CenterStage Virginia Folklife Area
Showcases Commonwealth’s Coast and Coal Fields
“From Maritime to Mountain Time” features music and demonstrations, from oyster shucking to decoy carving
September 21, 2010 (Richmond, VA) – This year’s CenterStage Virginia Folklife Area, curated by the Virginia Folklife Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and sponsored by Richmond CenterStage, explores the rich folkways of the two geographic ends of the state—the coast and the coal fields.
In “From Maritime to Mountain Time,” the interactive demonstration area will highlight the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and the rocky peaks of the Appalachian Mountains, as Virginia stretches more than 500 miles, and in some places reaches farther west even than Detroit, Michigan. Within that area we enjoy one of the most culturally rich and diverse states in the nation.
With the Northern Neck, Middle Peninsula, Tidewater, and Eastern Shore, Virginia is a bounty of maritime culture, particularly in the material culture of the men and women who have earned their livings on or from the water. The Virginia Folklife Area showcases many of these rich maritime traditions, including decoy carving, boat building, net mending, oyster shucking, sail making, and many more. Being that October is a “month with an R,” the area will also feature a no-nonsense, winner-take-all oyster shucking competition.
The CenterStage Folklife Stage will feature the music of deep Southwest Virginia, with a special emphasis on the coalfield region. Though lesser known perhaps than the musical traditions of the Blue Ridge, this region boasts an illustrious and important legacy in country, gospel, bluegrass, old time and blues music, and all are featured on the Folklife performance stage. This year’s lineup includes next generation Carter Family member Dale Jett, Appalachian Songster Ron Short, coalfield blues master Nat Reese, and many more.
The performers scheduled to appear on the CenterStage Folklife Stage this year are:
Dale Jett and Hello Stranger
Carter Family Legacy
Dale Jett is a native of Scott County, in deep Southwest Virginia. The son of Janette Carter and the grandson of A. P. and Sara Carter of the legendary Carter Family, his roots have been steeped within the heart of his family's musical heritage. Dale began playing guitar in his late teens when Elizabeth Cotten taught him his first chords in her unique style—left handed, upside down. Later, he added his own style of autoharp playing to his repertoire. His fine singing is powerful and compelling, yet at the same time delicate and haunting. Like his grandfather, Dale is also a collector of songs, and his performances encompass a unique combination of traditional songs and Carter Family standards as well as other material that extends beyond conventional country. Hello Stranger features Dale, his wife Teresa Jett on bass, and Oscar Harris on guitar, mandolin, and autoharp. Together they have played throughout the United States and have even appeared on the Grand Ole Opry.
Big Stone Gap, Virginia
For the past thirty years Ron Short, a native of the Appalachian Mountains of Dickenson County, has been the creative force behind Roadside Theater, an internationally known touring theatre based on the history and lives of Appalachian people. He has performed in eighteen Roadside touring productions, and has written the scripts and musical scores for a dozen musical plays that the company has toured across the United States and in Europe. His music is grounded but unique—influenced by the power of a cappella Old Regular Baptist, lined-out hymns, and the timelessness of the Scots-Irish fiddle tunes and frailed banjostyles of central Appalachia. Short has recorded and produced many albums of music and story (Wings to Fly, Cities of Gold, Singing, and Mountain Tales and Music), and most recently Appalachia: Music From Home, a collection of music to accompany the award-winning PBS series Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People. But it is live performance that Ron truly loves, and where all the elements of culture, story, and music come together.
Coal Camp Blues
Princeton, West Virginia
Nat Reese is a stunning acoustic-blues singer who, at age eighty-six, plays with relentless passion and soul. Reese was born in Salem, Virginia, in 1924, but soon moved with his family to the coal camps of West Virginia. Nat learned songs from itinerant black musicians who rode the rails from one mountain coal camp to another. Such camps were essentially company towns divided into "colored," white, and Italian sections, and the musicians played venues across the sections, developing repertoires tailored for different audiences. As such, young Nat was exposed to the blues at rowdy mostly-black juke joints and to country music at mostly-white honky-tonks. He first performed publicly at age nine, and had a long string of performances at regional coal camps such as Black Bottom, Fireco, Pineville, and Welch. He later sang with the gospel quartet Kings of Harmony, and in 1939 joined the Harmonizing Four Gospel Quartet. Nat performed regularly with multi-instrumentalist Howard Armstrong until Armstrong’s death in 2003. Nat is a national treasure, and he will be joined in Richmond by gifted harmonica player Phil Wiggins for what truly will be one of the most memorable sets of the festival.
