It’s a wonderful (Folk)life

Festival celebrates Virginian heritage; enlivens audiences

Members of the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program gathered near Boar’s Head Inn Sunday to celebrate and honor the apprentices who have spent the past nine months training to become masters of various folk art skills. Apprentices young and old applied to the program for a specific instrument, tradition, style or craft, and all were chosen by “masters” — artists and craftsmen who excel at their trades and exemplify various aspects of Virginia’s cultural heritage.

Many elements of Virginia’s culture, like bluegrass bands and Chickahominy Native American dances, are commonplace and widely accepted as part of the life and culture of the state. Other practices, however, like the singing of Sephardic ballads and the tense art of beekeeping, go largely unnoticed. In collaboration with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, the Virginia Folklife Program works to preserve and glorify all facets of Virginia’s cultural heritage.

The showcase began with a performance by Loose Strings, a bluegrass band comprised of four talented young ladies from Galax, Va. The group’s banjo­player, Ashley Nale, joined the apprenticeship program and developed her talent under the direction of Sammy Shelor of the Lonesome River Band. With a bass, acoustic guitar, violin and banjo, the girls jammed out to songs like “Raining in L.A.” and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” The women’s harmonies and simple arrangements set the festival off to a fittingly amiable start.

Old­school blues master Gaye Adegbalola and her apprentice Lorie Strother made for one of the most noteworthy duos of the event. Both embodied the passionate African­American jazz and blues movement of the 1920s and 1930s, better known as the Harlem Renaissance, with strong, throaty
voices and scandalous song topics. Highlights from their set included “Big Ovaries,” a bluntly humorous take on the power of women, and “Riding Bareback,” a vague narrative left up to the audience’s interpretation.

Aviva Chernick, an apprentice in the singing of Sephardic ballads, highlighted the wide range of styles and origins in Virginia’s cultural history. Chernick’s instructor, Flory Jagoda, couldn’t make to the event, but Chernick spoke fondly of her instructor, who learned the Sephardic tradition while growing up in Bosnia and lived to preserve it throughout World War II. The characteristics of Sephardic ballads are few and simple: the lyrics are composed in part Spanish and part Hebrew, and no instruments accompanied Chernick, save for her own finger­snapping and slow hand­patting.

Lacking explanation of the lyrics, style and composition, Chernick’s pieces like confused many in the audience, but her soft and throaty voice lulled the the crowd into a stupor of wonder and set the tone for a relaxed stroll about the rest of the festival tents and stations.

Music was not the only feature at the festival — fried apple pie, Brunswick stew, and wine kept everyone hydrated and happy under the sun. In the crafts section, onlookers perused the booths of dulcimer and guitar craftsmen from Grayson County, beautiful quilts made by hand in Fairfax County, gunsmiths from Williamsburg and the history of Moonshining as assembled by banjo master Jimmy Boyd and his apprentice, Jared Boyd, from Franklin County.

It’s difficult not to enjoy the hodge­podge of art at the festival — an experience which highlights and collects the themes and customs which many home­grown Virginians have been familiar with since birth.

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