Sharing Living Traditions:
Celebrating 25 Years of the Virginia Folklife Program
At the Richmond Folk Festival
The Virginia Folklife Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities is the state center for the documentation, presentation, support, and celebration of Virginia’s rich cultural heritage. Whether sung or told, hand-crafted or performed, Virginia’s rich folklife refers to those “arts of everyday life” that reflect a sense of traditional knowledge and connection to community. From decoy carving to fiddle making, from country ham curing to old-time banjo playing, from African American gospel singing to Mexican folk dancing, the Folklife Program helps to ensure that Virginia’s treasured folkways continue to receive new life and vibrancy.
The Folklife Program produces workshops, performances, exhibitions, and audio and video recordings, and supports apprenticeships in a wide range of traditional arts and skills. Our ever-expanding fieldwork archive captures the stories of everyday people living extraordinary lives, documenting many ways of life that are unique to the region, and some that are on the cusp of great change.
The music and material traditions of the 2014 Virginia Folklife Area will showcase many of the deeply cherished traditions of Virginia, both old and new.
The 2014 Union/University of Richmond Folklife Stage Performers:
Folklife Traditional Crafts Area will feature demonstrations by:
Virginia Folklife Stage Performers:
Enslaved Africans brought the earliest versions of the banjo to Virginia. Various West African gourd stringed instruments, such as the n’goni and the kora, developed into what we know as the modern banjo. By the nineteenth century, the banjo was America’s most popular instrument, but it was not until the 1940s, when Earl Scruggs introduced his patented “three finger style,” that the banjo found its most familiar home in bluegrass music. Sammy Shelor, of tiny Meadows of Dan in Patrick County, is one of the greatest bluegrass banjoists of our time—the player who best combines the riches of tradition with striking innovation. Sammy’s mountain musical pedigree runs deep. The Shelors are one of nine families who have carried on the Patrick County music tradition for more than 200 years. Sammy started playing the banjo at the age of four, and was performing with local bands by the time he was ten years old. At nineteen, he became a full-time professional musician, joining the band that eventually became the Virginia Squires. For the past twenty years, Sammy has led the Lonesome River Band, one of the finest bluegrass bands in the country. He has won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s award for Banjo Performer of the Year five times, and he received the 2011 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. Sammy deftly combines tradition and innovation, making him one of the most compelling banjoists in bluegrass.
In 1903, an African-Portuguese immigrant named Marcelino Manoel da Graça (Charles Manuel Grace), the son of a stonecutter from the Cape Verdean Island of Brava, came to the southeastern Massachusetts town of New Bedford. “Daddy Grace,” as he became known, was a dynamic spiritual leader who started the United House of Prayer for All People, a predominantly African American religious denomination. The United House of Prayer congregation eventually stretched up and down the East Coast, with one of its first and most successful churches in Newport News, Virginia. One of the hallmarks of United House of Prayer church services, baptisms, funerals, and parades is the exuberant band performances featuring the exclusive use of brass instruments, inspired by the words of Psalm 150: “Praise ye the Lord. Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet.” The United House of Prayer brass bands came to be known as “shout bands” because of their ability to move entire congregations to shout with heartfelt spiritual energy. The Bailey Hummingbirds, of Portsmouth, are the current torch-bearers of the great Virginia shout band tradition.
For generations Richmond has been recognized as a “gospel town,” with a vibrant tradition of African American gospel groups and choirs, and one of its most legendary figures is evangelist Maggie Ingram. Born July 4, 1930, on Mulholland’s Plantation in Coffee County, Georgia, Maggie worked in the cotton and tobacco fields with her parents. She began playing the piano and singing at an early age, developing a great love for the church and the ministry of the Gospel. Sister Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes soon became a singing group sought after for appearances throughout Florida. Maggie moved her family to Richmond in 1961, where she worked in the home of Oliver W. Hill Sr., the prominent civil rights attorney who had represented the Virginia plaintiffs in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. With her children, Maggie began a prison ministry, partnering with the Mt. Gilead Baptist Church in the 1970s. The Ingramettes have since become gospel icons in Richmond and have received numerous awards, including the prestigious Virginia Heritage Award in 2009. Maggie was awarded a doctor of music from Virginia Triumphant College and Seminary in 2011. Most recently, the Virginia Folklife Program produced a much-anticipated live recording of Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes, which received the Independent Music Awards Fan’s Choice for 2012 Gospel Album of the Year.
