Virginia Folklife Program

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities

Master & Apprentice Program


Master: Sammy Shelor
Apprentice: Ashley Nale
Folkway: Bluegrass Banjo
County: Patrick

Enslaved Africans brought the earliest versions of the banjo to Virginia. By the nineteenth century, the banjo was America’s most popular instrument, but it was not until the 1940s when Earl Scruggs introduced his patented “three finger style” that the banjo found its most familiar home in bluegrass music. Many fans of the bluegrass banjo will tell you that Sammy Shelor, of tiny Meadows of Dan in Patrick County, is one of the greatest bluegrass banjoists of our time—the player who best combines the riches of tradition with striking innovation. Sammy’s mountain musical pedigree runs deep. The Shelors are one of nine families who have carried on the Patrick County music tradition for more than two hundred years. Sammy started playing the banjo at the age of four, and was performing with local bands by the time he was ten years old. At nineteen, he became a full time professional musician, joining the band that eventually became the Virginia Squires. For the past twenty years, Sammy has led the Lonesome River Band, long considered to be one of the finest bluegrass bands in the country. Sammy will apprentice young banjoist Ashley Nale, one of many young “hot shots” whom he has inspired over the years.

Master: Dave Young
Apprentice: Yvonne V. Young
Folkway: Cobbling
City: Waynesboro

A cobbler is a craftsperson who specializes in repairing shoes. Although traditionally, cobblers also made shoes, most modern cobblers focus on repair and restoration rather than manufacture of new shoes. Cobbling is one of the oldest professions in the world, practiced for centuries around the globe. People would purchase shoes from their local cobbler, and use his services to continually repair the shoes as needed. A single pair of shoes could last for a decade or more with judicious resoling, refinishing, and minor repair work. Because of the development of mass production of shoes, as well as more recent globalization and availability of inexpensive goods, the role of the cobbler has all but disappeared. Fortunately there are a small number of cobblers keeping the tradition alive, including Dave Young, who operates a shop in Waynesboro. Dave has cobbling in his blood—his great grandfather was a noted cobbler and shoemaker. Dave will be keeping the tradition alive by apprenticing his daughter Yvonne, who has been helping out in his shop since her early childhood.

Master: Gail Hobbs-Page
Apprentice: Kyle L. Kilduff
Folkway: Cheese Making
County: Albemarle

Gail Hobbs-Page was given her first pair of goats as a child growing up on a North Carolina farm. “I loved their milk, and I loved the idea that I could make many things from their milk,” Gail remembers. “Once I started tending to the goats, they became very precious to me because they nourish us. I guess they kind of got into my blood.” Today, Gail and her husband own Caromont Farm in Esmont. Tucked away in the rolling hills of the Piedmont with a herd of more than fifty Nubian, La Mancha, and Alpine goats, she produces farmstead, artisan cheeses. Gail speaks passionately about the potential for Virginia’s terroir—a wine-making term meaning the expression of a place through the taste of the produce grown in that area. While cheese making has been an important method of cold storage since Virginia’s colonial period, the making of artisan cheeses is largely a new tradition in Virginia, with Gail leading the way. Gail will be apprenticing Kyle L. Kilduff, who she believes is well on his way to becoming a fine cheese maker.

Master: Gankhuyag Natsag
Apprentice: Zanabazar Gankhuyag
Folkway: Mongolian Mask Making
City:  Arlington

Tsam is an ancient Buddhist ritual performed by skilled dancers wearing elaborately ornamented costumes and masks. The Tsam was first introduced in Mongolia at the beginning of the eighth century when the Indian Saint Lovon Badamjunai arrived to sanctify the first Tibetan Buddhist temple. The Buddhist Tsam performance is a secret and subtle ritual whose meaning is often known only to Buddhist monks. In the 1930s, the Communist government banned the Tsam, but it has found new life with Gankhuyag Natsag, a mask maker and visual artist who was born in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Early in his childhood, Natsag’s parents, famous masters of traditional Mongolian handcrafts, introduced him to the fine art of handcrafting dance masks, a critical aspect of the Tsam ritual. Ganna, as he’s known, is now a resident of Arlington, and has helped keep the Tsam tradition alive within the city’s growing Mongolian community. Ganna has chosen his son Zana as his apprentice, passing this tradition on to the next generation.

