I was in Asheville some 2 weeks prior to Halloween. Before I had seen quite many Halloween decorations both in small Virginia towns and in Richmond, Virginia. So, I expected to see them in downtown Asheville again.
I was mistaken. I didn't see any pumpkin, even one, in downtown. The only Halloween decoration I saw was a funny dressed human size puppet made of corn and broom and decorated with Christmas lights. It seemed rather unique creation, a bit strange as for Halloween. Well, I've seen some more Halloween decorations in the Biltmore Estate but it was business-oriented, crowded and not authentic place for seeing local folk culture.
Does it mean that Asheville locals don't celebrate Halloween? Do they think that it's a backward tradition which does not fit to trendy and liberal city? Well, say Richmond, Virginia doesn't seem to be a backward city in anyway. Does Ashville grow loosing its old tradition of a little mountain town of farmers?
I saw a demenstration of blacksmith's work in the Historic Horse Barn in the Biltmore Farm Village. It included forging and shaping iron with a hammer and anvil. The metal was heated until it glowed orange as part of the forging process. The blacksmith created small decorative element used for stair railing.
The forge, hammers, anvils and other blacksmithery tools were original from the turn of the 19th and 20th century. Some of them were originally used in Biltmore Estate Industries establish by the Vanderbilts in nearby Biltmore Village. I was surprised that this skilled blacksmith could make a good looking product that showed skill and ingenuity with the minimum amount of work and energy. it really was not that hard work. Well, air-condition would make work by a forge easier for sure.
I have seem woodworker at work in the Historic Horse Barn in the Biltmore Farm Village. The woodworker used original tools from the beginning of 20th century. In western North Carolina woodworker's skills were used, among others. in house building and wagon building.
The owners of the Biltmore Estate, the Vanderbilts, established Biltmore Estate Industries in nearby Biltmore Village to teach woodworking, veawing, and other traditional skills. Today, in keeping with George and Edith Vanderbilt's vision of supporting regional crafts, artisans demonstrate their works in the Historic Horse Barn. This space, originally used as a storage bay for diary delivery wagons and farm equipment, was enclosed in 1940s to house a carpentry shop.
There are music perfomances for visitors in the Historic Horse Barn of the Biltmore Estate, They take plays everyday at 1, 2, 3, and 4 pm. I heard two passionate musicians playing on acoustic guitar and banjo - a stringed instrument of African origin. They sang lively American folk music also known as Americana. Well, it was not country music but what was called old-time music (more exactly Appalachian folk) and blugrass. It is an interesting mix of known to me Irish and Scottish folk with some African influence (banjo!). Some slower songs (ballads) sound similar to traditional country music. Do you remember famous Bonnie and Clyde movie and its blugrass songs?
Appalachian folk music is a distinctive genre of folk music developed in southern Appalachian including western North Carolina at the end of 19th century and in the beginning of 20th century. It is believed to have developed from traditional Scottish, English and Irish music brought to the United States by immigrants from those countries.
In a tent put close to the Biltmore House I saw, among others, two craftsmen working in pewter - an alloy of tin (85-99 percent ), copper and antimony, a bright, shiny metal that is very similar in appearance to silver. Honestly speaking I didn't like their hand-made, shiny plates and bowls but it was interesting to see them at work. It remained me numerous pewter craftsmen I saw at work on streets of Morocco and Tunisia.
The two artists came to Biltmore from nearby Dillsboro, North Carolina where they run Riverwood Pewter Shop (link below). I can't believe their work makes larger (any?) profits now. However they have kept the craft of hand-hammered pewter alive in the mountains of North Carolina since 1930. Maybe it encourages some people to buy their products. I wonder if anyone does their job when they will pass away.
There were two large, white tents put up between the Biltmore House and the Gardens in late October 2004. There were numerous Halloween decorations made of corn and pumpkins around the tents. The larger one had a stage for music concerts and other perfomances. In the smaller tent I could see some local artists from western North Carolina at work.
I remember especially a sculptor with an old, machinery very handy for stone carving. The sculptor showed us how to create various patterns in or on white stone: three-dimentional although thin carvings. He could also draw or carve in stone so called Celtic knots - a variety of (mostly endless) knots and stylized graphical representations of knots used for decoration, first known to have been used by the Celts, people who inhabited much of Central Europe, the Iberian peninsula, Ireland and Britain in pre-Christian times. I got to know that Celtic knotworking was a traditional craft in mountainous western Northern Carolina which came together with Irish immigrants. I have found some Celtic knot motifs in jewelry and tatoo designs made in Asheville.