New Harvest: Scott and Mike Mullins
Church of Brethren Gospel
The traditions of “white-spiritual” music thrive in Southwest Virginia. Scott and Mike Mullins were raised in Clintwood, in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia. Born into singing families, their repertoire has consisted of spiritual and gospel music. Scott’s late father, Billy Gene Mullins, was a coal miner, a musician, and Freewill Baptist minister. For more than sixty years, the members of the Mullins Family have sung at local pie suppers, tent revivals, funerals, memorial services, and countless other kinds of community gatherings in Dickenson County. Despite their prolific presence in the region, the Mullins Family and the entire singing style of the Church of Brethren had gone almost completely unheard outside the coalfields, until the Virginia Folklife Program produced the Mullins Family Anthology. The anthology includes more than sixty years of material from a variety of formats, such as homemade 78 and 45 rpm recordings. Scott and Mike Mullins carry on the traditions of the Mullins Family, playing their unique style of Appalachian Gospel, performing original and traditional songs from the family’s history.
Old Regular Baptist Singing
The singing of the Old Regular Baptists is one of the oldest and deepest veins of American spiritual singing traditions. This hymnody, with its elaborate, lined-out, unaccompanied singing is prevalent throughout the coalfield region of central Appalachia, but is barely known outside this region. It cannot be heard on television or radio, and is largely unavailable on recordings. Elder Frank Newsome, of Little David Old Regular Baptist Church outside of Haysi, Virginia, is one of the great masters of this singing style, which he uses to inspire his small but spirited congregation every Sunday. Frequent Little David attendee Dr. Ralph Stanley has been so enamored with Newsome’s singing that he regularly invites him to sing at his annual music festival. Frank’s singing has touched the hearts of many, and in 2009 he was honored with the first ever Virginia State Heritage Award.
Big Stone Gap, Virginia
The “clawhammer” banjo style is an essential aspect of old-time music, an ensemble-based, hard-driving music form that has inspired dancers across southern Appalachia for generations. Unlike the more popular bluegrass style which moves the banjo into the forefront, the clawhammer technique essentially preserves the banjo as a rhythm instrument, with the player’s thumbs bouncing off the short fifth string and stroking down on the others. Matthew Bright is a young musician from the Flatwoods community in Wise County, Virginia. He began playing bluegrass banjo as a kid when his dad bought him an old Sears and Roebuck Silvertone banjo. By age fifteen he was playing bluegrass gigs with his cousin Fiddlin' Dale Kennedy's band. When he was twenty he first heard a clawhammer banjo on a recording of his grandfather, Tom Bright, and the Bright Brothers band. Matthew quickly picked up the old-time banjo and has since won numerous banjo contests. Uncle Dave Dougherty, banjoist for the Stoneman Family, took Matthew under his wing, helping to further develop his playing. In 2008, Matthew began hand-building banjos of his own.
Big Stone Gap, Virginia
The traditional music of Southwest Virginia is held in good keeping by a number of young artists who infuse it with new energy and vibrancy. Sixteen-year-old Molly Slemp of Wise County has been singing since the age of three. Molly sings mountain ballads and coal mining songs with a voice that is arresting and textured beyond her years. Her rendition of the “West Virginia Coal Mining Disaster” was a standout cut on the award-winning compilation Music of Coal.
Todd Meade and Twin Springs Bluegrass Band
Bluegrass from the Coalfields
Scott County, Virginia
Todd Meade is a most impressive old time and bluegrass fiddler, carrying on the musical heritage of the Big Moccasin area of southwestern Virginia. Todd has played extensively with bluegrass bands throughout the region, including Dr. Ralph Stanley and His Clinch Mountain Boys, Carolina Road, and Appalachian Trail. He broke on to the national scene at the 2008 Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America 25th Annual National Convention, where he was nominated for Bass Fiddle Performer of the Year. Todd’s group Twin Springs Bluegrass Band plays hard-driving bluegrass faithful to tradition but with a youthful vibrancy and spirit. Todd is joined by Matthew Bright on guitar, Vicki Austin on bass, Tommy Austin on Mandolin, and Tom Cecil on banjo.