An elder in the Old Regular Baptist Church, Frank Newsome is a master practitioner of lined-out hymn singing, one of the deepest and oldest musical traditions of Virginia. Newsome was born in 1942 in Pike County, Kentucky, where his father worked as a coal miner. One of twenty-two children, Newsome began attending Old Regular Baptist church services as a child with his mother. He settled in Virginia about the age of twenty and worked in the coal mines. After more than seventeen years, Newsome contracted black lung disease and left the mines but took up new responsibilities at his church, using his vocal prowess to lead his congregation as a preacher and in the singing of hymns. He preaches at the Little David Old Regular Baptist Church in Buchanan County, Virginia. A small, tightly knit denomination located primarily in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and deep Southwest Virginia, Old Regular Baptists maintain the tradition of permitting no musical accompaniment in their services. Instead, the congregation sings a cappella, with a preacher or elder singing a line of a hymn and the congregation repeating the same line in a mournful blend of voices. Due to the small geographic area where Old Regular Baptist churches remain, this musical genre is not well known outside the region. The Virginia Folklife Program produced an album of Newsome's singing called Gone Away with a Friend, one of the few times that a leader of this singing style has ever been recorded. Frequent Little David Church attendee, bluegrass legend, and National Heritage Fellow Ralph Stanley has helped to draw attention to this art form by always having Newsome sing a hymn to open his annual Hills of Home music festival. In 2011, the NEA awarded Newsome the National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor the U.S. government bestows upon traditional artists.
Cheick Hamala Diabate was born into a griot family in Kita, Mali. In West African tradition, the griot is a male troubadour-historian whose hereditary role is to preserve and share the history, genealogy, and oral traditions of his people, in addition to providing advice and practicing diplomacy. As a child, Diabate learned to play the n’goni, a stringed instrument which is the precursor to the American banjo. His knowledge grew to include the history of Mali, passed down in his family for more than 800 years. Though Diabate plays the traditional trio of griot instruments—the n’goni, kora (gourd harp lute), and balafon (wooden xylophone)—he also embraces the panoply of sound he discovered in America. Like many American string players, including Béla Fleck, with whom Diabate has collaborated and performed, Diabate was intrigued by the similarities between the n’goni and the banjo. Seeking to mesh the sounds of the two instruments, Diabate collaborated with banjo player Bob Carlin on From Mali to America, which earned a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional World Music Albumin 2007. While many American musicians have traveled to West Africa or picked up the n’goni—thanks in part to Diabate’s introductions and instruction—few African musicians have engaged the banjo the way Diabate has.
The development of the five-string banjo, among the very first truly American-born instruments, provides a revelatory lens on the development of American popular music and culture, and the immense contributions of African cultural traditions. The instrument we now know as the banjo was derived from lutes brought by enslaved Africans to the New World, most notably the West African n’goni and kora. The European violin (fiddle) and the African-derived banjo likely comprised the “first duet” in the New World, providing the cornerstone of American musical forms for centuries to come. This special set, From Africa to Appalachia, will bring together Grammy-nominated master Malian griot Cheick Hamala Diabate with Sammy Shelor, one of the most celebrated bluegrass banjoists of his generation, and acclaimed multi-instrumentalist Danny Knicely.
If you have attended the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention any time in the last forty years, you will quickly recognize the familiar voice of Galax-native Harold Mitchell. Always impeccably dressed, donning a white cowboy hat, Harold has served as the instrument-contest emcee at Galax since 1972. Even before he began emceeing, Harold’s voice was long familiar to locals as the regular deejay at WHHV radio in neighboring Hillsville, spinning the records of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and other founding fathers of bluegrass. He has emceed countless musical performances in and around Galax ever since introducing his first artist, the great Charlie Monroe, some fifty years ago. Harold remains the gold standard of emcees against which all others are judged.
Jesse McReynolds, born in Coeburn, Virginia, in 1929, is renowned for his innovative cross-picking and split-string styles of mandolin playing and continues to be a major creative force in bluegrass. Jesse, along with his late brother, Jim McReynolds, formed the pioneering bluegrass band Jim and Jesse shortly after World War II. In the early 1950s, Jesse developed a mandolin cross-picking technique that added a syncopated effect similar to that of Scruggs-style banjo playing. It was widely imitated by his peers. In 1952, the brothers signed a contract with Capitol Records and changed the name of their act to Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys. Their big break came in 1964, when they were invited to join the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, which led to a lifelong career with the Opry. In 1997 the NEA awarded the brothers a National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor the U.S. government bestows upon traditional artists. They performed widely in the United States and abroad. Jim McReynolds died in 2002, but Jesse continues performing tirelessly. "We were just carrying on the tradition that our grandfather started when he recorded on the Bristol Sessions," Jesse McReynolds said. "We're still doing it after fifty years, and I guess that made an impression on someone somewhere."
