FIDDLIN JAKE KRACK

 

Chicago Tribune Magazine

Fiddler’s Choice

By: Billy Heavey photos by Shaun Bloodworth

A gifted young musician from Indiana wanted to learn at the feet of a mountain music master so he and his family packed up and moved to West Virginia.

Melvin Wine and Jake Krack take up their fiddles in the living room of Melvin’s old house in Braxton County, W.VA., and begin playing “Devil in the Woodpile.” The music cuts through the drowsy sound of a distant chainsaw with an insistent, magnetic force, sucking the listener back a couple of centuries to a pre-ironic age.
    Melvin, a fourth-generation mountain fiddler in his 90s, sits with his feet together, heels bouncing. His fingers aren’t as nimble as they once were, but he remains a commanding presence on the fiddle. His bow arm appears to slash and jerk almost spasmodically, but the notes come out cleanly. Melvin’s eyes flash impishly and his thick eyebrows seem to jump involuntarily when the melody takes off in a new direction, which it frequently does.
    Jake Krack, a teenager whose family moved here from Indiana just so he could learn from the master, keeps his eyes glued to Melvin’s bow arm, studying each tiny movement. Jake’s feet stay still. The music ends, they take a breath and launch into “Hannah at the Springhouse,” then “Cold Frosty Morning” and “Keys to the Kingdom.” The two match each other’s fingering and bowing note for note and stroke for stroke. In their hands, the music is sometimes euphoric, other times melancholy. Sometimes it manages to be both at once.
    This music, which now goes by names such as traditional, mountain and early hillbilly, is regarded by scholars as the oldest instrumental folk music still played in the U.S. Melvin always just called it old-time music. That it still exist - that it survived for generations among musicians who played “by air,” never wrote anything down, and knew no more about music theory than (as they themselves say) a pig knows about Sunday school - is a miracle. To ears raised on modern country pop or bluegrass, it sounds raw, unfiltered and undeniably potent. And there’s something else in it, something harder to define. At times, as it moves in and out of conventional scales, keys and rhythms, it has an otherworldly quality, as if touching on things just beyond the reach of human ken.
    More than 80 years ago, before electricity came to mountainous Braxton County, Melvin Wine remembers lying bed in the family’s tiny log cabin and listening as his father played the fiddle. The man played the only music around at the time, the song his father and grandfather had played, brought up into these mountain hollers by immigrants from the British Isles and northern Europe as early as the 18th Century.
Today Melvin Still vividly recalls first hearing the music. “Something in it touches me all over he says. One tune, “Lady’s Waist Ribbon,” made him unbearably sad. “I don’t know what about it, but I’d just wake up a-cryin’ every time Dad played that tune.”
    Young Melvin loved another tune, “Bonaparte’s Retreat, “ so much that he resolved to teach himself, even though the children were forbidden to touch the fiddle. The boy began sneaking into the dresser drawer and unwrapping the instrument from its piece of felt when his father was at work sharecropping. Eventually, he taught himself to scrape out the notes. In time, he played it for his mother. At frist she was horrified that the boy had disobeyed his father. But then she saw how careful he was with the fiddle. And there was no denying that the boy had the gift. Already he could fiddle a passable version of the song.
    One night, as her husband played “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” she spoke up. “Melvin can play that song,” she said softly. His father stopped, looked hard at the boy, and abruptly handed him the fiddle. When Melvin was finished, his father didn’t say a word. “I was afraid he was gonna whup me,” says Melvin. “But after a while he smiled. And from then on, he taught me to play.”
Melvin Wine, now 93, lives alone up a dirt road in a farmhouse built the year he was born. Over the year he fathered 10 children and out-lived two wives, one of whome he was married to for 63 years. He walks with two canes, his legs worn out from years working as a miner, farmer and lumberjack.
    Not long ago, the archives of traditional music stored in Melvin’s head and fingers would have been destined to go to his grave with him. “Most of the young-uns around here move away to find work,” he says. “And the ones who stayed aren’t much interested in old-time music.” But for the past few years, he has been passing on his heritage to a number of young fiddlers through a master-apprentice program sponsored by the Augusta Heritage Center of Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, W.Va. The program matches up young students and old masters in Appalachian arts ranging from music and dance to storytelling and blacksmithing.
