by Ross Scarborough
Some people are born gypsies, wandering from town to town and never really settling down. Others are just old hippies, driving cross-country in their VW wagons and moving wherever the spirit moves them. And then there are the festival-goers. This suburbanized cousin of the gypsy and hippie loves to travel, too, but also enjoys long stretches in the comfort of their own homes where they can re-create their festival experiences with live DVDs, records, and the official festival T-shirt. This weekend, your ink-stained wretch joined the festival madness and attended middle Tennessee’s two most prominent festivals: Sewaneroo and the National Cornbread Festival.
For the past four years, I have heard about and desired to go to the Cornbread Festival. This has always been impossible for me, however, as both the Cornbread Festival and Sewaneroo happen the last weekend in April. This year, however, having passed the torch of responsibility to the next generation of Mountaintop Musicians, I was able to make a dream come true and experience the magical world of cornbread.
I was joined by my friend and festival companion Michael Grantz. Grantz and I consider ourselves to be true festival aficionados, our primary qualification being that we were determined enough to go to both festivals in spite of pouring rain and thunder. Sewaneroo was easy enough to handle, as it was held indoors in a large, warm, dry space. But the Cornbread Festival was a different matter. Taking up the entire length of downtown South Pittsburg, the Cornbread Festival simply cannot be contained by any single building.
Our morning started with a quick hike to a waterfall near Jumpoff Road, swollen and roaring with the weekend rain. Though it was brief, this hike was a good way to relax and appreciate our area’s natural beauty before exploring another festival. Although the rain held off for our hike, it was back with full force by the time we arrived in South Pittsburg. In spite of this, Grantz and I were joined by fellow festival goers equally determined to enjoy cornbread on a Sunday afternoon. The bad weather deterred any half-hearted festival goers, and Grantz commented that “only the most die-hard cornbread fans are out today.”
As soon as we stepped into the festival, a team of South Pittsburg youths greeted us with a platter of corn cakes, gleefully explaining that they were bona fide Martha White corn cakes and that we could have as many as we wanted for free. Eat your heart out, Lewis Grizzard: It seems we had died and gone to country-kitchen heaven. As we wandered from tent to tent, we soon discovered that the cornbread festival offered much more than just bona fide Martha White products. We stumbled upon a “canjo” (pronounced can-joe) builder who makes one-stringed instruments out of old Spam cans. “The white lining sounds best, that’s why we use Spam” he explained. We also found a blacksmith whose products ranged from the practical to the artistic. He and Grantz discussed the finer points of the blacksmith trade while I admired his collection of iron rattlesnakes.
The highlight of the festival was Cornbread Alley, the best four dollars I have ever spent. Cornbread Alley is about as straightforward as it comes: a small fee admits you to the upper echelons of cornbread royalty. You move swiftly down a long line of cornbread vendors, each one eager to share their product with you. Most are generous with their portions and want to explain what makes their cornbread the best. Conveniently located at the foot of the alley is a lemonade stand ready to help you wash down all of the cornmeal which you are about to consume. Grantz and I found a tent where a quartet was playing Tennessee mountain music, and we listened to some timeless bluegrass tunes as we discussed the subtleties of our cornbread variety plate. My personal favorite was the spicy red pepper cornbread, while Grantz preferred the salty-savory bacon and sun-dried tomato infused cornbread.
This festival weekend, with the back-to-back celebrations of Sewaneroo and the Cornbread Festival, serves as a pretty good microcosm of my time in Sewanee. No matter what stage in my Sewanee career, there are some things that have not changed. First among these things is music. Sewanee students have very good taste in music, all things considered. The fact that Sewaneroo was inside this year did not stop people from turning out to hear their friends and new musicians show their skills. Beyond literal music, Sewanee is itself a musical place. There is a certain rhythm and tempo to the Sewanee lifestyle that does not exist anywhere else. There is also harmony here, between friends and loved ones, professors and students, individuals and the nature that surrounds them. Our beloved domain is ordered by its own music that we experience in our daily life and works.
Nourishment is another things that has been part of my time at Sewanee. While the exact nutrition value of cornbread is still up for debate, it is refreshing to enjoy food that was made with diligence and care. The psychological benefits of this kind of nourishment are penance for how unhealthy the food is. Like cornbread, Sewanee is an environment that is both nourishing and comforting all at once. From Beta to Gailor to All Saints, Sewanee has nourished me mentally, physically, intellectually, and spiritually. The most important conversations of my time at Sewanee have ranged from one-on-one advisor meetings with professors to late-night treks across campus. Although the place and the people change, my ability to learn and grow from these conversations has remained the same.
Although it would be ludicrous for me to speak on behalf of my graduating class, I think we would all agree that the last four years have been a time of harmony and nourishment. I am grateful for all Sewanee has given me. With graduation around the corner, I am reminded that it is our memories and our friendships that will remain important long after we have left this place. Sewanee will change, and we will change, but our relationships with this place and each other will remain- so long as we are diligent to cultivate them. So to the class of 2013 I say EQB, YSR, and here’s to tomorrow.