Bernadette “BJ” Lark learned about her family’s Gullah Geechee culture while sitting at her great-grandmother’s knee. Now 43, Lark passes that knowledge on to Roanoke students, including 19-year-old Alanjha Harris.
Virginia Folklife apprenticeship celebration
The Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke will host a celebration of the Virginia Folklife apprenticeship program on Thursday.
The event will include a reception, performances by four master/apprentice teams (including Bernadette “BJ” Lark and Alanjha Harris), and screenings of the short documentaries made about each team.
The event runs from 5:30 to 8 p.m. It’s free, but registration is required.
In 2022, Lark and Harris were selected alongside seven other mentor/apprentice pairs to participate in the Virginia Folklife apprenticeship program. Their craft: Gullah Geechee gospel.
On Thursday evening, the two singers will perform alongside three other mentor/apprentice pairs at the Virginia Folklife apprenticeship program at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke. The program will be a celebration of the year-long program’s completion. A series of short documentaries will be shown before each pair of participants demonstrates their craft.
Since Lark and Harris were chosen to participate in the program, they have met regularly. Lark created a curriculum centering around Gullah Geechee traditions, a culture that she was raised in.
Gullah Geechee traditions are prevalent where Lark grew up, in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. The traditions are also found throughout coastal northern Florida through North Carolina, she said. The culture thrives in African American communities and is still practiced by people whose ancestors were enslaved, she said.
Many of the Gullah Geechee traditions came about as a result of their ancestors’ diaspora and enslavement.
Creole-style dishes of rice and seafood, gumbo or black-eyed peas are popular. Women preserve arts and crafts traditions like quilting and basketry, and pass on oral history incorporating old wives’ tales and other pieces of wisdom, Lark said.
Lark’s great-grandmother, Bertha Gatson, who was born in 1900, carried out the traditions of Gullah Geechee in her day-to-day life. She taught Lark many of the Gullah Geechee old wives’ tales — and, along with her mother and grandmother, Gatson taught Lark how to sing.
“She’d sit in her rocker, humming in a beautiful voice,” Lark said.
“My mom would strike out in song at any moment,” she said, adding that her father grew up in a quartet of singers.
Part of their family tradition was to minister to people both inside and outside the church. Lark recalled going on community missions with her parents, visiting countless community members in the hospital or taking them food when they were sick. During the visits, Lark’s family would sing.
“That’s what I grew up around, just striking out in a song with no rehearsal,” Lark said. They knew that whatever spiritual blessings were needed in the moment would be supplied, she said, adding that her family always had love and always had fellowship.
“I learned [how to sing] from my mom through observation, and just hearing and feeling and seeing,” Lark said. Her mother never sat her down to specifically teach her how to sing; she just picked up the skill by following her mom around, mimicking her in song.
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Today, Lark and Harris sing in the same gospel style that Lark learned as a child. Much of their music is in the a cappella form that is indicative of Gullah Geechee style, which Lark describes as soul-stirring.
If a recent youth gospel rehearsal at the Jefferson Center’s Downtown Music Lab is any indication, Lark’s description is accurate, even with the addition of musical instruments. Lark works as a music educator at the Downtown Music Lab. In addition to Harris, three other teenage musicians, a parent-vocalist and pianist Gregory Lewis were in attendance.
Lark’s and Harris’ voices rang out in harmony as they worked together to write lyrics to accompany Lewis’ piano composition.
Lark, occasionally tapping a drum, would nod and make eye contact with Harris when it was the younger woman’s turn to chime in. Once Harris had picked up the chorus, Lark directed her to take a higher octave or dial in other minute changes.
While Lark and Harris occasionally perform with drums and a piano, they do not use any instruments when singing traditional Gullah Geechee hymns. Lark simply claps to set the beat. Practitioners may sing recognized songs such as “This Little Light of Mine” and “Kumbaya,” or they may improvise the lyrics and beat as they go.
A primary feature of Gullah Geechee gospel is the traditional call-and-repeat sequence. The leader issues a call, which starts the song or the chant. The call is typically accompanied by hand-clapping or foot-stomping to set the rhythm. At the same time, the leader shouts out, which garners the attention of the other singers and the audience.
Once the call is issued, the remaining singers verbally respond to the leader. This response could be impromptu or planned in advance, Lark said.
There’s significance in this pattern: The response shows that the leader is trusted by the rest of the group to select the song, tone and pitch, Lark said.
Lark and Harris have been working together for 15 years, since Harris was just 4 years old. Elaine Markham, Harris’ grandmother, introduced her to Lark at Spirit of Liberty Worship Center in Northwest Roanoke.
Harris remembers watching Lark sing in worship or at events and wanting to participate with her, she said.
“At the age of 4 or 5, I would mimic the choir at church [and] the songs I heard on the radio,” Harris said.
