ninety-three people attended that year.

"A couple of things worked in our favor," Magill said. "We have a compact campus, so everything is easy to get to, but you also have the fact that we're in the middle of the beautiful Appalachian Mountains."

Each year more than 1,200 people attend the Swannanoa Gathering, which has hosted over 13,000 musicians since it began in 1992.

Magill wanted the event to feel like, in his words, a "Disney World for musicians." His experience as a musician helped him attract fellow musicians to teach courses. It also created an environment that encouraged artistic risk-taking.

"When you're on the road, you spend every day thinking about what you're going to eat and where you're going to sleep. Most of the time it's fairly solitary," he said. "So offering musicians a chance to come to something like the Swannanoa Gathering for a week and have a chance to hang with their peers for a whole week, there is a real appeal to that."

The 2016 Contemporary Folk Jam at the 25th Swannanoa Gathering featured well-known names in the genre.

That approach enabled Magill attract musicians such as Kathy Mattea, Ellis Paul, Tom Paxton, Mary Gauthier and Cliff Eberhardt, all of who taught during this year's contemporary folk week, the most popular of the gathering's seven programs. Teachers like that have helped the gathering to attract more than 13,000 participants from around the world since it began.

Magill's approach resulted in an environment that promotes creativity, often leading to inspiration, according to Ian.

"I wound up with a song," she said. "I started writing 'Swannanoa' when I was up here three years ago, and after I left I found myself saying 'Swannanoa, I can hear you call my name.' And I thought 'that's a pretty good start.'"

Ian finished the song in the weeks before this year's gathering.

"I thought it would be a great thing to leave as my contribution," Ian said. "You teach and it's ephemeral, bang, you taught and it's done. But if you leave a song, maybe you get lucky and become a part of the history."

With 25 years of history, the Swannanoa Gathering is an integral part of what makes Warren Wilson College  unique. It has also been the site of countless collaborations and relationships formed around music.

"I dreamed and hoped that it would be this successful," Orr said. "But I've got to say that it's probably exceeded my dreams."