Northern Neck Chantey Singers
Menhaden Fishing Chanteys
Menhaden fishing has been a significant economic engine on Virginia’s Northern Neck since shortly after the Civil War. Menhaden are bony, oily fish in the herring family. Unfit for human consumption, they have had many practical uses in products such as fertilizer and animal feed, paint, cat food, and fingernail polish. Reedville, Virginia, has long been the center of the menhaden processing industry, although the industry has declined in recent years. Menhaden travel in large schools and are most efficiently caught in nets. Traditionally, the work of pulling up these large heavy nets was carried out predominately by African American crews, hauling thousands of tons of menhaden every year. Drawing upon the deeply-rooted African American work song tradition employed for many types of manual labor, the workers accompanied the back-breaking hauling with call-and-response-style singing. These work songs, known as chanteys, provided the net workers with energy, camaraderie, distraction, and spiritual encouragement. In the mid-twentieth century, hydraulic power blocks to pull up the nets replaced the large fishing crews and eclipsed the unique musical tradition that accompanied their work. The African American tradition of chantey-singing is being kept alive by the Northern Neck Chantey Singers, former watermen who perform around the country. We are fortunate that seven of the members of this group, led by Elton Smith, Jr. of Shacklefords, Virginia, carry on this storied singing tradition, keeping these chanteys alive.
The list of hands-on crafters that will provide exhibits and demonstrations in the CenterStage Folklife Area are:
The son of a game warden and hunter, and 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 both 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 interest and commitment to teaching the nuances of this tradition are what make him such an invaluable part of the carving community and are part of the reason why he was honored with the first-ever Virginia State Heritage Award in 2009.
For more than one hundred 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. In the 1970s George joined the family business. 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 passed on the tradition of boat building by participating in the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program, and now his son Wesley is also part of maritime life, working on tug boats out of Reedville, and also helping his father build boats.
The Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population was at one time one of the most plentiful in the nation with its ideal brackish waters, and oyster harvesting was a booming industry throughout the Bay’s communities. Oyster farming was likely developed in tandem with pearl farming, and dates back to at least the ancient Romans, as early as the first century BC. In the 1960s, decades of disease, pollution, and habitat destruction led to the decline of the oyster population in the Bay, nearly destroying them completely by late in the 1980s. 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 the Bay’s water quality. Fortunately, the Bay oyster population has experienced 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 farming using cages, racks, and floats. Thus, the number of farmed oysters nearly tripled between 2005 and 2006, and growers predict continued increases during the next growing seasons. Among those leading the charge toward this new form of aquaculture is Dudley Biddlecomb of Fairport, Virginia. Dudley has been in the oyster business for his entire life, and still lives beside his family’s oyster beds on the farm where he was born. Dudley’s grandfather dredged oysters late in the 1800s, and the Biddlecomb family’s state lease goes back to 1920s. Over the years, Dudley has experimented with a variety of methods of planting oysters, and he is an expert on the diverse factors that affect their health and growth. Dudley has become a major advocate and teacher of these new oystering techniques, and is a dedicated voice in cleaning up his beloved Bay. He dedicates much of his time to sharing his knowledge and expertise with audiences at the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum.
Four Time World Oyster Shucking Champion
For communities on Virginia’s Northern Neck, 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. Deborah Pratt’s parents first met while working in one of the many small oyster houses that dotted the Northern Neck coastline, and she has been shucking since 1976 when her sister Clementine Macon taught her. Though the oyster industry has experienced a dramatic decline since the mid-1990s, the art of shucking has continued as a highly competitive sport, where competitors race to shuck two dozen oysters. Deborah, who can shuck two dozen oysters in less than three minutes, began competing in 1985, and she quickly established herself as one of the top shuckers in the world. She has won the prestigious Virginia State Championships held each year in Urbanna, the National Oyster Shucking Championships in St. Mary’s City, Maryland, and has had impressive finishes in international competitions in Boston and Ireland. Deborah is known on the oyster shucking circuit for shucking a particularly “pretty oyster.” She says, "If you go into the oyster at 3 o'clock, 6 o'clock and 9, you will always get in." From there it's just about how fast you get in, and how little damage you do to the fragile oyster within.
