READ ABOUT THIS UNIQUE FESTIVAL WITH ITS UNUSUAL FURRY BEGINNINGS
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The Bear on the Square Mountain Festival

Jamie Tubmen

Festivals sprout like johnny-jump-ups through the warm months in the small towns of North Georgia. What distinguishes Dahlonega’s Bear on the Square Mountain Festival from these other Rites of Spring is the emphasis on music - bluegrass and early American music to be precise – and a small market featuring traditional Appalachian crafts rather than the usual fare.

First of all, what could be better than to spend a warm Spring day and a cool Spring evening enjoying bluegrass jam sessions and watching other music-lovers doing the same thing? Secondly, the whole thing takes place in and around the central square in the picturesque North Georgia village of Dahlonega. And Dahlonega is for real – a former frontier town, site of the first Gold Rush in the United States, hospitable to wayfarers while avoiding the tourist schlock.


Why Bear on the Square? That is for real, too. Eight years ago merchants on Dahlonega’s historic Public Square rubbed the sleep from their eyes one fine Spring morning, and eventually concluded that yes, there really was a baby bear up in that sycamore in front of Brad Walker’s Pottery on the town square. The youngster had either wandered into people-world or else been led astray by other ursines and ended up lost and alone in the darkening evening – so of course it spent the night in a tree – and wouldn’t or couldn’t come down in the morning.

While a tad traumatic for the bear, it was a wonderful excuse for the people of Dahlonega to throw a party. Since Appalachian and early music and bluegrass are all much loved in the region and there is a tradition of honoring the folkways, traditional music would be the focus, and the Bear on the Square Mountain Festival was born. 2003 brought the Seventh Annual Bear on the Square Mountain Festival, and I’ve enjoyed every one of them! (And yes, the baby bear was just fine – the Forest Service rode in and transported it back into the woodsy mountains, perhaps a little wiser and no worse for wear).


Nick and Glenda Pender, local residents and musical activists, were a major force in perpetuating this fine excuse for a festival. It became an annual event, the third weekend in April every year - m
ake this event a stop on your itinerary next April.

We’re all very thankful for that baby bear – the Bear on the Square Mountain Festival is just so much fun! The secret to having a really great time is to have a minimal agenda - do make sure you don't miss any of the special concerts with your favorite authentic bluegrass performers, but plan to spend most of your time strolling around the square, sitting in or listening in on the many jam sessions.


Bring your guitar, dobro, mandolin or fiddle – or just your own tutored or untutored voice. Make some music yourself or form a spellbound audience as others create that high lonesome sound which is native to these hills. You can ask to join in the semi-spontaneous jam sessions that spring up in gazebos or under trees and balconies around the square.

For particular enthusiasts there are musically illustrated workshops held under a tent on such topics as the difference between old time music and bluegrass fiddling. There is a children’s play (“Goldilocks and the Three Bears on the Square”) in the town’s historic Holly Theatre, and there’s a Teddy Bear Picnic for the kids under the trees. And there are simply splendid concerts in the Folkways Center. While there is a modest charge for the concerts and the play, the jam sessions, the workshops and the ambience are all for free.


It’s a musical lovefest. Performers play up to the enthusiastic, appreciative audiences, and audiences enjoy a very high standard of excellence in the performances. To give you some idea of the caliber of the 2003 Concert headliners:

THE JIM HURST BAND - a group of Nashville’s hottest bluegrass pickers. Jim himself has long been one of Nashville’s most respected musicians. His mellow voice and red-hot guitar have landed him in the bluegrass charts for the last six months. He is IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) Guitar Player of the Year.

JAMES BRYAN AND CARL JONES WITH RACHEL BRYAN: James' history as a fiddler winds through stints with some of oldtime and bluegrass music's greats such as Norman and Nancy Blake and Bill Monroe. James was joined at Bear by Carl Jones, a longtime partner in traditional music who has also toured with Norman and Nancy Blake and who is a very funny man! James' daughter, Rachel added solid guitar to this talented trio.

Local and regional bands included GOLD RUSH BLUEGRASS BAND and PEAVINE CREEK STRING BAND plus other exciting acts from an incredible pool of talented North Georgia musicians.

Past “Bears” have featured dynamite national acts such as GINNY HAWKER, TRACY SCHWARZ, CHRIS JONES and the Night Drivers, HAZEL DICKENS and other luminaries of the bluegrass and traditional music field. The festival-goers expect no less.

The annual festival is now partnering with the Folkways Center, a Dahlonega organization with the slogan “Who’s going to carry it on?”;

Folkways is devoted to the continuance of local history, stories, arts, crafts and music. After seven years the Festival shows no sign of over-exploitation. Organizers have insisted on authenticity in this tribute to mountain music and culture. Unlike many other festivals, this one is not about the crafts per se, it’s about our heritage and the tradition of home-made music.

In the words of organizer Glenda Pender: “We respect our culture, and appreciate the personal experience we want Bear on the Square to be for each person who participates.” It’s the kind of festival that the humans bring their dogs to on a leash, and the dogs get tired of walking around first.


The Folkways Center of the Georgia Mountains is a  nonprofit corporation for the preservation and cultivation of the history and folkways of the peoples of the North Georgia Mountain Region, including traditional music, crafts, dance, cooking, whiskey and Brandy making, medicine and  folklore. Contact the Center for details on the award-winning Mountain Music and Medicine Show, Old Fashioned Square Dance, Folkways Mountain Music Revue and other events.

New CD “LONG TIME COMING” features festival organizers and musical activists Nick and Glenda Pender plus family and friends (including Jim Hurst) with some nitty gritty bluegrass music: some very traditional favorites, and one which Nick and Glenda wrote. It's a great sound - contact the Penders at pendergn@alltel.net to find out where it is available.


The Dahlonega-Lumpkin County Chamber of Commerce can point out some other attractions while you are in the area.

 

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