“I always knew she could sing. … Alanjha could do a perfect call and response to match whatever she was hearing,” Lark said.
Over the years, Harris has had the opportunity to listen to Lark’s song, watching and learning the rhythms and words along the way. At the same time, Lark has incorporated more rigorous musical instruction into Harris’ lessons.
“I’ve told [Alanjha] that it is her time to share what she has because it is amazing and very uplifting,” Lark said.
They have spent many hours in rehearsal, perfecting their gospel songs. Lark has also invited Harris to travel alongside her, sharing their music. For Lark, it is important that Harris can improvise songs when asked, much like Lark did while ministering with her parents in South Carolina.
Many of the songs feature words in Gullah Geechee. Lark said that listeners sometimes misunderstand the words, or the intention of the language. People might think that Gullah Geechee traditionalists are speaking in broken English, for instance.
“[Gullah Geechee] was an intentional way to communicate at a time of being oppressed and being forced to not speak a certain way,” she said.
The language was developed as a means of survival. It was intended to be a language that people who owned slaves could not understand, Lark said.
Maintaining the Gullah Geechee language is important because language is inherently tied to education, she said. “If you can rid a person of their language, you cut off an entire generation from learning,” she said.
As part of the apprenticeship program, Lark also teaches Harris about Gullah Geechee prayer, food, symbols and dress. The two developed the curriculum together, according to the traditions that Lark grew up with.
“The goal is that when she opens her mouth to share a prayer or a song, it comes from a place of knowledge,” Lark said.
The program has helped Harris overcome some of her initial shyness, Lark said. At first, Harris was reluctant to pray out loud and to learn the Gullah Geechee language. Over time, she overcame that hesitation, Lark said.
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The Virginia Folklife apprenticeship program began in 2002, according to state folklorist and Virginia Folklife Program director Katy Clune, who said that most states have folklife programs.
The goal of Virginia Folklife, which is a program of Virginia Humanities, is to preserve cultural traditions from across the state while encouraging master craftsmen and those interested in learning folk traditions.
Each mentor/apprentice pair determines how they will work with one another and what aspects of their traditions they will focus on. Unlike many art residencies or other programs, the artists are not required to produce an end product in exchange for the funding, Clune said.
“We get a special opportunity to support these learning experiences between people engaged in cultural traditions without having requirements for production,” she said.
One of Harris’ favorite aspects of the apprenticeship program was having the opportunity to share their story through a video produced by the program.
Each of the eight Virginia Folklife apprenticeship teams has been the subject of short documentaries about their craft. The 8-minute film about Lark and Harris documents many of the core aspects of Gullah Geechee traditions, from holiday celebrations to music to spirituality. The other apprenticeship videos are much the same.
The video production was first incorporated into the apprenticeship program in 2020, said Clune, who became director of the program in 2022 and has continued the video program as a service to the folklore artists and to the general public.
“This update is being driven by our contemporary society,” she said; artists can share the videos to further their professional careers.
Clune has made other updates to the program as well, including increasing the participants’ stipend. Mentor artists receive $4,000 in funding to teach their craft. Each apprentice receives $1,000. The program is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts.
The 2022 to 2023 apprenticeship class includes Appalachian ballads singers, violin makers, fiddlers, blues dancers, tar players, bomba dancers and eel pot makers, according to the program’s website.
Three master/apprentice teams will perform alongside Lark and Harris at the Taubman Museum of Art on Aug. 17: balladists Elizabeth LaPrelle and Elsa Howell, fiddlers Betty Vornbrock and Sharon Andreucci, and violin makers Daniel Smith and Richard Maxham. Most of the featured team members are from Roanoke or Southwest Virginia,
Other master/apprentice teams performed at a July event in Richmond.
Thursday’s event will begin with a short reception, then the four teams’ documentaries will be screened. A presentation of certificates and individual performances will follow.
Soon after the performance, Harris will leave for her first year at Liberty University in Lynchburg, where she plans to major in musical theater.
Lark, who moved to Roanoke in 2000 with her late husband, Jerry Brown, and their children, has taught music for many years and will continue to do so after Harris leaves, she said.
In fact, she already has three new apprentices-in-training, ranging in age from 13 to 15 — they are the same musicians who accompanied her at the Downtown Music Lab earlier this month.
And there are even younger students coming up behind them. Many are participants in Lark’s CommUnity ARTSreach initiative, a nonprofit organization that provides music education to many Roanoke children who might otherwise not have access to the arts.
“These babies are watching and learning and observing everything we’re sharing,” Lark said.
Clarification 11:30 a.m. Aug. 15: Virginia Folklife, which is a program of Virginia Humanities, receives funding for its apprenticeship program from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts. The story has been clarified to reflect this.