Virginia Folklife Program

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities

Master & Apprentice Program


Master Artist: John Cephas Apprentice: Marc Pessar
County: Rappahannock
Folkway: Piedmont Blues Guitar

By far, the most distinctive feature of the Piedmont guitar style is its finger-picking method, in which the thumb lays down a rhythmic bass-line against which one or two fingers pluck out the melody of the tune. Using this technique, the Piedmont guitarist makes a single instrument sound like several, setting up a complex and rhythmic dialogue of bass and treble parts. John Cephas, of Bowling Green, Virginia, is considered the world’s foremost Piedmont bluesman. His collaborations with harmonica master Phil Wiggins have been delighting audiences throughout the world for decades, and in 1989 John was awarded the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship. John learned to play guitar from family members and neighbors in Caroline County at the many “county breakdowns,” and house parties that were a staple of social life in the region. John enjoys teaching at guitar camps throughout the country, and is looking forward to working more intensely with one of his most promising students, Marc Pessar.

Master Artist: Laura Ortiz
Apprentice: Ariel Hobza-Ortiz
County: Arlington
Folkway: Mexican Folk Dance

Mexicans comprise the fastest growing immigrant population in Virginia. This rapidly growing community has contributed a plethora of traditional folkways to the diverse tapestry of Virginia Folklife, including a vibrant folk dance tradition. Laura Ortiz learned different styles of this traditional art in her native home of Mexico City, dancing Mexican Folkloric Dances and Spanish Flamenco as a young child. In the early seventies, Laura moved to Los Angeles, where she soon joined the well respected professional company Ballet Folklorico Mexicapan. After moving to Northern Virginia, Laura founded Los Quetzales Mexican Dance Ensemble in 1997 to present and share this dance with members of her local community. She has been working with her apprentice, daughter Ariel Ortiz-Hobza for over five years.

Master Artists: Jack and Nannie Branch
Apprentice: John Maeder
County: Washington
Folkway: Country Ham Curing

There is probably no other traditional foodway more associated with Virginia than the curing of country ham. Unlike the more common wet-cured ham, which is soaked in brine or injected with a salt solution, country ham is dry-cured and aged over a much longer period. The curing of fresh pork hams takes nine months, usually beginning in November. The hams are salted, sugared and peppered at different intervals throughout the process. Jack Branch first learned to cure hams when he was eight years old from his father and grandfather, who cured hams from their family-owned hogs. Jack has honed his ham curing techniques over the years, teaming up with his wife Nannie Branch. Local cultural documentarian John Maeder first learned of Jack and Nannie’s culinary mastery while visiting the Branch’s home to observe one of Jack’s other formidable skills, instrument making. John is understandably most excited and hungry to learn this age-old culinary craft.

Master Artist: George Butler
Apprentice: Warner Rice
County: Northumberland
Folkway: Boat Building

The story of Reedville, Virginia is linked to the commercial fishing industry that developed in this small northern neck port town in the late 19th century. Once hailed as the fishing capital of the East Coast, Reedville grew from a small fishery established by Captain Elijah Reed in 1867. From this fisherman’s town located between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers on the Northern Neck, watermen have cast their wickerwork, pots, and pound nets to catch fish, crabs, and oysters for hundreds of years. Even today, Reedville is one of the most active fishing ports in America, and home to a menhaden commercial fishing industry. Along with its fishing heritage, Reedville boasts a proud boat building history, and no current builder is more deeply steeped in this tradition than third generation boat-builder George Butler. George has spent his entire life hanging out in Reedville Marine Railway, the boatyard established by his grandfather. Today, George runs the boatyard, and is looking forward to working with his apprentice Warner Rice. Warner’s grandfather, Herbert Rice, built the last menhaden fishing vessel ever constructed in Reedville.

Master Artist: Thornton Spencer
Apprentice: Martha Spencer
County: Grayson
Folkway: Old Time Fiddle

The early folk song collecting expeditions of Cecil Sharp and others informed the rest of America about the remarkable breadth of fiddle tunes in southern Appalachia, many of which closely resembled songs collected in the British Isles generations earlier. Still serving as a main source of dance music and the competitive focus of a vibrant network of “Fiddlers Conventions,” old time fiddling continues to thrive in Southwest Virginia. Grayson County master fiddler Thornton Spencer learned to play in the 1940s from his brother-in-law, the revered fiddle maker and player Albert Hash. Thornton and his wife, banjoist and music instructor Emily Spencer, later joined Albert to form the legendary Whitetop Mountain Band, still one of the most beloved old time bands in the region. Thornton and Emily’s daughter, Martha Spencer has been immersed in old time music her entire life. Already a gifted multi-instrumentalist, Martha will use this apprenticeship opportunity to focus on the nuances of the fiddle.

Master Artist: Elton Williams
Apprentice: Earl Sawyer
County: Hampton
Folkway: Steel Drum Making

The steel drum, or “pan” as it is called in the Caribbean, was invented in Trinidad around the time of World War II. Afro-Trinidadians resourcefully crafted this musical instrument from oil drums left behind by the U.S. Navy. Contemporary pans are created when a 55 gallon steel oil drum is hammered concave, a process known as “sinking”. The drum is then tempered and notes are carefully grooved into the steel. The pan has become a national symbol for Trinidadian Independence and the signature instrument in the Caribbean Carnival season. Hampton resident Elton Williams grew up in the pan yards of Trinidad, and has since immersed himself in every aspect of steel bands. He is a musician, composer, tuner, and now one of the few steel pan makers in the United States. In addition, Mr. Williams composes and arranges for steel bands competing in the Panorama, the competition central to Trinidadian carnival celebrations. This apprenticeship will allow Mr. Williams the opportunity to further work with his prize student, Earl Sawyer.

Master Artist: Madison Hummingbirds
Apprentices: CJ McCauley, Michael Thomas, Aaron Guy
County: Portsmouth
Folkway: African American Shout Band

In 1903, an African-Portuguese immigrant named Marcelino Manoel da Graca (Charles Manuel Grace), the son of a stone cutter 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 and started the United House of Prayer. The United House of Prayer congregation eventually reached 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 was the 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 Madison Hummingbirds, of Portsmouth, are the current torch bearers of the great Virginia shout bands tradition. Led by Bradley Sunkins and others, the Hummingbirds will be apprenticing their young group of “rookies,” including CJ McCauley, Michael Thomas, and Aaron Guy.

Master Artist: Olen Gardner
Apprentice: Ross Matthews
County: Floyd
Folkway: Banjo Making and Instrument Repair

The Folklife Apprenticeship Program has traditionally supported apprenticeships in different styles of banjo playing, and this year we’re proud to support an apprenticeship in the banjo’s construction, along with the invaluable skill of vintage instrument repair. Olen Gardner was exposed to a host of instrument makers as a child, and has been developing his craft ever since. Olen constructs bluegrass and old-time banjos, as well as guitars and the occasional violin. Olen is a fine banjoist in his right, and worked with Charlie Monroe in the early 1950s. A former tool maker, Olen has developed numerous tools specifically designed for the construction and repair of stringed instruments. For the past decade, Olen has served as one of the few authorized repairmen for Martin Guitars. Musicians from all over the world entrust Olen with the repair of their treasured instruments. For the past two years, Olen has been mentoring Ross Mathews in the art of fine instrument repair and construction.