Strolling around downtown Asheville I met a few people publicizing their views and opinions on art, politics, religion etc. just standing on a sidewalk and talking. The young guy in my picture was standing (back to my camera) by a metal holy cross with an artificial viper fixed to it and was talking something about God, sins and love to a few young people around.
Freedom of speech practised on a street? Well, freedom of speech in the United States is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. In Ashvilee all people I saw on a street had somewhat friendly to say.
However, as I noticed before and later during my US trip, in Washington DC for example, criticism of the government and advocation of unpopular ideas that most people would find distasteful or against public policy were generally permitted in the USA. Am I wrong? Although for most Americans, hate speech has surely became unacceptable and immoral.
I had an impression that sometimes, it was taboo to use certain words or discuss certain subjects Americans feared may be offensive or illegal - like some opinions on the Civil War (the War of Northern Aggresion or the War Between the States) or sexual minorities for example. Another example: I personally don't see anything wrong with calling Native Americans simply Indians or Afro-Americans just Blacks.
Well, I had an impression that generally in the South the limitations of freedom of speech are smaller and rarer (I mean human minds not law) and many Southerners don't switch easily to "politically correct" words. Is it a sign of bad behaviour or larger openess and honesty? It's something similar to my homecountry Poland, I think. For a foreign visitor it gives easier and better communication with locals :-).
I am not sure whether it's a local custom just for Asheville but I saw it exclusively there, some 2 weeks before presidential election in 2004.
I saw that car in my picture advertising one of the presidential candidates (John Kerry - Democrat) followed by numerous taxi cars. This chain of cars with baloons fixed to them and drivers pushing horns was making unbelievable noise and stopped the city traffic for a moment. At first I didn't understand what's that.
I knew what "early elections" meant: American citizens from about 30 states, if properly registered, were entitled to vote some time (2 weeks or so) before the election day and some (minority) did it to avoid lines on the election day. Keep in mind that there was no holiday on the election day in the USA in 2004.
But the full explanation of this chain of cars was written on the first one: "Early voting has begun! Give me a wave and I'll drive you to vote Bush away!" But what if someone gave a wave and then voted for Bush? Despite Asheville Bush supporters did not spend money for "early voting free shuttles" and didn't make that much noice Bush won 56.9% votes in Asheville.
If you are interested in hundreds of different hairstyles Asheville is a perfect place to watch them. They should have boom for hairstylists there.
Unlike other animals, human beings of many cultures cut their hair, rather than let it grow naturally. Although in Asheville you may see something opposite as well. Hair styles are often used to signal cultural, social, and ethnic identity. Men and women naturally have the same hair but generally hairstyles conform to cultural standards of gender. Although in Asheville it maybe sometimes difficult to identify gender by hairstyle.
If you have growing kids you should better know some hairstyles to identify what subculture your son or daughter tends to belong, right? :-) Let me only mention four hairstyles I could see in Asheville:
1. Dreadlocks (or simply dreads or locks): originally matted ropes of hair which will form by themselves if the hair is allowed to grow naturally without the use of brushes, combs, razors or scissors for a long period of time. Now, hairstylists created a wide variety of modified dreadlocks, including multi-colored, synthetic dreadlock extensions and "dread perms", where chemicals are used to treat the hair. Well, do you know Bob Marley, reggae music (it's from Jamajca) and the anti-establishment philosophy of Rastafari? Nowadays in white culture dreads have become popular among groups such as the "anti-globalisation" movement and environmental activists.
2. Bob cut: a short cut for women, first popular in the 1920s, considered a sign of a liberated woman (Madonna now).
3. Mohawk or "Mohican": long hair divided into sections which are then braided and worn down, both sides are shaved or buzzed, long and usually spiked in the middle. In punk fashion, the Mohawk is often dyed brilliant colors and the center strip of hair worn so that it points straight up, often to impressive height.
4. Ronaldo cut (after football player Ronaldo): shaved head except for the front thirdish which is buzzed.
I was very surprised or better to say dissapointed when I saw large, 15-feet long, costume of dragon in the Biltmore House. Its bright colours completely didn't fit to elegant interiors of the residence.
Well, I got to know that this four-person puppet is used to fight against one-person "hobby-horse" puppet symbolizing Saint George in weekends September through October. Do you know the tale of Saint George and the dragon? If not, open and read my picture 2. The dragon versus Saint George fight is a part of so called "Michaelmas": an English Harvest Fair. " Michaelmas" is a traditional English harvest celebration following in a custom honoring the feast day of the Archangel Saint Michael.
The first Fall Fair in the Estate took place in 1905. Now, the Fall Fair is called Harvest Home Celebration and takes place anually in September and October Friday through Sunday.
People I could meet and watch in downtown Asheville were dressed in many different styles from elegant, business costumes and suits (locals running to work) through casual clothes (jeans + T-shirts - visitors) up to less or more odd or interesting (choose what you want) fashion of numerous subcultures including:
- long-haired hippies wearing colorful, multi-ethnic clothing and jewelry,
- punks wearing leather rocker jackets ((often painted with band logos and decorated in studs) and skateboarding shoes with pins and razor blades as jewelry,
- rave men and boys wearing Phat pants, Hoodies and Tank Tops and rave women and girls wearing tight tops, high heels and stockings wearing tight tops, high heels and stockings - all in bright raibow colours.
Asheville seems to be a melting pot of different people and cultures, surely on a small scale as it isn't a large city. It's for sure neither San Francisco nor New Orleans. And I didn't see any Black people (even one!) in downtown; they often call them Afro-Americans in the USA. Anyway I could meet and watch in downtown Asheville:
1. locals living here for years.
2. newcomers including:
- hippie (and other subcultures: punk, rave, funky etc.) galore looking for creativity, art, love and whatever else,
- students of University of North Carolina in Asheville looking for good education,
- retirees looking for friendly atmosphere, fresh air and beautiful mountains around (add good food and shopping possibilities for them now).
3. visitors from various states and from abroad who mainly visit the Biltmore Estate though.
I've visited quite many smaller towns and cities in the South and western + southwestern part of the USA. Many of them are sweet, but some are rundown and remain neglected for years. I was told that Asheville had its golden age in 1890 - 1929 (stock exchange crash) but then economic growth in Asheville was very slow. Let me quote one local I was talking to: Asheville was a mountain, hidden city far from state center and forgotten by God. It started to change in 1980' and even more in 1990'. I could see the results.
It seems that Asheville grows now quite fast and both locals and local government take a lot of care of historic city downtown. Strolling around downtown I've seen even back streets lined with green trees with renovated and painted houses along. Add some small architecture like colorful murals or little sculptures put on sidewalks. And despite numerous and different visitors downtown Asheville is clean. Look at my 5 pictures. Now I wish Asheville to add more colours and smile to streets off downtown. Good luck!
Asheville is famous for its lively music scene and compared to New Orleans, Nashville or Memphis in travel literature. Well, there are musicians who come to Asheville mainly from the North in search for career and job. But the three previously mentioned cities offer more for fans of live music, I think.
I saw a few bands or just couples with their instruments strolling around downtown and I could hear two guys playing on accordions and singing. Although I am a dedicated fan of saxophone not accordion these guys played interesting and lively folk music.
One more thing. I asked at the Mountaineer Inn where I stayed what are the most famous bands or musicians based in Asheville. The guy didn't know any except the heavy metal (not my favourite music style) Sanctity band and the Mad Tea Party (indie-folk). But the one medium-age visitor recommended me to listen to CDs of David LaMotte (folk music, acoustic guitar) who lived close to Asheville and used to play in downtown bars or Chuck Brodsky (humorous and political lyrics). I noticed all above names but then forgot to buy any CD of LaMotte or Chuck Brodsky in Asheville :-(. If I had more time I'd try to find and hear them live.
Looking at Asheville downtown from upper level of Asheville Civic Center garage my first impression was that there were nearly as many styles of architecture throughout the streets of Asheville as there were buildings. Look at three quite different styles in my picture: red-brick, poor and typical for early industrial era houses down, monumental, modern and grey building in the middle and pretty top of high rise building (the Jackson Building - 1925) up in the backgroud.
Soon later strolling around Asheville downtown and watching various locals I easily figured out that this unique variety in architectural styles reflects diversity of people who had come and settled in the mountains of western North Carolina in the past.