The largest island of Virginia’s Accomac County, Chincoteague is seven miles long and three miles wide. Chincoteague is situated on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, about four miles from the mainland, and is surrounded by Chincoteague Bay, Chincoteague Inlet, and Assateague Channel. The first census, taken in 1831, showed 510 inhabitants, but the population soon doubled, as the island became one of the largest producers of oysters, clams, and fish on the eastern seaboard. Among the chief fish caught here are trout, croakers, spot, and channel bass, which weigh as much as sixty-five pounds each. While Chincoteague has since become one of Virginia’s largest tourist destinations, both commercial and recreational fishing have remained important industries on the island. Danny Bowden can trace his family back to the 1600s on Chincoteague and neighboring Assateague Island. Like many of his ancestors, Danny follows the seasons, gill netting for rockfish in the spring and fall, crabbing in the spring and summer, and guiding waterfowl hunters in the fall and winter, “taking whatever Mother Nature has to offer.” Danny is the quintessential Chincoteague waterman—continuing to work the waters, and demonstrating his craft at numerous maritime festivals throughout the region, as well as at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Menhaden Net Building, Mending, and Rigging
Reedville, situated between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers in Virginia’s Northern Neck, was established in 1874 as home base for a large menhaden fishery. Menhaden are silvery, bony, small fish that occupy most of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The menhaden were originally used for fuel, fertilizer, and industrial processes but currently menhaden oil has a wide variety of applications such as Omega-3 food supplements, fungicides, cosmetics, and food for poultry and farm raised fish. Menhaden make-up 40 percent of the total volume of United States fish export. Today, Reedville remains the home of commercial menhaden fishing. It is also home for the many people whose knowledge and craftsmanship support the industry. Ray Rogers grew up in nearby Hacks Neck, on a waterfront farm where his family worked the land and the Chesapeake Bay. Ray became a Menhaden fisherman after his service in World War II, and soon became a boat captain. Like others in his community, Ray also worked outside the menhaden season, pound netting and oyster farming. Early in the 1980s, Ray assumed the leadership of a shop that made and rigged Menhaden nets. At eighty-four years old, Ray still helps out in the family menhaden business, operating two menhaden seiners that catch fish for frozen bait that they ship throughout the country. He also assists his two sons Frederick, a menhaden fisherman and Walter, a pound net fisherman. He devotes much of his time to sharing his art form and experiences with schools and audiences at the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum.
Latell Sailmakers: Lance Barton and Melanie Tennant
Sailmakers were once as common on the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck as automobile mechanics are today. Sail-powered log canoes and bateaux bustled on local waterways and were the primary means of commercial transportation. The days of small sail-powered workboats pretty much ended with the introduction of gasoline and diesel engines. The craft of making sails, however, continued to serve larger sailing craft, such as the schooners that worked the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. The job of making these big sails was mostly confined to large sail lofts in Baltimore, Crisfield, and Norfolk. After World War II, a change in the American lifestyle brought the profession of sailmaking back, with the increasing popularity of recreational sailing opening the door for a new breed of sailmaker. Jerry Latell of Latell Sailmakers and his partners Lance Barton and Melanie Tennant in Deltaville have revived the local sailmaking tradition in the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck. Latell owns and operates the only sail loft in Deltaville, once considered the wooden boatbuilding capital of the Chesapeake Bay. As a result of their ability to make both traditional and contemporary style sails, Latell and his crew recently constructed a 4,000-square-foot sail for the Jamestown replica of the Susan Constant, which was the largest of the three ships that carried settlers in 1607 from England to Jamestown. The Virginia Folklife Program works year-round to document, present, celebrate, and preserve Virginia’s rich traditional folkways. Please visit us at www.virginiafolklife.org.
The Richmond Folk Festival is one of Virginia’s largest events, drawing visitors from all over the country to downtown Richmond’s historic riverfront. The Festival is a FREE three-day event that got its start as the National Folk Festival held in Richmond from 2005-2007. In the tradition of the National, the Richmond Folk Festival features more than 20 performers and performing groups, on six stages with continuous music and dance performances, along with a Virginia Folklife Area, an interactive Family Area produced by the Children’s Museum of Richmond, a folk art marketplace, regional and ethnic foods, festival merchandise and more. More information is available at www.richmondfolkfestival.org
The Festival is produced by Venture Richmond, in a continuing partnership with the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA), the City of Richmond, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, the National Park Service, the Library of Virginia and the Children’s Museum of Richmond. Venture Richmond is a non-profit organization formed to engage business and community leaders in partnering with the City to enhance the vitality of the community, particularly Downtown, through economic development, marketing, promotion, advocacy and events. Venture Richmond also produces Easter on Parade, Friday Cheers and the 2nd Street Festival, and partners with the Richmond Sportsbackers to produce Dominion Riverrock. For more information visit www.venturerichmond.com.
The NCTA was founded in 1933, and is the nation’s oldest folk arts organization. The NCTA presents traditional artists to the public in festivals, national and international tours, concerts, radio and television programs, films, recordings and other programs. www.ncta.net