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McDowell County guitarist Carl Rutherford
McDowell County guitarist Carl Rutherford. Photo by Michael Keller

Vandalia Faces

By Michael Keller

For me, the annual Vandalia Gathering puts the "folk" in "folklife." As photographer for the Division of Culture and History, it's my job to photograph the event each year, and 1999 was no exception.

When I arrive at the Capitol Complex on Memorial Day weekend, the first thing I notice is the music. I hear it before seeing it, echoing around corners and down hallways, spreading across the lawn and under the shade trees between the Capitol building and the Cultural Center. Anywhere two musicians can get close together, you have a jam session, usually surrounded by a cluster of old-time or bluegrass music fans. The better the jam, the bigger the crowd, which for me usually means a bit of nudging, climbing, or crouching to be able to see and photograph the musicians.

Another thing you always know about the festival before you see it, is the food. During peak times, the smell of funnel cakes, barbecue, and roasted corn carries right along with the sound of the music. The food choices are as diverse as the population of West Virginia with Greek gyros and German sausages alongside beans and cornbread. Finger licking is required Vandalia etiquette, which is a good thing since I see so many kids — and grown-ups — wearing their food.

Kid eating corn
A youngster digs into a good-looking ear of corn
Photo by Michael Keller

Folks with musical feet have plenty to do with continuous square dancing outside on the Capitol walkway, and ethnic European dancing in the Great Hall of the Cultural Center. I've seen the same people come back year after year, on both Saturday and Sunday, to form-up squares and dance right outside the governor's office. No matter what the weather, when the music's hot, so is the dancing.

In the Great Hall, a number of West Virginia dance groups demonstrate Scottish, Irish, Swiss, and other international styles of dance that have come to make their homes in this state. The costumes are as colorful as the quilts on the walls. This is an audience participation activity, however, so before the afternoon's over there will be sneakers and jean shorts mixed among the boots and kilts.

Around the fountain in the courtyard of the Capitol building, die-hard shoppers browse the Craft Circle, finding everything from West Virginia foods and books to stained glass art and Native American flutes. Faces light up while watching a potter will a lump of clay into a beautiful teapot.

But for sheer pleasure, I walk over to the kids' area where children have the chance to participate in heritage activities like making candles or churning butter, making kaleidoscopes, or playing banjos and guitars that are often as big as they are. For a lot of kids, this is their first taste of old-time music, their first chance to actually handle a real instrument, and I doubt that their eyes could get much bigger.

Owl with raptor demo
The eyes have it during a raptor demonstration. Photo by Joseph G. Stanley
Girl with wooden toy
A festival volunteer demonstrates a wooden folk toy.

Kid with fiddle on dad's lap
Fiddling is a shared activity in the kids' area.

Both photos by Michael Keller

Year 2000 will be the 20th year I've photographed at the Vandalia Gathering. I know I'll see a lot of people — both musicians and onlookers — back at the event once again. I might not know their names, but I'll know their faces and they'll know mine, and we'll smile at seeing each other again. It's that kind of event.

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