Jenny Smith comes from a long line of fiddlers.
She grew up around the old-time music, clogging and square dancing, and it wasn’t long before she wanted to learn to play the tunes herself the old-fashioned way — as an apprentice.
At 11, she learned to play the dulcimer from Walter Miller. It was the first of four apprenticeships Smith would complete to learn how an old-time melody was performed. Her teachers didn’t need a book or traditional lessons, and neither did she.
Smith learned the nuts and bolts of how to play the fiddle from well-known musicians, Melvin Wine, Rock Garten and Ralph Roberts, through the Augusta Heritage Center at Davis & Elkins College.
“I would go to their house every week and learn their songs,” Smith said. “After apprenticeships were over, I still continued to play music with them, and I still play a lot of their songs now.”
Without outside influences like the internet, Smith explained, the traditions are preserved in an extraordinary way.
“Melvin Wine couldn’t read music, and he couldn’t read and write, as well,” Smith said. “A lot of these older musicians are not into the technology of today. I think something like an apprenticeship is the best way to pass it on.”
Though Wine has since died, Smith still plays alongside his son Grafton, as well as Garten and Roberts.
Roberts admitted he taught Smith to play the fiddle in a unique way, unfamiliar to any other fiddler he knows. He learned a key from his father and grandfather but found it was wrong when he met other fiddlers.
“They couldn’t understand how I was playing the song in B-E-A-E,” Roberts laughed. “When they started playing in standard, I didn’t know how to play.”
The error was just one way Smith’s apprenticeship with him was unique.
“Jenny loved to play that way,” Roberts said.
Each apprenticeship offered Smith an experience to not only learn how to play the old-time tunes, but also the culture around the music and the chance to add her own touch.
“There’s not too many notes because we learn to play by ear. So you don’t know what notes you’re playing,” Garten said. “If you played it the way it was written, it wouldn’t sound the same. You learn a tune by ear, and you make it your own.”
The fiddle is just one piece of West Virginia’s folklore, or the “art of everyday life,” said state folklorist Emily Hilliard.
“Folklore includes all the creative expressions of you living your life, which could be a recipe and how you interpret a recipe. It could be how you dress and how your culture informs what you wear,” Hilliard said. “Now, folklorists are studying memes because it’s essentially culture created by people, instead of a mass media.”
In the last two years, Hilliard has traveled all over West Virginia to document traditional artists and folklife in the state, including fiddle makers, home cooks, wood carvers, basket makers and gospel musicians.
To continue to support the growth and preservation of traditional art forms in the state, the West Virginia Humanities Council is starting the first state apprenticeship program supported in part by an Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“The main goal is to ensure that these traditions are passed on,” Hilliard said. “At the same time, it also recognizes the master artists who are and have been working in these art forms for a long time and make sure that they develop relationships with younger generations.”
The program will link up to five pairs of master artists and their qualified apprentices for a year-long in-depth apprenticeship, modeled after programs similar to the one Smith participated in with the Augusta Heritage Center.
“Very often, a very unique bond develops, and then people become lifelong friends, even after the apprenticeship has finished,” said Gerry Milnes, who ran the Heritage Center’s apprenticeship program. “It’s not just a formal educational process, it’s more than that. It’s a very personal relationship.”
For example, if an apprentice shadowed a broom maker, he or she would learn the history and stories of broom making. He or she would go with the broom makers to harvest broom corn and to craft fairs to teach others about broom making.
Selecting applicants for the program will, in part, be based on how committed the person is to learning a skill.
Though Hilliard will not be on the board to make the final decisions about which applicants will be chosen, she said she hopes they will cover a variety of art forms, including Appalachian traditions and immigrant communities.
“In West Virginia, we see a lot of fiddle tunes, old-time music, Appalachian foodways and then a lot of ethnic and immigrant communities,” Hilliard said. “I’m hoping we will have a diversity of applications, meaning in culture, in geography and also in genre.”
Throughout the year-long program, the pair’s work will be documented with high-quality photos and video, Hilliard said. This will give each duo tools to promote their work. At the end of the apprenticeship, each pair will be required to host a public showcase for their home communities and one in Charleston in September 2018 along with the other apprentices.
Each master artist will receive a stipend of up to $3,000 to help with the presentation and travel expenses.
Applications for the program are due by Oct. 15 and can be found on the Humanities Council website.