Linda Lay was born and raised in Bristol, Virginia, a city at the heart of one of the nation’s richest breeding grounds for traditional musicians. She began singing on stage when she was eight years old. She played in her family’s string band, influenced by local traditional singers like Ralph Stanley, and one of the finest family bands in American music, the Carter Family. Linda grew up singing and dancing at the Carter Family Fold, a music hall at the Carter homestead at Hiltons, just west of Bristol. She traveled with her family’s band until she formed her own group, Appalachian Trail, which performed together for two decades. Linda has made many critically acclaimed recordings since, including a series released by the restaurant Cracker Barrel, and has toured throughout the country and abroad. Linda’s husband, David Lay, grew up listening to bluegrass and gospel music in northeastern Tennessee. He always wanted to be a farmer, and together he and Linda now own and operate Linda’s Mercantile and Farm in Winchester. When not growing hundreds of acres of tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables, David, an excellent guitar player, performs with Linda and their band Springfield Exit.
The etiquette of wearing elaborate, colorful hats to church dates can be traced to I Corinthians 11:15, where Paul calls for women to cover their heads while praying. The tradition has particularly flourished in African American communities, where women’s colorful and elaborate church attire is topped off with flamboyant hats, or “crowns.” To many, the tradition is about more than just wearing a fancy hat to church, but about walking into God's house feeling your best both inside and out. While the tradition of wearing colorful crowns to church remains more popular among the older generations, it has recently experienced a revival among younger women. A woman's hat speaks long before its wearer utters a word. It's what Deirdre Guion calls "hattitude ... there's a little more strut in your carriage when you wear a nice hat.” More than any article of female attire, such a hat serves simultaneously as a fashion statement, a religious tribute to God, and an emblem of self-worth.
Randy Cook began his musical career during high school, playing electric guitar with a local country band. Later, while attending Virginia Tech, bluegrass music enthralled him and he started playing guitar with the June Apple Band, performing at various festivals throughout southwestern Virginia. In the late 1990s Randy joined with banjo great James Bailey, formerly of the the Country Gentlemen, to form James Bailey & Company. The group recorded two CDs and introduced Randy to bluegrass music at the national level. Now the front man for Randy Cook and Commonwealth Bluegrass Band, he sings lead and plays the mandolin. Randy also plays guitar, bass, and pedal steel guitar, and in recent years has focused more of his attention on the vocal side of bluegrass music, singing lead and harmony parts. Randy particularly enjoys singing with his good friends David and Linda Lay.
Wild Ponies is a Nashville-based band led by Virginia natives Doug and Telisha Williams. Doug and Telisha are both from Martinsville, where boarded-up factories and shop windows serve as painful reminders of the grim economic plight of a small manufacturing town in an era of globalization. Doug first learned to play music from the elders of his family, all of whom hailed from musically rich Galax, seventy-seven miles west of Martinsville on Route 58. The Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention played a prominent role in Doug’s upbringing; he first appeared on stage in a banjo contest at age five. Besides being fine old-time musicians, Doug’s family wrote many songs, and Doug has emerged as one of the finest songwriters from the region. Telisha learned to sing from her uncle Sammy, who along with his brothers comprised a gospel quartet called the Believers. Together, Doug and Telisha write and perform country, honkytonk, and Americana music that draws from their experiences growing up in Martinsville and tales from their own imagination. Their songs give voice to the struggles of everyday people while seeming to conjure ghosts of the past. Yet, while steeped in tradition, they put their own indelible stamp on their music, infusing their songs with deep vitality, moxie, creativity, and soul.
