The West Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program offers up to a $3,000 stipend to West Virginia master traditional artists or tradition bearers working with qualified apprentices on a year-long in-depth apprenticeship in their cultural expression or traditional art form. These apprenticeships aim to facilitate the transmission of techniques and artistry of the forms, as well as their histories and traditions.
Doris Fields aka Lady D of Beckley is leading an apprenticeship in blues and black gospel, with Xavier Oglesby of Beckley.
Doris Fields aka Lady D
Doris A. Fields, also known as Lady D, is a West Virginia native born in Kayford in Kanawha County. She is a graduate of East Bank High School and West Virginia State University with a bachelor’s degree in communications. She is also a graduate of Phillip’s College in Gulfport, MS with an associate degree in travel and tourism. She is known as West Virginia’s First Lady of Soul.
Lady D has been singing since the age of three years old. She is also an actress, songwriter, director, and promoter. Since 2003, she has toured her one-woman show, “The Lady and the Empress,” a musical stage play based on the life and music of blues legend, Bessie Smith. Her acting experience also includes a five-year stint with Theater West Virginia’s productions of Honey In the Rock, Hatfields and McCoys, and various other shows. On the local scene, Lady D was very active in productions with the Charleston Stage Company, Children’s Theater and Kanawha Players.
As a professional vocalist, highlights of Lady D’s career include being the opening act for the legendary soul group, the O’Jays at Charleston’s 2007 FestivALL. In 2008, her original song, “Go Higher,” was chosen as the best Obama Inaugural Song and earned her a trip with her band, MI$$ION, to Washington, D.C. to perform at the 2009 Obama for Change Inaugural Ball. In 2010, Lady D was honored to perform at the live recording of the HistoryMakers: “An Evening With Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” at the Cultural Center in Charleston. In August 2014, she was inducted into the “All Black Schools Sports & Academic Hall of Fame” (ABSSA) with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
I have wanted to be a singer from the age of three. I have never wanted to do anything else in life. I joined the children’s choir at church when I was seven years old and I have been singing publicly ever since. I went on sing with several bands and have now been fronting my own band for seventeen years.
I grew up watching television shows like Ed Sullivan, American Bandstand, and Soul Train. I emulated singers like Sarah Vaughn and Lena Horne. Later, my all-time favorite singer became Chaka Khan and she was my greatest musical influence. After beginning my research of Bessie Smith some sixteen years ago, she has also become a great influence in my music and my performances. I do not consider my musical education to be over with as I enjoy learning from other singers and musicians.
Xavier Oglesby, a Beckley native, was raised in the black Pentecostal church, learning gospel music from his family. From 1997 to 2003, he hosted “545 Live,” a gospel music radio show on Beckley’s WJLS in Beckley. From 1997 to 2002 he was an actor and singer at Theatre West Virginia. He recently narrated voice-overs for the National Park Service New River Gorge African American Heritage Auto Tour. He currently works as a corrections officer.
Some of my first memories were of singing gospel songs in the kitchen with my mother and grandparents. Church and gospel music has been a way of life for me and I have been greatly influenced by my family, which has some wonderful singers, and many older people in my community. It was these people who taught me how to carry a song and make the most impact in its delivery. The music of the black church has deep roots and I find it an important responsibility to continue the tradition of this music. Young people today, even those who are still being raised in the church, are not fully aware of gospel tradition and I feel privileged to be an example.
(A version of this article, “The Gospel of the Blues: Lady D & Xavier Oglesby” by Emily Hilliard, can be found in the 2018 winter issue of Goldenseal)
When I asked Xavier Oglesby how he learned to sing, he laughed, “Ah! How did I start singing? Lord have mercy!” Was there ever a time that he hadn’t?
Settling on an origin story, he admits that he learned sitting in his mother’s kitchen: “When I was about four or five years old, she got all of the kids together in the kitchen while she was cooking and said, ‘Okay y’all, you’re gonna sing!’”
But growing up, Xavier found himself reluctant to perform in public until one day his brother, who normally sang lead, didn’t show up to their Beckley church. “The choir director looked at me and told me to sing—and I was really stunned! I was surprised when I opened my mouth to sing, it actually came out, and I’ve been in love with it ever since.”
Xavier, 47, is big and tall, but his voice is a gentle honey-sweet tenor (he burst into song frequently during our interview). After a few years away from singing on a public stage, he has devoted this year to studying the West Virginia blues and black gospel tradition with “West Virginia’s First Lady of Soul,” Lady D (Doris Fields), through the West Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Program.
“Doris was able to quantify for me how we, as a people, created an art form, just doing something that we naturally do,” says Xavier. Though Doris performs a range of genres from soul to jazz to blues under her Lady D stage name, she grew up in the Baptist church, listening to West Virginia gospel musicians Ethel Caffie-Austin, The Penn Family, and the Gospel Family Affair.
Together, Doris and Xavier have been exploring the connections between blues and gospel. Doris says, “What a lot of people don’t know or want to accept now is that Thomas Dorsey [“The Father of Black Gospel Music”] was known as Georgia Tom and Texas Tom, and his wife was Ma Rainey’s wardrobe mistress. He wrote over 400 blues tunes. He took the beat from blues and put it behind religious music so that’s where you get the hand-clapping and the tambourines and all that in gospel.”
To illustrate her point, she sings the work song “Take This Hammer” followed by the gospel song “Glory, Glory Hallelujah,” which share a melody. Both blues and gospel songs also share the phenomenon of “floater verses” that can extend a song depending on how long dancers want to dance at the juke joint, or preachers want to preach in church. “You’ve got all kinds of verses that are interchangeable just depending on how you feel at the time,” says Doris. Xavier adds, “They say you can’t sing the blues on a Saturday night and then get up and sing the Lord’s music on Sunday morning, but the truth is, most everybody who was an artist—that’s exactly what they were doing!”
Along with churches, one of the ways blues and black popular traditions perpetuated in the Mountain State was through the Chitlin’ Circuit, a group of venues throughout the Eastern United States that were safe for African-American performers. Xaviers’s great-grandparents owned a Raleigh County venue called The Dew Drop Inn, which was on the Circuit. Doris says that after performers like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Sarah Vaughn would play at the Municipal Auditorium in Charleston, they’d go perform in black clubs around town until early in the morning, backed by local musicians. “So all these West Virginia musicians would get to play with national acts. They learned certain licks, and so then they carry it on, teach it to someone else in the coal camp.”
To share their work and research, Doris and Xavier have taught public programs at the quarterly West Virginia Baptist Quartet Conventions. The first was held in May at the Eagle Central Baptist Church in Montgomery, with a follow-up in Beckley in August. They hope that by documenting older practitioners and promoting the tradition in their own work, young people will take interest in carrying on the old gospel standard repertoire once common in black churches in West Virginia.
“I think with programs like this apprenticeship program and more recordings that it would open it wide open so today’s generation can see what it really sounds like,” Xavier says. Doris agrees, “Hopefully people will start to remember the old gospel, the standards again, and maybe go back to that every once in a while. You don’t want to forget those traditional hymns, and sometimes for what you’re going through, only ‘Amazing Grace’ is gonna take care of it.”
Lady D and Xavier Oglesby will be performing at the January 16 Apprenticeship Showcase at the West Virginia Humanities Council in Charleston.
The apprenticeship program grants are administered by the West Virginia Folklife Program at the West Virginia Humanities Council in Charleston and are supported in part by an Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. West Virginia Folklife is dedicated to the documentation, preservation, presentation, and support of West Virginia’s vibrant cultural heritage and living traditions.