Published November 14, 2020

By Sarah Lawson

“Jon Lohman is one of those people that you feel you’ve known your entire life,” reflects gospel musician Reverend Almeta Ingram-Miller. She met Lohman, who directed the Virginia Folklife Program for nineteen years before stepping down in August of 2020, while performing at one of the first Richmond Folk Festivals with her family gospel group, Maggie Ingram & The Ingramettes. The two formed a friendship as the group became beloved regulars on the Virginia Folklife stage at the Richmond Folk Festival. “Jon opened my world of music to include people that I never knew existed… and I came to know their life stories through their music,” says Ingram-Miller.

For Lohman, that’s exactly what folklife is all about. It’s not just about documenting traditions or memorializing vestiges of the past that have been passed down but about connecting people right now. “These are dynamic things. This is living and breathing stuff at the core of how folks see themselves in connection to others,” he explains.

Jon Lohman and Almeta Ingram-Miller at the Catholic Church Virgin Mary of Fatima in Pleven, Bulgaria, during a cultural exchange trip in 2019. Photo by Pat Jarrett, Virginia Humanities

“Folklife wasn’t just a job for Jon, he lived and breathed the work. His passion, relationships, and creativity are the foundations of what is the current Virginia Folklife Program,” says Pat Jarrett, acting director of the program. “I know that whatever comes next will be different, mainly because there is only one Jon Lohman.”

When Lohman, a native New Yorker with a doctorate in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania, first arrived at Virginia Humanities in 2001, “There was a huge learning curve in terms of geography, the culture, the genres of folklife,” he recalls.

The byways and backwaters were unfamiliar, rich traditions of music and craft still unknown, and thousands of stories and people yet to make his acquaintance. On top of that, the Virginia Folklife Program had been dormant for three years. On Lohman’s first day, Virginia Humanities founder Rob Vaughan asked him to wrap up a project about Galax; Lohman didn’t even know where Galax was, much less who or what made it special. So, he got in his car and started driving, getting to know Virginia’s artists, musicians, and other folklife practitioners in order to understand them and what they needed.

Jon Lohman addresses a crowd of music fans during a 2017 cultural exchange trip to Cabo Verde with Aimee Curl, Jared Pool, Zerui Depina, and Danny Knicely. Photo by Pat Jarrett, Virginia Humanities

Lohman met people like Roddy Moore at the Blue Ridge Institute, local musician and presenter Fred Boyce of the Prism Coffeehouse, luminary folklorist Joe Wilson, Tidewater gospel quartet The Paschall Brothers, decoy carver Grayson Chesser, old-time musician Emily Spencer, beloved luthier Audrey Hash Ham, and many others who became fast friends and mentors. Time and again, he heard people express concern that folklife practices were dying out, that older master artists might pass and take their knowledge and stories with them. With funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Lohman launched the Folklife Apprenticeship Program to directly support artists, build relationships, and continue to deepen the knowledge of and engagement with the folklife traditions of Virginians.

Ingram-Miller participated in the Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program with her mother, Maggie Ingram. The Apprenticeship Program pairs masters of traditional art forms with skilled apprentices for one-on-one nine-month learning experiences, ensuring that cherished cultural traditions are passed along to future generations. Cliff Murphy, who is currently the director of Folk & Traditional Arts at the NEA, and got to know Lohman while co-directing the Maryland Traditions state folklife program, calls Lohman’s work “transformative.” Murphy recalls, “He had a really positive and empowering impact on our program and was a generous and accessible neighbor. I point people who are new to the field toward Jon and encourage them to look at the work that he’s done.”

David Bearinger, director of Virginia Humanities’ grants program, reflects, “Jon’s most lasting imprint on our work will come from the relationships he built, the quality of those relationships, the trust and creativity he inspired in others. And, of course, there’s the reputation we have for producing kickass festivals and concerts; for bringing people of every conceivable background, race, ethnicity, and station in life together—literally—under one tent.”