Though often overshadowed by Southwest Virginia and its famed Crooked Road, the Shenandoah Valley and Virginia’s northwestern counties have always been fertile ground for traditional music, and they continue to be home to many of its finest practitioners. The region is situated between the Appalachian hills of West Virginia and the culturally diverse and ever-changing Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, and is known for producing musicians who transcend generic categories, deftly taking traditional music styles in new directions. Furnace Mountain, named for a mountain near where all the members grew up, consists of some of the most innovative and gifted young musicians in Virginia. With Aimee Curl on bass and vocals, Danny Knicely on mandolin and fiddle, Dave Van Deventer on fiddle, and Morgan Morrison on guitar, bouzouki, and vocals, the band creates music that is at times lively and raucous, with spirited fiddle melodies weaving in and around the powerful rhythms of the bass and bouzouki, and other times poignant and poetic, with sublime vocal harmonies beautifully interpreting some of the oldest songs ever written in addition to original compositions. Furnace Mountain has performed throughout the world, from the Yangtze River in China to the banks of the Shenandoah River, where they are the host band of Watermelon Park Festival, held on the site of one of the very first bluegrass festivals, in 1965.
From the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the coalfields region, Southwest Virginia has been blessed with great riches in traditional mountain music. Virginia’s Musical Heritage Trail, dubbed “The Crooked Road,” passes through many important historic and still thriving sites for the creation and passing on of old time, bluegrass, and mountain gospel music. Taking their name from Virginia’s most celebrated music trail, the Crooked Road Ramblers all hail from the Blue Ridge Mountains and have become favorites both along the Crooked Road and beyond, regularly winning fiddlers’ conventions and rocking dancehalls across the region. The band is led by fiddler Kilby Spencer, of Whitetop, Virginia. Kilby has been immersed in old time music his entire life—his parents, Thornton and Emily Spencer, are much-beloved local musicians who have been the backbone of the Whitetop Mountain Band for more than forty years. Peco Watson, longtime banjoist for the wildly popular New Ballards Branch Bogtrotters, guitarists John Perry and Donald Hill, bassist Karen Carr, and retired coal miner Wayne Dye on mandolin join Kilby. The Crooked Road Ramblers are first and foremost an old-time dance band, and joining them on stage at the 2014 Richmond Folk Festival is Kilby’s sister, Martha Spencer, one of the finest flat footers and musicians in old-time music.
Virginia Folklife Area Craft Demonstrators
Gerald Anderson began making mandolins more than thirty years ago in Wayne Henderson’s shop and has since crafted more than 100 instruments. After he graduated from college, Anderson spent considerable time in the famous guitar-maker’s busy workshop in Rugby, Virginia, observing and playing with Henderson. Soon he developed an interest in making his own fine-quality instruments and set out to reproduce the sounds of the classic Gibson-Loar mandolins of the 1920s. He shared a workspace with Henderson until several years ago, when Anderson moved his tools and instruments into the bottom level of his own home. Anderson has since shared his expertise with apprentice Spencer Strickland. In the many years Anderson has been crafting mandolins he has also played old-time music with friends including Henderson, Jimmy Edmonds, and Butch Barker. Anderson has made more than twenty-five recordings and has more than 200 ribbons from musical competitions, the most prestigious being the award for best guitar player at the 2003 Galax Fiddlers’ Convention.
Jackson Cunningham moved to Southwest Virginia in 2005 and met the late Audrey Hash Ham, a Virginia Master Artist in fiddle making who learned her skills from her father, the legendary luthier Albert Hash. Jackson, a lifelong woodworker, immediately began making fiddles under Audrey's guidance, and soon he was building custom hand-crafted fiddles, some with ornate carvings and inlay, and fashioned of local red spruce and maple trees, just like Audrey’s and Albert’s. At the same time, Jackson’s shop was just down the road from famed guitar maker Wayne Henderson. At Wayne's shop in Rugby, Virginia, Jackson received lessons in guitar making from Wayne, as well as from fellow guitar maker Don Wilson. Jackson used his knowledge of fiddle making along with Wayne and Don's influence in traditional guitar-making styles and techniques to start building archtop guitars inspired by the old 1920s-era Gibson L5s. Jackson's dedication to the craft, attention to detail, and commitment to traditional styles has quickly earned him a reputation locally and around the world as an up-and-coming luthier. When he’s not is his shop in Rugby making guitars and fiddles, Jackson performs worldwide with Martha Spencer as the Whitetop Mountaineers.
