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Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program Brings Artisans Together - 2003-07-19


Everyday life in the United States had a different feel before the Industrial Age began. Crafts, clothing and utensils were produced in homes and workshops, not factories. Talented artisans and entertainers took in apprentices to pass on their skills through the generations. Although most such skills are now taught in schools or on the job, Sean Tubbs found a program in Virginia that is trying to revive the apprentice tradition by attracting artisans from all sorts of disciplines.

Take an ordinary car, paint it in wild colors, supercharge the engine, and you've got yourself a hot rod. Does the making of such cars qualify as a folklife tradition? Jon Lohman thinks so.

"Well, ever since the automobile started coming off the assembly lines of Detroit, they've been revised, altered and souped-up in small garages and carshops throughout America," he said. "This tradition was particularly strong in southwest Virginia and remains a vibrant culture to this day."

And the director of the Virginia Folklife Program hopes it will stay that way.

"The Folklife Apprenticeship Program pairs what we call a master artists which is somebody who is recognized in his or her own community as a lifelong traditional art, traditional skill, with an apprentice, for nine months, to help pass these traditions along," he said.

One of the master artists is Flory Jagoda. She is a Sephardic Jewish musician who was recently awarded a National Heritage Fellowship for her Ladino ballad singing. Ladino, an old form of Spanish, is the language spoken by Jews from Spain, Turkey and northern Africa.

"This music has been part of my family," she explains. "My nona, my grandmother, she was a singer. She didn't talk. She sang. She had a very beautiful voice. From beginning, way back, music was part of daily living!" Ladino traditions have been kept alive for centuries, through the Jews' expulsion from Spain in 1492 and the Nazi Holocaust of the 20th century. Flory Jagoda, who grew up in Sarajevo, was the only member of her family to survive World War II.

Susan Gaeda is Flory Jagoda's apprentice. She says she's enjoying the bond that formed during the program.

"She and I connect very well both musically and just as friends," she said. "I seem to understand a little bit about her voice, and the way she trills her voice, and it's not a skill as much as it is an intuition, it's something that we can just do together. "

Traditional agricultural practices are also being preserved in the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program. Marshall Cofer is a master at handling the large draft horses used before farming was mechanized.

"Originally there were five breeds of horses, that did farm work and they are Shires, Pertrons, Belgiums, Suffolks, and Clydesdales. It's what the early generations of this country thrived on," he explains.

Mr. Cofer is teaching his apprentice, Rebecca Austin, how to handle the large creatures, which he says require patience and confidence. The same skills are required for woodworking.

Grayson Chesser is a legend on the Eastern Shore of Virginia for his wooden ducks. Decoys were once important tools for duck hunters, but demand dropped through the 20th century.

"You really didn't have many guys from the World War II generation who were carvers because after World War II you had things like plastics and papier mache decoys come on the market and they really replaced wooden decoys, hand-carved decoys," he recalls.

Mr. Chesser met his apprentice, 23-year-old Robbie Marsh, when the younger man bought a decoy from him. Mr. Marsh is now learning to apply his own style to the decoys.

Not all of the master artists in the Folklife Apprenticeship Program are individuals.

Director Jon Lohman says the Paschall Brothers are carrying on a long gospel tradition.

"…a long tradition of a-cappella gospel quartet singing. They called them gospel quartets although sometimes these groups had seven or eight people in them, believe it or not," he said.

The late Reverend Frank Paschall Sr. and his three sons formed a group in 1981 to help keep gospel quartet singing alive, but Frank Paschall Junior explains that they've been singing together a lot longer than that.

"Well, actually, we started, uh, knee-high [very young]," he recalls. "My father used to get us around in the living room, and put us in what we call training sessions, unknowingly giving us different pitches to hit, singing a cappella, no music accompaniment."

The brothers are now in their forties and fifties, and their own children and nephews are their apprentices. For Terence Paschall, that's the way it should be. "We've been entrusted with such a gift," he said. "How dare we not share that gift in the same spirit in which it was given unto us."

The Folklife Apprenticeship Program is also helping pass on the skills of fiddle making, blacksmithing and finger-style banjo picking.

Photo: Courtesy The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities