Despite what the popular media would have you believe, traditional Southern music was alive and well long before the release of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. An estimated 40,000 people either know this already or will soon find out when they attend the 2001 Festival for the Eno in Durham on the 30th of June and the first and fourth of July.
Besides featuring a musical play, this hemisphere's only remaining flea circus, and an eight-foot clown, more than 50 bands are playing at this year's Eno River festival. Some of them, like Greasy Beans, or Greg Hawks and the Tremblers, are straight bluegrass or country rock. Others are less conventional. The band Freylach Time specializes in klezmer music, a genre that evolved from Jewish weddings and came to be a powerful influence on early jazz. Akira Satake, who learned to play the banjo as a boy in Japan, adds Finnish-influenced vocals and Native American rhythms to an instrument that is typically a bluegrass staple.
One of the biggest draws to the festival this year will be the reunion of Mike Craver, Bill Hicks and Jim Watson, three out of the original four members of the Red Clay Ramblers. Perhaps the most influential band to come from the Triangle area, the Red Clay Ramblers started playing their first sets at the Cat's Cradle in 1973. They mixed and matched genres like country, folk, jazz and gospel decades before it became fashionable to do so, earning praise from Bluegrass Unlimited magazine and The New York Times alike. "In reviving traditional tunes and blending in our own arrangements and original material, we have developed a unique and entertaining sound," said Bill Hicks in a 1978 interview. "The simple mountain songs and fiddle tunes of Appalachia, the big-city blues and New Orleans jazz are all part of our heritage."
While the Red Clay Ramblers have continued as a band, they've done so mostly with new members while Craver, Hicks and Watson moved on to solo projects. This year will mark the first time the three have played together in 15 years. "They may be a bit rusty," says Greg Bell, coordinator for this year's festival, "but I've got a feeling that they'll remember more than most musicians have ever known."
Middle Eastern dance troupe Belly Revelations' introduction to the Eno River Festival in 1998 was a rather undignified one. "We had two 10-minute sets on the grass in front of the stage for people to watch while the musicians changed their equipment," recalls troupe member Linda Stratford, who performs under the stage name Qadria. "With our current 45-minute set, we're much happier."
Like the genres of music favored by the Ramblers and other bands playing for the festival, Middle Eastern dance, also known familiarly as belly dancing, is a continually evolving art form. "One of the things that I love about belly dance is that we're not recreating a dance exactly as it was done in the 15th century," says Amy Schaich, another member of the four-woman troupe. "It's evolved over time as different countries and individuals have brought their own interpretations to it."
Ironically, Middle Eastern dance is in danger of dying out in the countries that gave it birth. "Although some people still participate in their families, the performance of it is currently looked down on or illegal in many Muslim countries," says Stratford. "Part of the reason we do this is that we feel like we're preserving part of a culture until the people that brought it to us can participate again."
The City of Durham sponsored the first Festival for the Eno in 1976 as part of the country's bicentennial celebration. Since 1979, the Eno River Association has held the festival as a fundraiser for the nearby Eno River State Park. Other state parks in North Carolina also benefit. "The Eno River Association is not tied by state budget processes and things like that, so they can move a lot more quickly than the state can," says Greg Bell. Once state parks finish the process of getting funds allocated for a purchase, Bell explains, they can buy the lands from the Eno River Association that might otherwise have gone to developers. Bell hopes that this year the festival will bring in several hundred thousand dollars for the association.
For many people, the three days at the Festival for the Eno will provide a subtle pleasure in addition to the ones provided by the acts and entertainment. Besides the feeling of satisfaction one receives at "helping a cause," even if only by attending an event, visitors to the festival will also get a chance to spend a day or more in a non-commercial environment. In an era when distinctly non-musical corporations like Pepsi and Sprint share top billing with bands, and the ghost of Martin Luther King Jr. hawks ads for long-distance services, the lack of corporate advertising at the festival is refreshing. Although the event does receive money from a number of corporate sources, it keeps their names--and their products--out of the festival. "I think many of our regular fans come here for a simple reason," says Bell. "They want a break from commercial TV."