Ocrafolk 23: Blowing in the Wind

Blowing in the Wind: 23rd Ocrafolk festival wafts with multicultural collaboration

The engulfing ribcage, viewed from within, expands and contracts, slow in and deep out like ancient bellows of an accordion. It’s the loud, labored breathing of a thinly veiled canvas whale and its occupants toss fitfully, modern Jonahs in the belly of Ocracoke’s National Park Service Campground. Green Grass Cloggers dance a hoe-down on heads, while Jef-the-Mime is at fisticuffs with Paperhand Puppets, elbows indenting supple sides like in utero flailing, separating sleep from a windy world of reality. And then with startling decisiveness, the beast’s indigestion settles, bringing silence so deafening to wake even the hardiest festival-goer. 

Sleep when you can, as Captain Ahab would say. But those itching for things remote, sailing forbidden seas and landing in barbarous coasts instantly find what they seek (outside of sound slumber) due east, somewhere between Teach’s Hole and the British Cemetery, on Ocracoke, the first weekend of June. 

Merlefest might have its mud, but this year Ocrafolk music and storytelling festival threw caution to the wind with a bold lineup of unexpected contrasts.

Like Larry and Joe,”the Venezuelan harpist and banjo duo. Except that sometimes they’re upright bassist and guitarist, or ukulele and fiddle players, with their multi-instrumentalist versatility. But “player” is not a strong enough word to describe the way Larry Bellorin attacks the harp, making the stereotypical angel-strumming-a-glissando image dissolve in fairy dust. Larry introduces most songs in his native Spanish, with Joe Troop, from Winston-Salem, translating. With their unique blend of Venezuelan and Appalachian music, their overarching empathy towards immigration and music-has-no-borders sensibility shines through every selection.

Like Cold Chocolate, a genre bending percussionist and guitarist from Boston. And the duo Blue Cactus, from Chapel Hill, with Steph Stewart’s edgy vintage country vocals, complemented by Mario Arnez’ mellow harmony filling all the cracks.

Like Brooke and Nick, the act master of ceremonies Louis Allen introduced as being a “niche band–the ukulele and cello niche,” adding, “Cello was my first instrument in elementary school. After I destroyed three cellos, I was invited to take up harmonica. No more cello for you!” 

Like Saltare Sounds, a troupe of classical musicians from the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem who not only played during the festival itself, but surprised Swan Quarter ferry riders on the way home with an impromptu “Irish Washerwoman.”

Josh Goforth

The effort to provide a platform and preserve a variety of music cultures included those steeped in North Carolina tradition, such as Josh Goforth from the Asheville area, and fiddling Earl White.

“When you hear people play on hunks of wood with strings attached, something magical happens,” Goforth says. 

And he’s not wrong. Goforth carried his banjo, fiddle, and guitar from set to set, often sitting in with other musicians. At the workshop stage, where the audience is encouraged to interact with the artists, an attendee asks, “So you have not rehearsed together?”

The answer is no, that often they hadn’t even discussed what they were going to play until seconds before striking up the first chord.

An audience member asks Goforth which of his instruments is his favorite. He says, “If I was on a deserted island–like over there [he gestures to the water in the general vicinity of Portsmouth Island]–I would take my guitar.”

Earl White, currently living in the Floyd, Virginia area, shares that he spent his summers on his grandparents’ farm in eastern North Carolina. Greenville to be exact, out on highway 43. He and others laughed afterwards, speaking of the rigors of working in tobacco. “They just don’t know,” he says, referencing young people today, and their view of hard work.

“I got my first fiddle in 1975 and it became an appendage,” White remembers. “I learned by watching people. I tell my students if they hum a tune or whistle it, they can play it. You’ve just got to get in it and feel the music.”

Earl White photo by Tom Whelan

White shares that he didn’t start as a musician, but as a dancer, with the Green Grass Cloggers. He was around the music so much that he became enthralled and had to learn. He remembers sitting and watching a fiddler play at the Rathskeller in Greenville. White came to Greenville to attend East Carolina University in 1972 and stayed in the area until the mid-’80s.  

The fiddle Earl White plays now has a sticker in it saying it was last repaired in 1917. “It has a lot of names etched on it, ” he says, “and they look like names of sisters, as if it was played in a convent.”

A contingent of the Green Grass Cloggers, from Greenville and Asheville, led a square dance on Saturday night in the Berkley Barn.

With a full mix of storytelling, activities, and art in just about every form, Ocrafolk has established itself as an annual homecoming of friends and collaborators. On Sunday, the final day of the festival, founding band Molasses Creek participated with other musicians in a super-jam of sorts, playing gospel and folk songs, often by request.

Louis Allen jokes, “If there’s a song you’d like to hear, journal that, and in the morning talk to your therapist about it. That’s how we get better. In the meantime, we’ll sing what we want to.”

If Captain Ahab was still sailing the seas around Ocracoke, he’d surely say, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever there is a damp drizzly November in my soul–I account it high time to get to Ocrafolk as soon as I can.”

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Originally published in the Daily Reflector on June 10, 2023.

Finale photo by Tom Whelan

Jeff the Mime