Masters Artists: Northern Neck Chantey Singers
Apprentice: Lewis R. Blackwell
County: King and Queen
Folkway: Menhaden Chantey Singing
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, the introduction of hydraulic power blocks to pull up the nets began replacing the large fishing crews, eclipsing the unique music tradition which 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 six of the members of this group still sing regularly. Led by Elton Smith Jr. of Shacklefords, Virginia, the Northern Neck Chantey Singers also feature Edward Taylor, William Muse, Lloyd Hill, Christopher Harvey, and James Carter. They will apprentice a new member, Lewis R. Blackwell Jr.
Master: Emily Spencer
Apprentices: Amanda and Kilby Spencer
Folkway: Clawhammer Banjo
The “clawhammer” banjo style is an essential aspect of “old time,” an ensemble-based, hard-driving music form which has inspired dancers across Southern Appalachia for generations. Unlike the more popularized bluegrass style which moves the banjo into the forefront, the clawhammer technique essentially turns the banjo into a rhythm instrument, with the player’s thumbs bouncing off the short fifth string and stroking down on the others. One of the epicenters of old-time music is the small community of Whitetop, Virginia, once the home of the legendary Whitetop Music Festivals attended by Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1930s. This music has been reinvigorated by the Spencers, a family band that has entertained audiences for more than thirty-five years as the Whitetop Mountain Band. Emily Spencer, the band’s matriarch, first learned to play the banjo from local legends Jont Blevins, Lawrence Russell, and Enoch Rutherford. Emily has become a master musician herself, and is one of the most important educators in the region, directing the old-time music program at tiny Mt. Rogers Combined School in Whitetop. Many students have benefited from this program, including Emily’s son Kilby and daughter Martha. Kilby’s wife, Amanda Spencer, is a promising young player and will act as Emily’s banjo apprentice, along with Kilby, who, like his father, Thornton Spencer, has established himself as one of the fine fiddlers in the region.
Phyllis Gaskins of Elkton, Virginia, is a master of the “Galax Dulcimer.” The Galax dulcimer is distinguished from the regular mountain dulcimer in numerous ways, with four equidistant strings of the same gauge. It is noted with a flat piece of hardwood, and picked with a turkey or goose quill. Unlike the regular mountain dulcimer, which is almost always used to accompany ballad singing or is played by itself, the Galax dulcimer is intended to be an equal part of an old-time string band, matching the fiddle for note after blistering note. Phyllis learned to play from one of the great masters, the late Raymond Melton of Woodlawn, Virginia. For generations, the Melton family was prominent makers of the instrument, dominating the dulcimer competitions at the Galax Fiddlers’ Convention. Phyllis will be apprenticing Blue O’Connell of Charlottesville. Blue is an accomplished dulcimer player, eager to learn the Galax style from a master practitioner.
While many associate the Eastern Shore with the work of the watermen, it is in fact a predominantly agricultural region. Bill Savage grew up on his family’s farm near Painter, Virginia, in Accomack County, where a great variety of vegetables were grown for shipping throughout the mid-Atlantic region. Bill purchased a bushel of “Indian corn” from a man whose grandfather had been growing it on the Eastern Shore of Virginia since 1870. This heirloom Indian corn has been grown by local farmers on the Eastern Shore of Virginia for more than 165 years. The corn is harvested in the late autumn, dried in an open air corn crib, shelled with a vintage corn sheller, bagged, and stored in a grain house. The corn is then stone-ground into cornmeal. Bill and his father grind the corn using traditional methods to make a unique, sweet-smelling cornmeal, which they sell through their new family business, Pungo Creek Mills. Bob Savage, Bill’s apprentice, is also his brother—a first for the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program.
