Traditions continue at Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Showcase

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The Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Showcase features traditional crafts, music, Brunswick stew and more on Sunday at James Monroe’s Highland (formerly Ash Lawn-Highland). Photo: Courtesy of VFH The Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Showcase features traditional crafts, music, Brunswick stew and more on Sunday at James Monroe’s Highland (formerly Ash Lawn-Highland). Photo: Courtesy of VFH

I see apprenticeships as a crucial part of keeping folk traditions alive,” says Jack Dunlap, a mandolin player who is part of the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Showcase. In the program’s most recent class, Dunlap worked with master musician Danny Knicely. Together, they composed and recorded a bluegrass album titled Chop Shred and Split: A Mandolin Player’s Apprenticeship. It made waves in the mandolin-playing community, and earned a feature on Mandolin Cafe as well as was named Best Bluegrass Album of the Year by the Washington Area Music Association. The experience was “one of the most fulfilling learning experiences that I ever had,” Dunlap says. Knicely was also impressed. “The accomplishments of our apprenticeship exceeded my hopes,” he says.

In addition to Knicely, close to 150 master artists have participated in the apprenticeship program since its launch in 2002. As part of the larger Virginia Folklife Program, led by Jon Lohman, it cultivates an appreciation for and continuation of folk traditions across the commonwealth. Each year, the community is invited to celebrate the work of master artists and their apprentices at the annual showcase, which will take place on May 15 at James Monroe’s Highland.

“It is always an uplifting experience to see just what a wide and amazing variety of folkways we have in our great state,” says Emily Spencer, a musician who previously participated in the program as a master artist. This year, she will return to the showcase stage with the Whitetop Mountain Band. “One thing I really love about the program is the embrace of such a large interpretation of Virginia folkways…foods, crafts, music, dance, ham curing, beekeeping…the list goes on. It is so vital that these ways are shared and passed down, and the folklife program is doing a commendable job, reaching throughout the communities in Virginia.”

The incoming class of master artists and apprentices features everything from Hindustani vocalists to old-time duet singers. “We work really hard to make it as diverse as possible, but you can measure diversity in so many ways,” says Lohman. “So, we try to really get around the state and we have traditions that are very new to Virginia and traditions that are very old in Virginia.”

According to Lohman, the showcase began as an opportunity to bring together folk practitioners to share their work and stories. Though it’s always been a community event, it’s grown significantly over the years. “It’s become something that people really look forward to,” he says. “When we started, I didn’t know if we would run out of stuff.” These days, the showcase remains focused on building community among folk artists while also focusing on an increased public appreciation for the traditions that endure in our region. “We try to make it about honoring the master artists and shedding light on and celebrating these traditions that people don’t know or think about,” says Lohman.

The outgoing class of apprentices this year includes a bluegrass fiddler, accordion maker, blues and gospel musician, blacksmith, salt maker and balalaika and mandolin players, to name a few. The incoming class of master artists and apprentices will work in papier-mâché sculpture, Cambodian costume making and square dance calling, among other folk traditions. Each team will be together for nine months in a one-on-one apprenticeship to ensure the skills and knowledge of the master are passed on to the apprentice to help keep traditions alive.

The 2016 showcase will serve as the launching point for this new class but will also feature a full schedule of old-time music and traditional dance performances, from bluegrass fiddling to balalaika playing, as well as craft and folk art displays and a variety of folkways foods. Some perennial food favorites will make an appearance, including the Proclamation Stew Crew’s traditional Brunswick stew cooked on-site for almost eight hours in a giant cauldron. Frances Davis, aka the Fried Apple Pie Lady, will also return with her Southwest Virginia home-cooked specialty. If that’s not enough, there will also be an oyster-shucking contest, traditional Joey’s Hot Dogs from Richmond’s West End, blacksmithing and salt-making demonstrations.

“One thing I always love is the jam sessions that bust out,” says Lohman. “I remember this old-time guitar player sitting down with this Iranian drummer…it’s those kinds of things that are really cool.” Knicely agrees. “I hope to jam with the other musicians there,” he says. “I think bluegrass mandolin and Russian balalaika will fit together quite well.”

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