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Dahlonega's Bear on the Square Mountain Festival brings out the banjos and fiddles

POSTED: May 1, 2008 5:00 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

John Douglas Mitchell, right, of Ardmore, Ala., and Corey Fisher, of Sautee, play together Sunday on the square in Dahlonega during the Bear on the Square Mountain Festival. Musicians set up and played around the square during the weekend festival.

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Break out your banjo ‘cause the 12th annual Bear on the Square Mountain Festival in Dahlonega this weekend proved that old time mountain music is still alive and kicking.

About 25,000 folks came from far and wide to celebrate Dahlonega’s heritage of bluegrass and Appalachian crafts as well as the 13th anniversary of a visit from a family of black bears.

Dobbin Buck, sponsorship director for the festival, said a mother bear and her two cubs ventured onto the Dahlonega town square during the spring of 1995.

"One baby scurried up that tree ... and finally they got the bear down and safely returned it back to its family," Buck said. "Folks said, ‘Well that’s a bear on the square,’ and we decided to start a festival to sustain interest in our heritage."

A small imitation bear cub now rests in the tree near the corner of Main and North Park streets to commemorate the incident.

Dozens of bluegrass pickers stood underneath the memorialized tree Sunday with their upright basses, banjos, guitars and fiddles in hand. Their music wafted through the streets as festivalgoers eyed goods or participated in yodeling, fiddling and honky-tonk singing workshops.

"You find little pockets of music all over," said Cynthia Queen of Fine Art Framing and Photography in Cumming, who attended the festival to sell her photography and handcrafted wooden frames. "If we didn’t hardly make any money, then we’d probably still come for the music."

Glenda Pender, president of Bear on the Square Mountain Festival, agreed the music drives Dahlonega’s heritage.

"Our mission is to preserve and celebrate the folkways of the Southern Appalachians, and a major aspect of that is the bluegrass and old-time music," said Pender. "It’s important to us because any kind of roots music feels like home, and that’s why I think it’s so appealing. It brings us home."

About 60 booths featuring traditional, homemade Appalachian crafts stretched along the streets leading to the main stage where 13 bluegrass and old-time music bands performed.

The highlight of the festival came during a Saturday evening performance by old-time music icons Norman and Nancy Blake, who had stints at the Grand Ole Opry and performed with the likes of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. A Sunday afternoon performance by North Carolina newcomers Carolina Chocolate Drops also whipped the crowd into a frenzy, earning the young group a standing ovation.

Pender said young bands like the Carolina Chocolate Drops playing old-time music show the genre is still a growing, living one.

Jim White, co-chairman of the festival, said the nonprofit festival donates a portion of its proceeds to the Georgia Pick and Bow Youth Music Program, which teaches Lumpkin County schoolchildren to play Appalachian instruments. He added that about 400 volunteers helped orchestrate the three-day festival.

Pender said the Sunday morning Gospel Jam was also a big hit this year. She said 40 different musicians participated in the event that invites groups to get on stage and try their hand at performing.

"People practice all year just to play at the Gospel Jam," Pender said. "The energy level was unbelievable. We had four fiddles playing all at one time."


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