Dr. Nader Majd, of Arlington, Virginia, was born in Sari, Iran, and began studying and playing the santur, or Persian hammered dulcimer, and violin at the age of six. He later learned to play the tar and setar—both plucked instruments—from his father and uncles, artists well known in Iran. All these instruments are essential to Persian music of prayer. Nader immigrated to the United States in 1968, establishing the Center for Persian Classical Music (CPCM) in Northern Virginia in 1997 to “make Persian Classical music known to our American friends, as a means to increase understanding between our two countries.” The CPCM employs the universal language of music as a tool for communication and cultural exchange. Nader will be apprenticing Ali Analouei, who in 2009 acted as a Master Artist on the Tombak and Daf, pre-Islamic drums of Persia. This is the first time that a Virginia Folklife Master Artist has taken on the role of apprentice the following year, speaking to Nader’s prominent place in Virginia’s Iranian music community as well as to the mutual respect between these fine artists.
The guitar was primarily used as a rhythm instrument in the United States from the 1800s through the 1930s. As more and more guitar players began to play lead breaks on the guitar throughout the 1940s and 1950s, two main styles emerged: “fingerstyle” and “flatpicking.” The term “flatpicking” originated with early lead acoustic guitar players in traditional country and bluegrass music who used a plectrum, or pick, to play the guitar. The plectrum of choice was called a “flat pick” or “straight pick,” so called to distinguish the technique from “fingerstyle” players who used finger picks, thumb picks, or bare fingers to pluck the guitar’s strings. Steve Kilby, from musically-rich Grayson County, started in 1966 by figuring out how to use the guitar to pick out tunes played by his grandfather, a celebrated fiddler. Steve has since established himself as one of the finest flatpickers in the country, and his version of “Black Mountain Rag” won him the North Carolina State Championship, the Fiddler’s Grove Championship, and the Galax, Virginia, contest. Steve will apprentice thirteen-year-old Leah Hall of Blacksburg, teaching her to play the tunes he has mastered as well as encouraging her to learn the repertoires of other experienced players.
Southwest Virginia boasts some of the finest makers of stringed instruments in the United States. Much of this is a result of the wide-reaching influence and mentoring of the late Albert Hash, a machinist, clock maker, and fiddle maker from Whitetop, Virginia. Randal Eller met Albert at a crafts show some thirty years ago. Randal had already established himself as an accomplished woodworker, and remembers Albert telling him “if you can carve like that, you can surely make a fiddle.” Like many other fine luthiers in Southwest Virginia including Wayne Henderson, former Virginia Folklife Master Artist Audrey Hash Ham, Jimmy Edmonds, and others, Randal blossomed under Hash’s generous tutelage. Randal has built and repaired instruments for numerous bluegrass and old-time musicians throughout the region. Randal comes from a musical family himself, and has passed his love for music on to his children and grandchildren. His son Jacob is an emerging star on bluegrass bass, and his grandson, Drew Plowman, will serve as his fiddle-making apprentice.
Born to a sharecropper’s daughter on tobacco row in Southside Virginia, Jason Rutledge was educated early on in the traditional skills of Suffolk horse-drawn logging by his grandfather, a man skilled in working with horses, mules, and oxen. The family raised tobacco crops for sale, moving from farm to farm during Rutledge’s childhood in the 1950s. Later, his father worked his own small farm using horses purchased from the supplier to a Bedford horse-meat company. Rutledge’s father would train and then resell the horses, saving many good working animals from slaughter at a time when they were rapidly disappearing as a power source for farming and forestry. By the latter part of the twentieth century, horses and other pulling animals had been replaced by machines almost entirely. This change occurred more slowly in the mountains, as the danger of operating machinery on steep slopes limited its effectiveness over traditional animal power. Today the use of animals for forestry is an environmentally sensitive alternative to machine-based logging. Rutledge’s apprentices, Melanie Carrier and Adam Greene, are learning responsible forest management practices and animal handling through the Biological Woodsmen program at Rutledge’s Healing Harvest Forest Foundation, established to teach the skills and ethics of restorative forestry, and to educate the public about its benefits as a living link between heritage-based cultural practices and contemporary concern for the environment.