Don Leister builds violins and violas in his shop located in Richmond, Virginia. He has a fine arts and professional woodworking background. Though primarily self-taught, he has attended numerous workshops and short courses and consults continually with other professional makers and musicians. His instruments closely follow the patterns and concepts of the masters from Cremona, Italy, the birthplace of the violin. Don carefully selects each block of wood that goes into the making of an instrument and prefers traditional aged European tonewoods. He makes his own traditional oil varnishes, stains, and sealers. These are the details unique to each maker. His customers include both professional classical players and folk musicians and he enjoys helping students and amateur players select an instrument that suits their style and personal preference, saying, “Each instrument has its own character.” Since completing his first instrument in 1989, he has completed more than sixty instruments, including violins, violas, and a cello. Nate Leath, the winner of the 2011 Virginia Folklife Area fiddle competition at the Richmond Folk Festival, received a Don Leister original fiddle.
The hills of Grayson County, encompassing the small mountain communities around Mount Rogers, are a veritable hotbed of luthiers—builders of fretted, stringed instruments. Some of America’s finest guitars, mandolins, fiddles, autoharps, and dulcimers are built in this part of Virginia. The amazing instrument-building tradition of this region can be traced largely to one man, the late Albert Hash, a gifted craftsman, fiddler, and generous soul who taught fiddle and guitar making to many of the area’s premiere artists, including Wayne Henderson, Gerald Anderson, Audrey Hash Ham, and Walter Messick. Walter studied with Albert during his final years, and since has become a true master builder of the mountain dulcimer, also known as the lap or Appalachian dulcimer. Belonging to the family of instruments known as zithers, the mountain dulcimer is believed to have been in existence in Southwest Virginia since the nineteenth century. Walter specializes in the hourglass-shaped dulcimer, modeled after various versions he has studied from the late nineteenth century.
Patented in 1881 by German instrument repairman Charles Zimmerman, the autoharp first gained popularity in the United States as a novelty instrument. By 1900, when the initial fad had passed, the autoharp had found an enduring home in the southern mountains, where many residents took to making their own instruments. John Hollandsworth is a Christiansburg native who grew up listening to friends and relatives play stringed instruments. He eventually developed his own autoharp style, which incorporates both chromatic and diatonic techniques. John began repairing autoharps more than thirty years ago, and made his first complete instrument in the early 1990s. Today his Blue Ridge Autoharps are recognized as some of the highest-quality custom-made autoharps in the country. Known for his fine playing as well as for instrument building, John was the first winner of the prestigious Mountain Laurel Autoharp Championship in Pennsylvania, and has been named Best All-Around Performer at the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention three times, the only autoharp player ever to win this recognition.
Pastor Mary Onley, known as Mama-Girl, is a self-taught artist who was born, reared, and still lives in her hometown of Painter, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Her lyrical sculptures are similar to papier-mâché‚ but made without wire or other frame, and consist exclusively of newspaper and glue. Mama Girl’s life bears similarities to the acclaimed painter of the Harlem Renaissance, Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000). Both Lawrence and Mama Girl came from families who labored on farms. Neither could go to school because the money they earned in the fields was crucial to support their families, and both discovered art as way of expressing their spirituality. Mama Girl says, “If the Spirit don’t give it to me, I can’t do it.” Mama Girl has shown her unique paper sculptures and paintings at craft shows across the Mid-Atlantic, and is the favorite of many folk art collectors.
The oyster population of the Chesapeake Bay was once one of the most plentiful in the nation, and oyster harvesting was long a booming industry throughout the bay’s communities. During the 1960s, decades of disease, pollution, and habitat destruction led to a significant drop in the oyster population. With fewer oysters, the health of the bay declined because oysters feed on sediment and algae, which, when left unchecked, cloud the water and kill underwater grasses essential to maintaining water quality. The Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population has undergone a recent resurgence as a result of innovative techniques used by watermen who have moved from the traditional planting of shells on the bay’s floor to aqua-farming using cages, racks, and floats. Dudley Biddlecomb, of Fairport, is among those leading the charge toward this new form of aquaculture. Dudley has been in the oyster business for his entire life, and still lives adjacent to his family’s oyster beds on the farm where he was born and where his grandfather dredged oysters in the late 1800s. Dudley has become a major advocate and educator in new oystering techniques and is an expert on factors that affect the health and growth of oysters. He has shared his knowledge of the oysters of the Chesapeake region widely, including with the Reedville Fisherman’s Museum as well as the University of Virginia's Department of Environmental Sciences.
