The sweet sounds of the Dunleath Porchfest create community
By Ross Howell Jr. • Photographs by Lynn Donovan
For an early June afternoon it’s hot and the air is heavy. Though thick clouds are helping keep the temperature down, their dark, ragged patches threaten a storm.
Despite the heat and humidity, lots of people have come out for the 2019 Dunleath Porchfest. Passerbys smile and nod as my wife, Mary Leigh, and I walk along Percy Street northeast of downtown along Summit Avenue We overhear the murmur of friends talking, their conversations punctuated with laughter.
We stop in front of a porch to enjoy the sweet harmonies of a traditional music group called Turpentine Shine. There are festival T-shirts for sale under a canvas tent. A couple of enterprising elementary schoolers have a lemonade stand set up close by.
Mary Leigh and I saunter on, glancing at the darkening clouds, then turn and start down Fifth Avenue. Just across from Sternberger Park we join a group gathered on the sidewalk in front of a house overlooking the street. Some people have opened their umbrellas for shade.
I speak to a pleasant-looking lady wearing a straw sunbonnet and learn that we’re standing in front of her house. She’s Andi Christensen, who in 2016 moved all the way from Los Angeles, to make her home here. In L.A. she ran a successful dry-cleaning business for 50 years, living in an older neighborhood near Santa Monica Airport that had sprung up with the growth of Hughes Aircraft Company during World War II.
“I’m a native Angeleno, so I love L.A.,” Christensen says. “It’s such an interesting city. But it had become so congested, it was a hard place to live.”
When a niece who lives in Greensboro suggested she relocate here, Christensen decided to have a look. On a quick trip East she found the house on Fifth Avenue, and decided it was the one for her. “With a porch view of the park, the house was so pleasant. I just loved it,” she says.
The year she moved in, a neighbor across the street hosted one of the annual performances that serve as the centerpiece of the neighborhood’s porch festivals. Christensen was interested in participating, so she asked her neighbors how to become involved. The neighbors put her in touch with the organizers.
So here we are. We look up the steps to a porch where a blonde-haired lady sits on a stool with her guitar. She’s musician Denise Ball, who’s traveled from Charlotte to perform. She’s just been introduced to the audience by Greensboro’s mayor, Nancy Vaughan. Ball bends over the guitar body and picks a few notes, listening. Then she smiles.
To tell the truth, she’s manicured and dressed like she just had lunch at the Greensboro Country Club. But when she starts to sing, it ain’t about chicken salad and sparkling water, Baby. This lady’s singing the blues.
Two girls stop arranging their miniature tea set in the front yard to look up and listen. So does the dachshund at the end of his leash snuffling in the flowerbed that borders the sidewalk.
Some background: After public hearings, Greensboro City Council voted unanimously in 2017 to change the name of the Charles B. Aycock Historic District to the Dunleath Historic District. Months earlier the name of the neighborhood middle school had been changed from Aycock to Melvin C. Swann Jr. Middle School, honoring “Mel” Swann, who worked for 36 years in the Greensboro City and Guilford County school districts.
The name change process sometimes provoked discord.
The school and historic neighborhood had been named in honor of Charles B. Aycock (1859–1912) of eastern North Carolina. The problem was this: While serving as governor 1901–1905, Aycock had proved to be a strong friend to education, but as a candidate, he had supported a proposed Jim Crow amendment to the state constitution that stripped African Americans of the right to vote. Many residents were troubled by the racist legacy his name connoted. But UNCG professor and neighborhood resident David Wharton, along with others, had a ready alternative at hand.
In 1857 prominent Greensboro native Robert P. Dick (1823–1898) and his wife, Mary Eloise, decided to build a mansion on their property, which at the time comprised nearly all the boundaries of the area now recognized as the neighborhood historic district. Dick was opposed to Southern secession, even though he was a slave owner. After the Civil War he donated farmland to former slaves and supported passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. constitution that guaranteed the right of former slaves to vote.
Robert and Mary Eloise Dick’s mansion was named “Dunleath,” and it stood facing Church Street until its demolition in the 1960s.
With the vote by city council, the matter of the name change was settled. But many residents were concerned that the bonds of the tight-knit community had been damaged. What could be done to strengthen newly named Dunleath?
Resident, archaeologist and musician Shawn Patch had a suggestion. A friend had told him enthusiastically about a porch festival in the Oakhurst neighborhood of Decatur, Georgia.
To Patch that sounded like just the tonic Dunleath needed. For the first porch festival he envisioned a small event with five or six performance locations, perhaps where only neighbors turned out to listen.
“I would consider that a success, just because we want to get people out of their houses and walking around the neighborhood and circulating,” Patch told the Greensboro News & Record three years ago. “Anything above and beyond that is going to be wildly successful, in my opinion.”
Patch’s group, The Radials, was the final act in Sternberger Park that first porch festival.
Fast forward to 2019.
In the course of this afternoon, on the hour from noon till 4 p.m., some 44 individual musicians and bands are performing from 40 porches in 45-minute sessions throughout the Dunleath neighborhood.
There are performers like The Can’t Hardly Playboys, Mistura, Farewell Friend, The Smiling Bees, Momma Molasses, HighStrung Bluegrass Band, Grand Ole Uproar, Headless Chickens, Disaster Recovery Band, The Imperfectionists, Hokum Pokum, Minor Swing Band, Walker Street Fiddlers, and more. Genres include millennial blues, English and American folk, bluegrass, Irish and Celtic, old-time, honky-tonk, jazz, rhythm and blues, Bossa Nova and classic rock.
Also included on the program are a slew of Triad singer/songwriters — among them, Doug Baker, Bigdumbhick (a.k.a. Jeff Wall), Nick Boulet, Dean Driver, Beau James, Tony Low, Bobbie Needham and Casey Noel.
There’s even a “Kids Track” — venues where young musicians Colton Lindfors, 9; Finn Phoenix, 8; and Maggie Yarborough, 16; play 15-minute sessions alongside more seasoned performers.
All the events are free. Stations are available for people to donate canned goods for Triad Health Project’s food pantry.
And in the high noon slot, Shawn Patch plays and sings with the Mason Jar Confessions from the front porch of his and his wife Paula’s big, old house on Cypress Street.
Sometimes it’s necessary to open our umbrella against fat raindrops as the hours pass, but the showers don’t last. Around 4 o’clock everyone gathers at Sternberger Park for the finale, a performance by The Zinc Kings, who play old-time, bluegrass, folk and traditional music. Some families have brought picnic spreads. For those of us who are unprepared, there are food vendors.
The shadows grow longer across the park, and at woods’ edge, we see a firefly or two.
From discord, sweet harmonies. Surely, somebody’s said that.
Anyway, it fits Dunleath neighborhood well. OH
Ross Howell Jr. lives with his wife Mary Leigh and rescue dogs Sam and Lucy in Fisher Park, just across the railroad bridge from Dunleath.