Recently over the Memorial Day Weekend, the West Virginia Department of Culture and History, celebrated the 36th annual Vandalia Gathering. The event is a celebration of traditional arts and all things West Virginia, held in the Cultural Center, adjacent to our capitol building, and spilling out onto the lawns, parking lots, and surrounding areas.
The area which comprises the present state of West Virginia, as well as parts of neighboring Kentucky, was proposed as a 14th colony, to be named Vandalia, by a group (the Ohio River Company) which included Benjamin Franklin. Adopting this name for its event, the Vandalia Gathering includes traditional music, dance, food, contests, concerts, jamming, demonstrations (blacksmithing, applebutter making, quilting, etc.) and storytelling.
While much of the music is “old-time” — clawhammer (frailing or double drop thumb, if you prefer), dulcimer (both hammered and lap), and old-time fiddle — bluegrass has taken root over the years and most of the jamming heard during the weekend is of the bluegrass variety. There are contests for bluegrass banjo, mandolin, and guitar, in addition to old-time banjo, old-time fiddle, dulcimer, and the always popular liar’s contest (storytelling). Although not sanctioned by any “official” body, over the years the winners have been popularly proclaimed “state champions,” perhaps because of the contests’ location in the state capital and being operated by a department of our state government.
Of course, if listening to hours of instrumental competition is not your cup of tea, you can wander between half a dozen stages and hear concerts, watch or join in the clogging and square dancing at the outdoor dance stage, watch demonstrations of Irish step dancing, polka, scottish dancing accompanied by bagpipes in the Great Hall of the Cultural Center, or tour the West Virginia State Museum housed in the Cultural Center.
Perhaps because of the intense pride and independent spirit of West Virginians, we have held onto “our ways,” and even when forced to leave to find work elsewhere, many expatriates take advantage of the long holiday weekend to return and experience the sights and sounds of home. It has been a huge success, by any measure, and the attendance has been estimated at 20,000 or more over the course of the weekend.
Roll together a fiddler’s convention, a bluegrass festival, an art gallery and museum show, an arts and crafts show, and you’ll just start to get an idea of what the Vandalia Gathering is. While all the entertainment and activity attracts some folks, many come back year after year because of the people — to renew friendships and see people you don’t get to see often enough.
I’ve only missed 4 or 5 of the past 36 years, and every time I was somewhere else, it was on my mind — wondering what I missed and who I didn’t get to see, hear, or visit with. In a sense, the Vandalia Gathering has become West Virginia’s family reunion.