For communities on Virginia’s Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula, the oyster fishery was perhaps the largest and most influential industry from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Men and women employed by the industry worked a variety of jobs, from boat cook, captain, and crew, to shore-based scow gangs and shuckers. Shucking in particular provided many employment opportunities for African Americans throughout the Chesapeake region. Sisters Deborah Pratt and Clementine Macon Boyd, whose parents met while working in one of the many small oyster houses that dotted the Northern Neck coastline, are two of the top shuckers in the world, each capable of deftly opening two dozen oysters in less than three minutes. Though the oyster industry has declined since the mid-1990s, shucking remains a highly competitive sport. Deborah and Clementine have each won the prestigious Virginia State Oyster Shucking Championship held every year in Urbanna and the National Oyster Shucking Championship in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, where they earned the right to compete in the International Oyster Opening Championship in Galway, Ireland. The two sisters have battled it out in three epic contests on the Virginia Folklife Stage at the Richmond Folk Festival, with Clementine pulling off the upset in the first match, and Deborah taking the next two.
The traditional skill of making baskets from white oak is hundreds of years old and involves an in-depth study of the grain structure of the tree. Each white oak tree behaves differently, so basket makers must work with hundreds of trees to gain an intimate understanding of the nuances of the wood. Clyde Jenkins, known as one of the finest basket makers in the country, began making split-oak baskets at age eleven. Clyde grew up in the Shenandoah Mountains, where he still lives, and learned this unique craft from older members of the community. As a young man, Clyde worked for the Department of the Interior and was stationed at Shenandoah National Park, where he practiced stonework and other building crafts. It was there that Jenkins honed his craft as a basket maker. His fine basketry work was recognized by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and he soon became its primary basket supplier. Clyde has shared his love of basket making with his family, including his son, his brother, and his wife, the late Mary Lou Sours. Clyde teaches basket making across the country and has demonstrated his talents at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the National Folk Festival, the Highlands Festival, and many others.
For more than 100 years, the Butler family has been handcrafting wooden boats in Reedville. Situated between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers on Virginia’s Northern Neck, Reedville was established in 1874 as home base for a large menhaden fishery. George Butler’s grandfather, Sam Butler, purchased the site on which he would establish the Reedville Marine Railway boatyard in 1906. George joined the family business in the 1970s. He draws from three generations of shared knowledge to build both commercial and pleasure boats using traditional Chesapeake designs and methods. Butler does not use drawings or plans but rather draws upon experience and familiarity with the waters of the bay. He has built all sizes and types of boat from the Chesapeake deadrises used for crabbing, oystering, and fishing to large charter boats. He typically uses white cedar and oak in the construction of his highly desirable wooden boats. Today, George runs the boatyard and represents the finest of maritime craftspeople. Virginia’s former commissioner of marine resources, William Pruitt, once said his favorite skiff “was a Butler skiff and it was the best boat in the world.” George has passed on the tradition of boat building through his participation in the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program. His son Wesley is now also part of maritime life, working on tug boats out of Reedville, and helping his father build boats.
Michael Vlahovich, master shipbuilder and restorer, comes from a long line of watermen. His family immigrated to the northwestern United States from the island of Brac on Croatia’s Dalmation coast early in the twentieth century. They brought with them the skills and knowledge associated with a seafaring lifestyle. A third-generation fisherman and shipbuilder, Vlahovich began his career as a commercial salmon fisherman on the Puget Sound and in southeastern Alaska. After developing a deep respect for the craft of shipbuilding, Michael studied wooden boat construction under accomplished shipwright Joe Trumbly. Later Mr. Vlahovich relocated to the Eastern Shore and managed the Skipjack Restoration Project supported by the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. During his tenure he restored commercial skipjacks for use in the last commercial fishing fleet in the United States. He went on to found the Coastal Heritage Alliance, a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to the preservation and advancement of commercial fishing cultural heritage.
The son of a game warden and hunter, with family roots on the Eastern Shore dating back to the mid-1600s, Grayson Chesser spent much of his childhood duck hunting in the marshes around the Chesapeake Bay and collecting hand-carved decoys. Today he is one of the most respected decoy carvers of his generation, having learned carving at the feet of masters Cigar Daisy and Miles Hancock. "The kids I went to school with," Grayson often tells, "they all wanted to grow up to be the next quarterback for the Baltimore Colts. Me, I always dreamed of being a decoy carver and goose guide." Today he makes a living by carving decoys and running Holden Creek Gun Club with his wife, Dawn. Chesser’s decoys are highly valued on the collector's market, but his preference is still to carve decoys for hunting purposes. In 1995, Chesser wrote the definitive guide to decoy carving, Making Decoys the Centuries-Old Way. He became a game warden himself and has a lifetime of experience in hunting and regulating the hunting grounds of the region. Chesser has paid homage to those who taught him in his youth by participating in the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program. His commitment to teaching the nuances of this tradition makes him an invaluable member of the carving community and is part of the reason why he was honored with the first-ever Virginia State Heritage Award in 2009.
