A born musician must hear his pockets jingle. Such was the case with Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Mars Hill’s “singer of the Appalachians,” who pleaded for honey from bees and judges as he developed his historic role as the foremost organizer of traditional mountain music in the 20s.
Mars Hill College’s Lunsford Festival (editor’s note: the 2022 festival is scheduled for Oct. 8) honors the musician’s legacy by premiering a wide variety of traditional performers. The college is also the site of the Lunsford archive, which documents, among other things, how Lunsford went about collecting his pure cultural crop.
As a beekeeper, he bartered with people who let him use their property to build their hives. As a teacher, he came up with the idea of holding competitions for students who present the best ballads. As a lawyer in Morganton in the late 1910s, he collected material for original songs, notably “Mountain Dew.”
“On my first day in court, I want to report,” Lunsford’s song begins. He then switches to the defendant, who confesses to selling moonshine—”mountain dew”—to deacons, doctors, and train conductors.
The defendant concludes: “My lawyer began to turn the lid on the jar. / I knew then that I lost my case. / Your Honor told me that / if you pay the costs, I will release you.”
Lunsford’s grandson, Ed Herron of Hickory, recently went to the Burke County courthouse to explore his grandfather’s legal career. “I looked at a lot of cases,” he says, “and I found one—no idea who the lawyer was—about a fellow who was convicted of selling liquor a few years after Bascom’s trial” from Trinity College law school.
On February 22, 1917, the trial judge ruled that the defendant “has been shown good character by a number of the best citizens of Morganton… (and) By order of the Court, the defendant … pay a fine of thirty dollars” and be discharged.
“Because it’s called Old Mountain Dew / There are few who refuse it. / But,” says the judge in the song, “You acted like a man when you took that stand / You swore what was so true.”
The court record states that the defendant was in possession of two gallons of the illegal substance for the purpose of sale, “and was not himself a proper pharmacist or medical depository.” Lunsford’s criminal reads: “The deacon drove by in his car very shyly, / said his family had the flu.” In fact, sick people could get their medicine directly from the sheriff, as Mars Hill College’s Sheriff Jesse James Bailey collection reveals.
A prescription from Bailey’s collection reads: “Mr. John Sprinkle is very ill, and I have advised him to use whisky. If it be legal, count me as a prescription for him as often as he writes.”
Lunsford knew his business. John Angus McLeod writes in his insightful biography: “During his peregrinations he not only became intimate with the balladeers, but also became acquainted with the illicit distillers and their methods of operation.” Once defended two young men in McDowell County, questioning them about support, low wine and an evidence vial.
“The prosecutor told the lawyer, Mr. Lunsford, that if he does not stop making such statements, the court will put him under the prison as a suspect.”
In his memoir, Lunsford writes, “Low wine, ‘It used to be,’ “is what’s left after the first is over and they’ve proved it. They prove it with a proof bottle,” a 7-inch-tall, wide-bottomed, tapered ludnum (laudanum) bottle, he explains. You collect the flow, “shake it up, and judge as best you can whether it’s a high-proof or a low-proof wine. … It goes on until the bottom wine is gone… They put it aside, or put it back. It’s also called ‘backin’.’
When Scotty Wiseman recorded “Mountain Dew” with Lulu Belle in 1945—with Lunsford’s cooperation and the sale of the copyright in exchange for a train fare—he changed many of the lyrics. A verse appeared about the conductor of the train. Added something about “old Uncle Mort . . . sawn and short,” who “thought he was a giant when he bought him a pint.”
The song was more commercial in nature. So it was accepted by the Pepsi company for its soft drink from Independent Bottlers. “Mountain Dew” briefly became part of the commercial jingle until, Herron says, his grandmother sued them to quit or pay. They quit.
Nevertheless, all sorts of other people continued to add to the song. As a boy, Herron heard his grandfather say, “how happy and proud it was that it became a real live song, that the crowd took it as their own.”
Until his death in 2019, Rob Neufeld wrote “Visiting Our Past,” a weekly local history column for the Citizen Times. This column was originally published on October 1, 2008.