Indeed, in addition to building the Folklife Apprenticeship Program and the related Apprenticeship Showcase, Lohman programmed the Virginia Folklife stage for all fifteen years of the Richmond Folk Festival, from its start as the visiting National Folk Festival to its current status as one of Virginia’s largest events. He showcased material as well as musical traditions and worked within a new theme each year to create one of the most popular stages at the annual festival. He also presented artists and their work at FloydFest, Bristol Rhythm & Roots, and elsewhere, sharing musical traditions and other folklife practices with audiences across the state.

Whenever he presented artists, Lohman sought to draw connections between people from different traditions. “Another gift of Jon’s is seeing unseen connections,” says Bearinger. “He created some legendary on-stage blendings—Sephardic Jewish tones and melodies with Black southern gospel; the N’goni (a traditional West African stringed instrument) with the Appalachian banjo. There are dozens of examples.”

: Jon Lohman sits inside a 1953 Buick in Old Havana during a 2019 cultural exchange trip to Cuba with Sephardic Jewish musicians Susan Gaeta and Gina Sobel. Photo by Pat Jarrett, Virginia Humanities

To support and build on these efforts, Lohman developed unique partnerships with the National Council for the Traditional Arts, the Smithsonian Institute, and other national organizations. In partnership with the U.S. State Department, he produced international exchange trips with Virginia musicians who shared their traditions and collaborated with local artists in Cape Verde, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Cuba. He also arranged similar exchanges in Virginia, with “From Africa to Appalachia” concerts exploring African traditions and influences on American music, as well as residencies and performances with Iraqi master musician Rahim Alhaj, Cape Verdean musician Zerui Depina, and even a group of Tuvan throat singers who performed in Galax, where Lohman is now a familiar face.

“It’s really gratifying that we’ll have standing-room-only for people to see someone because they trust us. We’ve built trust among people and among the artists,” Lohman says. He is also responsible for five Virginians being selected as NEA National Heritage Fellows, and he successfully nominated four out-of-state artists for the honor as well, including queen of rockabilly Wanda Jackson.

Lohman also recorded and produced more than fifteen albums with Virginia Folklife artists, including The Legendary Ingramettes’ Live In Richmond, which earned an Independent Music Award for Best Gospel Album, as well as their latest album, Take a Look in the Book, which received enthusiastic reviews from National Public Radio, No Depression, and other national media. Ingram-Miller recalls, “At one time, Maggie Ingram & The Ingramettes were the youngest recording group on Nashboro Records in Nashville, so we were not strangers to the process of singing on a record; what Jon did differently was to include us in the entire process. He wanted us to stretch beyond our comfort zone. In order to do that, Jon had to be in relationship with us, not just as a record producer, but as someone who cared about us, our beliefs, and our culture.”

Through his vision and unfailing energy, Lohman created a national model out of the Virginia Folklife Program. For Lohman, this work has never been separate from the people he worked with. “It’s about meeting communities where they are and supporting and celebrating and helping them share these beautiful traditions,” he says. It was impossible to draw a line between work and life for him; the people he worked with mattered too much. Many became treasured friends and family, like Ingram-Miller, as well as Lohman’s wife and partner in all things folklife, Tori Talbot.

In 2015, Ingram-Miller invited Lohman to speak at the Homegoing Celebration Service for her mother, Maggie Ingram. She recalls, “It was a spirited celebration, and each preacher that spoke took us higher and higher in the celebration. I could see that Jon was beginning to get a little nervous. I gently patted him on the back, and said, ‘Just speak from your heart.’ And that’s exactly what he did. He stood behind the preacher’s podium, greeted us, and acknowledged our sorrow at the passing of the legendary icon that was our mom. He reminisced about the first time he met our mom and the friendship that grew over the years. And how he watched as the years and Alzheimer’s took a toll on her physical body, but never took away her joyous spirit. He then lifted his head, looked at me and the Ingramettes, and quickly continued: ‘Today, you may only see the clouds of sorrow. But keep singing, keep climbing, keep honoring your mom’s legacy; and never forget that even when you can’t see it, the sun is always shining.’ It was the defining moment of the entire service.”

“I was so deeply honored to be asked to speak at Maggie’s funeral. I really consider my friendship with the Ingramettes among the greatest blessings of my life,” reflects Lohman. “People developing understanding and empathy and love for each other… The traditional arts have a power in that that is unique.”

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