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At first I couldn’t tell if it was the heat or the banjos that had woken me. All through the night, music had flared up around my tent — guitars, fiddles, double basses — sometimes close, sometimes off in the distance as if in a dream. And now I thought I might be dreaming too, of banjos plunking like raindrops, their notes crisp and clear and falling around me. But the playing continued, and I opened my eyes to realize that the tent was bright and thick with humidity, and the pillow beneath my head was soaked with sweat. The temperature was unbearable. I had pitched camp the previous afternoon without thinking to look for shade, and now, in the glare of the morning sun, my tent had transformed into a sauna. Cursing and wiping my face with a shirt, I fumbled with the flap and lurched outside.

The field was packed. Twice as many tents had appeared since I’d gone to sleep, stretching down the hill out of sight. One huge canopy was pitched right next door, and the music that had woken me was coming from a small group sitting underneath, instruments in hand. One of the women glanced over, waved cheerfully, and called out, “Morning!” before inviting me into the shade. She set down her guitar and introduced herself as Nickie. Then she held up a mason jar and asked if I’d like some moonshine. “Pink lemonade moonshine,” she clarified. “Homemade.”

More… “The New Old-Time”

Will Preston is a writer, journalist, and critic. His writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in publications across North America, including Smithsonian Folkways, The Common, The Masters Review, and PRISM International. A native of Virginia, he now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is at work on a book about Appalachian old-time. Visit him at Will Preston.

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Today, the term “bacchanal” is bandied about at almost any gathering where the guests get a bit tipsy and mildly frisky, but it originally referred to a specific ancient Roman celebration — the frenzied rites of Bacchus, god of wine and intoxication. Unlike the formal banquets so beloved by Roman aristocrats, these were essentially outdoor rave parties — anarchic romps held after dark in remote forest settings, where the quest for mania (a total festive abandon) could proceed unfettered beneath the stars. Luring hundreds of young initiates, the gatherings were as free-spirited and sexually charged as San Francisco’s Summer of Love, and even in ancient times they scandalized the prudish and disturbed the authorities. Today, those first Bacchanalia still echo through the ages as the prototypical legless debauch, where participants can achieve a pitch of euphoria that hovers between divine ecstasy and the oblivion of death.