Caribbean CostumeMaster: Earl Blake
Apprentice: Scottie Blake
Folkway: Caribbean Carnival Costume Making
City: Hampton

The Latin roots of the term Carnival mean “farewell to meat,” as Carnival falls on the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten period. Carnival is celebrated throughout the Transatlantic world, most notably in New Orleans, Brazil, and Trinidad and Tobago. In Trinidad, “playing mas,” the socially liberating celebration of Carnival, has become a national obsession, with participants spending the better part of the year in preparation for this multiday celebration. One of the key elements in Carnival is the making of elaborate, sculptural costumes, constructed out of both natural and man-made materials. While the casual observer might view the costumes and other Carnival traditions as simple revelry, the craft is actually quite competitive, as costume makers try to outperform one another to gain the status of “top costume.” Earl Blake emigrated to the United States from Trinidad, and continues to carry on the costume construction tradition by participating in the numerous Trini-style Carnival celebrations across the country. He will teach his craft to his brother Scottie Blake.

Kelly MacklinMasters: John del Re and Kelly Macklin
Apprentice: John Alexander and Diane Ober
Folkway: Shape Note Singing
County: Clarke

Shape note singing is a folk art dating to post-Revolutionary War days, when Americans set folk tunes to religious texts using patented shaped notes to facilitate sight-reading. Meant to encourage good congregational singing, the style was taught by singing masters throughout New England. By the early 1800s, shape note singing had spread from New England to the mid-Atlantic region and the Shenandoah Valley, and settled into the Southern uplands about 1840, where it has survived to this day in the form of traditional gatherings where participants sing all day. The style is characterized by several things: four part, a cappella singing with no musical instruments; use of an oblong tune book in shape notation; rotating leadership of songs by anyone in the group confident to lead taking a turn; singing the “solmization” through before singing the words; sitting in a hollow square with the singers facing the center; and day-long or shorter gatherings with a shared potluck meal. John del Re and Kelly Macklin began singing with a group in the Washington D.C. area, holding their first annual two-day convention twenty-two years ago. Since 1990, they have been meeting monthly with fifty singers in Clarke County, and host an annual all-day sing that draws hundreds of people. Apprentices John Alexander and Diane Ober have been leading the Rivanna River Sacred Harp Singers, and consider del Re and Macklin to be among the finest singers in the area.

Master: John Hollandsworth
Apprentice: Sam Gleaves
Folkway: Autoharp Making and Playing
County: Montgomery

Patented in 1881 by German instrument repairman Charles Zimmerman, the autoharp first reached popularity in the United States as a novelty instrument. By 1900, by the time the fad had passed, the autoharp had found an enduring home in the southern mountains, whose residents were able to purchase them affordably through large mail order companies such as Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. As has been the story of many instruments in the Shenandoah Valley and the Southern Appalachians, many residents took to making their own instruments. A Christiansburg native, John Hollandsworth grew up listening to friends and relatives play stringed instruments, developing his own autoharp style which incorporates both chromatic and diatonic techniques. John began repairing autoharps more than thirty years ago and made his first complete instrument in the early 1990s. Today his “Blue Ridge Autoharps” are recognized as some of the highest-quality custom-made autoharps in the country. Known for his fine playing as well as for instrument building, John was the first winner of the prestigious Mountain Laurel Autoharp Championship in Pennsylvania, and has been named “Best All-Around Performer” at the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention three times, the only autoharp player ever to win this recognition. John’s Apprentice Sam Gleaves is also a fine player, with a deep interest in learning to build the instrument.

Master: Dudley Biddlecomb
Apprentice: Peter Hedlund
Folkway: Oyster Aquaculture
County: Northumberland

Because of the Chesapeake Bay’s ideal brackish waters, its oyster population was once one of the most plentiful in the nation, and oyster harvesting was long a booming industry throughout the Bay’s communities. During the 1960s, decades of disease, pollution, and habitat destruction led to a significant drop in the oyster population. With fewer oysters, the health of the Bay declined because oysters feed on sediment and algae which, left unchecked, cloud the water and kill underwater grasses essential to maintaining water quality. The Chesapeake Bay’s 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 aqua-farming using cages, racks, and floats. Dudley Biddlecomb of Fairport is among those leading the charge toward this new form of aquaculture. Dudley has been in the oyster business for his entire life, and still lives adjacent to 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 dates back to 1920s. Over the years, Dudley has experimented with a variety of methods for planting oysters and he is an expert on the diverse factors that affect their health and growth. Dudley has become a major advocate and educator of these new oystering techniques, and frequently shares his knowledge at the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum. Dudley will work with Peter Hedlund to share his knowledge of the oysters of the Chesapeake region.