In the eye of last weekend’s rainstorm, the historic Dunleath neighborhood came alive with the sound of banjos, mandolins and acoustic guitars. Kids scrambled to the nearest backyard with a playset while their parents and other couples strolled streets shaded by old trees. Some carried lawn chairs and red Solo cups filled with light beer. The humidity was in full force — it felt like walking through a giant cube of warm Jell-O, but nobody seemed to mind.
During the Dunleath Porchfest, hosted by the Dunleath Association last weekend, a total of 44 performances went on across 40 porches in the historic neighborhood. Lynne Leonard, Mebane Ham and Shawn Patch, the three Dunleath residents at the center of this festival, organized volunteers to put up arts-and-crafts booths where kids could make string instruments from paper plates, rubber bands and paint stirrers. They asked local eateries to set up shop at the center of the neighborhood and reached out to regional artists to put on sets. Attendees wandered the interweaving streets from lawn to lawn and finally ended up in Sternberger Park for the final concert.
Ham, who lives in a 100-year-old duplex in Dunleath, hosted some of the performances that took place during the annual event. Her stage was the stoop of her front door. Most of the onlookers crammed next to each other underneath the branches of the two small trees that grew in her front yard.
“Shawn had heard of [events similar to the Porchfest,]” Ham explained. “And our neighborhood’s name changed from Aycock to Dunleath, so we thought it’d be a good way to let people know about that.”
Ham said this was the first year that included performances by children. One of them, 8-year-old Finn Phoenix, played guitar and ukulele. Phoenix, like the other performers, had a small tip jar out in front of him and he plans to spend the money on a banjo. The final song of his performance, “Life at Lindley,” was a touching piece dedicated to Lindley Elementary School.
“I jump up out of bed and I hop on the bus,” sang Phoenix. “Rollin’ down Market street without a lot of fuss/ Destination: Lindley, where learning never ends/ My day is getting started — hello, all my friends.”
The crowd joined in with Phoenix, singing back the words during the chorus. After his show, the audience stayed largely put and waited for Daniel Ayers, a musician from Graham, who would play next. Ham introduced him as a folk singer with a sense of Southern sarcasm.
Ayers wore Chuck Taylors, jeans and a short-sleeved, button-up shirt. He performed a cover of “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” an anti-war song by Eric Bogle about a veteran who watches his fellow soldiers march in a parade from his front porch.
Towards the end of the song, Ayers sang, “And I watch my old comrades, how proudly they march/ Reliving old dreams of past glory/ And the old men march slowly, all bent, stiff and sore/ The forgotten heroes from a forgotten war/ And the young people ask, ‘What are they marching for?’”
“Y’all stuck around for that one,” said Ayers after the 6-minute ballad. “Let’s see about the next one, I’ll try not to offend…. I wrote this song after I graduated from college and came back to North Carolina. Have y’all seen the ‘Thank You, Jesus’ signs? This song is about those.”
Ayers plucked out the beginning of the song before he asked rhetorically, “How does this song start? It’s been a while since I sang it.” But after a few short moments his eyebrows lifted above the rim of his Wayfarer sunglasses in a moment of realization. He then carried on with his comedic tune about meeting Jesus Christ in person and asking him, “Can’t you see we’re prayin’ sinker, line and hook?/ Y’know I love your movie, but I never read the book.”
The crowd laughed at the satirical jabs towards performative Christians and gave a rousing applause at the end of the track. Ayers told audience members there are typically a few people who leave when he performs this piece, but things were different at Porchfest.
“The fact that nobody left during that one says a lot about [us],” Ayers said.
Dunleath is large enough to accommodate this kind of festival and yet small enough to offer a welcoming, grassroots atmosphere. It brings artists from all over the Piedmont together in a place where they can exchange ideas and create meaningful connections.
Ayers and Phoenix held an impromptu jam session before either of them went on stage.
Ham mentioned that she loved seeing the two of them play together and that Ayers probably had some things to teach Phoenix. However, it was the other way around.
“He taught me a new chord I didn’t know,” said Ayers in an interview on Ham’s stoop after his show. It was F minor.
You can find out more about Dunleath here.