Folklife Program Keeps Virginia’s Diverse Cultural Traditions Alive
Each year hundreds gather on the rolling hills of James Monroe’s Highland, near Charlottesville. They’re here to take in the sights, sounds and smells of The Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship program, and learn how residents are preserving cultural traditions. WCVE’s Ian Stewart has more for Virginia Currents.
Learn More: The Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program.
Each year hundreds gather on the rolling hills of James Monroe’s Highland, just below Carter Mountain. They’re here to take in the sights, sounds and smells of Virginia’s rich folklife history.
Banjos are crafted and demonstrated at one of the many tables under a large tent on the festival lawn.
The Virginia Humanities event celebrates the partnership of folklife masters and their apprentices. The person who connects artisans with those who want to learn is Jon Lohman.
Jon Lohman: I’m your State Folklorist and I started in 2001.
Back then, he hit the roads of Virginia in a Chevy Lumina to talk with tradition bearers, folk artists and communities about what they wanted out of a folklife program.
Lohman: And what I kept hearing over and over was people were worried, well not worried, but concerned this thing is dying out, this things dying out, that things dying out. A lot of things are not dying out. There’s always that concern.
And that’s how the Apprenticeship program began sixteen years ago.
Lohman: Hey Clyde (Clyde: Jon. How’s it going?)
Clyde Jenkins lives up in the Shenandoah Valley, Page County.
Lohman: How long has your family been there? (Jenkins: huh, early 17-hundreds)
Jenkins lives in an old mountain homestead.
Jenkins: It’s a log cabin that my grandfather built. He cleared the land. I have all the tools. I have all the tools that he built the cabin with. There’s still clay and hoghair between the logs. And I live the way, for the most part, the way the old people did back in the mountains.
On his homestead, Jenkins and his family grow all sorts food but his speciality is apples.
Jenkins: Every year we graft three to four thousand trees. And I have probably in excess of 350 varieties of apples.
Some of those varieties, he says, include the Bellflower, the Summer Rose and the Esopus Spitzenburg, which reportedly was one of Thomas Jefferson’s favorites, planted several Spitzenburg trees at Monticello.
Jenkins: I love growing them.
Lohman: Including some that would not exist if his family wasn’t grafting them.
One of those varieties has a literary background.
Jenkins: Samuel Clemens knew about the mylam . In the book Tom Sawyer, his aunt rewarded Tom with an apple, a Mylam apple, for painting the fence.
Sitting in a chair surrounded by buckets of apple branches and small trees, Jenkins demonstrates the process of grafting.
Jenkins: Let me have a piece of rootstock boys. Now, watch this.
Jenkins grabs clippers and a piece of rootstock and cuts the top bud off.
Jenkins: (Snap of the scissor) Just like that.
He then clips the other buds and asks the crowd to look carefully along the edge of the wood.
Jenkins: (a little kid says ya), that’s called the Cambian. That is where the sap flows.
He takes a tapered piece with two buds and slides it into the newly carved wood.
Jenkins: And look how tight that fits. Letter perfect. You see that Ma’am?
Jenkins passes the new graft to one of his sons who tapes it, then seals it in wax. After the new trees are planted, it takes three to four years to produce apples.
Jenkins, who currently has three apprentices, says the program means a lot to him.
Jenkins: It has given me the opportunity for these young people to learn. And to see my crafts and the things I learned to do to be continued. They’re not dying out. So this is very important.
One of the unique things about the Virginia Folklife program is that when it comes to music, the term “folk” goes beyond the typical bluegrass and stringbands. Other styles include the Galax dulcimer, Persian classical music and Sephardic ballads. Lohman says it’s important to showcase other cultures and instruments that, like the banjo, got its start elsewhere but migrated to America.
Lohman: So I remember the first year of the program and we had Katak dance, which is a type of dance from Northern India. And I remember somebody said to me ‘That’s not Virginia, is it?’ I said, well sure it is. There’s a very large community of people from that portion of the world, mostly in Fairfax and Northern Virginia and they’re dancing and so, yeah, all these things are Virginians.
One of the instruments highlighted in the Apprenticeship Program is popular in Vietnamese music.
Nam Phuong Nguyen: I’m playing the Monochord instrument. In Vietnam we call it the đàn bầu.
Since she was 17, player Nam Phuong Nguyen has been perfecting her craft.
The translation means “gourd lute,” and it’s traditionally composed of a bamboo tube, a wooden rod, a coconut half shell, and a silk string. But it could be made using any type of wood.
Nguyen: It’s one string. And it’s played by plucking the string. And it has a harmonic sound and it’s the mirror of the human voice.
Nguyen who has one apprentice, will often travel around Northern Virginia to teach and play the dan bau in schools. She and her husband say it’s important to maintain and share these traditions.
Nguyen: ..and it’s very hard to play, very hard to learn but when you master it, the sound is beautiful. Therefore my wife is trying to keep the tradition out here, you know, make sure our children and someone who plays it can transfer it other generations.
Master artists such as Nguyen and Jenkins can have dedicated apprentices in either a one-on-one setting or in a group. Apprenticeships can last for up to nine months or even longer. Since the Virginia Humanities program began in 2001 organizers say more than 150 apprenticeships have helped elevate Virginia’s diverse culture and history.
For Virginia Currents, I’m Ian Stewart.