Spencer Strickland grew up in southwestern Virginia in a family steeped in music. His mother sang and his father played guitar in a family gospel band that performed at churches and community events in the region. At age ten, Spencer began taking mandolin lessons with local musician and sound engineer Wesley Easter. Since then Spencer has gone on to win prestigious awards for his playing, such as first place in the 2004 and 2008 mandolin competitions at the Galax Old Fiddlers' Convention, first place in the 2005 Merle Watson Mandolin Championship at MerleFest, and Best All-Around Performer at the 2004 Galax Old Fiddlers' Convention. In 2004, Spencer began an apprenticeship through the Virginia Folklife Program with guitar and mandolin builder Gerald Anderson. The apprenticeship led to a business partnership known as Anderson & Strickland String Instruments. Spencer assisted Gerald in the making of more than 100 instruments, has built more than 40 guitars and 10 mandolins, and works independently under the name of Strickland String Instruments. Spencer has played professionally for the award-winning Kenny & Amanda Smith Band. He now performs with the Church Sisters and the Virginia Luthiers, an all-star band of instrument makers and master pickers that includes Gerald, Jimmy Edmonds, and Wayne Henderson.
Chris Testerman is originally from the small community of Whitetop, located in Grayson County, Virginia. He became interested in old-time country music at an early age and, while attending Mount Rogers Combined School, joined the Albert Hash Memorial Band. (The program, started by Albert Hash in the early 1980s and taken over by his daughter Audrey Hash Ham after his death in 1983, is led by Emily Spencer.) Chris began taking clawhammer banjo lessons at age nine and later took up the guitar and fiddle. He later took lessons from champion fiddler Thornton Spencer, of the Whitetop Mountain Band. The fiddle became his passion, and he soon learned the techniques of fiddle making from Audrey Hash Ham. In 2012, Chris apprenticed with Walter Messick, who specializes in making mountain dulcimers. Chris also performs regularly with the Cabin Creek Boys and competes widely in fiddlers’ conventions throughout Appalachia.
The accordion, a box-shaped instrument first patented in Vienna in 1829, was a folk instrument played largely by commoners. At the turn of the twentieth century, European emigrants took the accordion around the world and popularized it in the United States by performing on vaudeville and in a variety of musical styles including zydeco, Cajun, and polka. Dale Wise’s childhood fascination with the accordion led him to the Ottawa, Illinois, music studio of Carlos Santucci, who mentored him in the arts of accordion playing and repair. Dale is in great demand for both. He has played for countless thousands of schoolchildren and five U.S. presidents. As a repairer, he has earned the confidence of some of the finest accordionists in the world, who entrust him with their cherished instruments. Dale is on a mission to advance understanding of and interest in the accordion, and this mission continues with his participation in the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program. A central project of the apprenticeship will be the restoration of National Heritage Fellow Flory Jagoda’s seventy-five-year-old Hohner Student III accordion, the only possession she brought with her when she escaped Nazi-occupied Zagreb in 1941.
Sandwiched between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, the Eastern Shore is steeped in the rich history of waterfowl hunting and its method-turned-folk-craft, decoy carving. Captain P. G. Ross is a native of the Eastern Shore, and his ancestors have plied the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean since the 1600s. The marshes and waterfowl hunting were a natural part of his upbringing. P. G. has been carving decoys for more than twenty-five years. He continues to learn tricks of the trade from present-day Eastern Shore masters such as Grayson Chesser and Cigar Daisy, who themselves follow in the footsteps of legendary carvers the Wards, the Cobbs, and Miles Hancock. P. G. develops his vision for his decoys through close observation while fowling, fishing, and working in the salt marshes of the Shore. When not working as a marine biologist, P. G. serves as a waterfowl-hunting and fishing guide. He has contributed his own unique style to the ever-growing Eastern Shore decoy-carving legacy.