Bee keeping, Mexican molé making, farm tool construction and chair making were all in the spotlight at the 10th annual Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Showcase, held Sept. 15. The event, which demonstrates a broad range of folk traditions in the commonwealth, was presented through the Virginia Folklife program, an offering of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
The program’s nine-month apprenticeship program pairs masters of various types of cultural traditions in Virginia, ranging from music to the crafts, food and work-related traditions, with aspiring practitioners from all over the state for one-on-one mentoring. The program works to ensure that traditional art forms, from curing country hams to old-time banjo playing, are passed on in ways that are conscious of history and faithful to tradition.
This year’s showcase featured masters of a wide range of traditional music styles, including National Heritage Award-winning guitar maker Wayne Henderson, bluegrass legend Buddy Pendleton and Sephardic Jewish ballad singer Flory Jagoda.
Also on stage throughout the day were Chickahominy tribal dancing, a mock fiddlers’ contest and an oyster-shucking competition. Featured food crafts included authentic Brunswick stew, famous fried apple pies and molé sauce, a staple of traditional Mexican cuisine.
The works of quilt makers, gunsmiths, instrument and chair makers and a letter-press printer also were displayed by master artisans, with their apprentices at their side.
“I think what has surprised me most is the positive impact that the experience has had on the master artist,” said Jon Lohman, director of the Virginia Folklife Program. “I think when we started, we were thinking of it more from the apprentices’ perspective. But what we’ve seen as well is that the experience has often had a transformative effect on the teachers, serving often to really reenergize them in their work.”
First-time apprentice and University of Virginia employee Lorie Strother added some soul to the showcase, showing off her refined skills in singing and playing the blues. She worked with blues artist Gaye Adegbalola, a nationally recognized solo performer and founding member of the award-winning, all-woman blues band Saffire: The Uppity Blues Women.
Strother, a contract administrator in Procurement and Supplier Diversity Services, said the program attracted her because she wanted to improve her performance skills. “While I have been performing classic blues music publicly for 14 years now, there [was] still oodles to learn,” she said.
She contacted Adegbalola about the apprenticeship program after meeting her at a weeklong blues camp in West Virginia, and the two were accepted shortly after.
“We do not play ‘match maker,’ but rather want folks that already have a good relationship,” Lohman said. “We were familiar with Gaye’s work and definitely agreed that she is a true master of her craft, and that Lorie was already an accomplished singer and thus a perfect choice to be her apprentice.”
The pair met every four to six weeks. Adegbalola helped Strother fine-tune her guitar skills, work on her interactions with audiences and expand her vocal range. They also discussed songwriting and the business of music.
“One thing we discussed was that every time I saw her perform, she was anchored to the music stand,” Adegbalola said. “As she started learning new material, we worked on that.”
Strother explained, “The problem was that I never really took the time to commit the songs of my repertoire to memory. Once I started the apprenticeship, I sat down to practice a few of Gaye’s songs. For an hour, per song, I just listened and sang the songs repeatedly. I was amazed to find that the next day I actually recalled the lyrics. That was a big surprise for me. I have yet to wean myself off lyrics sheets totally, but I’m on my way to doing so.”
“We learned about each other and learned some songs – she’s got a foundation good enough that now I’m ready to put her back on stage,” Adegbalola said. “She could really do this for a living.”
“There is just not enough time,” Strother joked. “I need another three years with her.”
The duo performed in front of a packed audience at the outdoor showcase. Adegbalola stirred the crowd with some of her popular material, and then introduced Strother to the stage to perform together.
“I want to expand my performance region,” said Strother, who performs as part of the acoustic duo, Dr. Levine and The Dreaded BluesLady. “We have done a sprinkling of gigs in [Northern Virginia], D.C. and West Virginia … but I’d love to perform a mini-tour internationally. I hear the French love the blues. … I’m glad I had the opportunity to work in this capacity with Gaye. It was an experiential, meaningful blast!”
The Virginia Folklife Program was established in 1989 as part of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, with support from the Virginia Commission for the Arts and major funding from the NEA Folk Arts Program and the Virginia Commission for the Arts – a collaborative effort initiated by the Virginia Folklore Society. The program is dedicated to the documentation, presentation and support of Virginia’s rich cultural heritage.
The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, an independent, non-profit organization, was founded at U.Va. in 1974. It works with individuals and communities to explore the past, confront issues of the present and discover a promising future. For information about VFH, visit VirginiaHumanities.org.