Jake Krack already knows all of Melvin’s tunes and for the last five years has been soaking up all he can learn from a couple of old mountain fiddlers in the area. What impresses Melvin about Jake is not just his formidable technique, but something that can’t be taught: the old-time feeling and soul in his playing.
    Jake, a boy with a grown-out crew cut and a ready smile, appears to have the soul of a 19th Century West Virginia mountain fiddler in the body of a 21st century suburban teen. Jake’s father, Reed is a fiddle maker, stone carver and jack of all trades. By age 4 Jake was already so fascinated by his father’s efforts to learn to play the instrument that Reed cut him out a cardboard fiddle and drew strings on it so he could follow along. Jake played the make-believe fiddle until he was 6, when his father enrolled him in Suzuki classes.
“I did that for about a year and a half,” Jake recalls. “Classical training, you know. Where to put your fingers and how to hold the boy. I didn’t like it at all, but it turned out to be just what I needed as far as technique, because the old-timers don’t teach that stuff. The just each you the tunes.”
    One day Jake’s teacher gave him a cassette of Melvin Wine’s music. The boy was captivated by the sound, just as Melvin had been 80 years earlier. There was only one problem, Jake lived in Spencer, Ind., 400 miles away from Braxton County. Eventually, Jake persuaded his father to make the eight-hour drive in a rented car to the 1995 Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, W.Va., where Melvin was one of the headliners. “I was really just hoping to hear him play and get his autograph,” Jake remembers. When he finally met Melvin, the old man asked if Jake knew any of his tunes.
    Jake played the three songs he had taught himself off the cassette. When he finished, the old master smiled and told the boy, then 10 years old,     “You need to come by my house.” Jake says now that he doesn’t think Melvin understood that he lived 400 miles away. He and his father had to get the rental car back to Indiana.
    The next year, Jake and Melvin met again at the festival. Once again, Jake played fro him. Once again, Melvin said he needed to come by the house. This time Jake went over. Not long afterward, Jake came back to stay with Melvin for a week. They didn’t just play music; Jake helped Melvin in the garden, cooked with him and listened to the stories about life in the mountains and the music. “He taught me to flip pancakes and he took me to church,” Jake recalls.
    Soon Jake and his father were routinely making the 800 mile pilgrimage to Melvin’s and back on weekends. In 1996, 11-year-old Jake got a scholarship through the Augusta Heritage Center for a weeklong master fiddler class. There he met other mentors, including Lester McCumbers and Bobby Taylor, another fourth generation fiddler.
    Taylor, 46, who studied under the legendary Clark Kessinger, says, “What made Jake so rare from the start was not just his technical ability and his love for this music, but that he wanted to know the stories behind the songs. You can have all the notes in the right places but still not have the spirit and soul of the music. Teaching Jake has been the most inspirational musical experience of my life. There’s no telling how far he can go.”
Back in Indiana, Reed and his wife, Dara, had a decision to make. Melvin and Lester weren’t getting any younger, and the monthly drives to and from West Virginia were taking a toll on the family. Though anything but adventurous by nature, in 1997 the Kracks decided to uproot and move to West Virginia. The couple didn’t envision a music career for their only child; nobody gets rich playing traditional music. But it was what he loved.
    Reed sold his lawn-care business. Dara quit her teaching job and found another on that paid considerably less - in Charleston, 60 miles away from the hamlet of Orma, where they would live. They bought a 100-year-old farmhouse in dubious condition. The plan was that Jake and Dara would move in time for Jake to start the school year, staying with a local woman they’d met. Meanwhile, Reed would commute back and forth, trying to sell their house in Indian and fixing up the farm house.
On the drive east, Dara lost her nerve. Was she nuts to quit a job paying $20,000 more than the one she’d landed in West Virginia, and move someplace she knew very little about? Halfway there, she called her old school to see if her job was still open. It wasn’t. There was no turning back.
    Today, Jake leads a dual life. On one hand, he’s a normal 17-year-old boy who goes to Calhoun High School, races around the family’s 196-acre farm on a dirt bike, dates girls from school and hangs out with friends. Reed and Jake have built a new house of stone block with a back porch that looks up into the hills behind the old farmhouse, which has become the clubhouse for Jake and friends. “We have to abide by Dad’s rules,” says Jake. “No drinking, no drugs and no sex. Other than that, we can do what we want.” The places is littered with Creed and Offspring CDs, board games, a strobe light and a lava lamp. “I’m not big on pop music,” says Jake. “It doesn’t touch my heart. But of the music my friends listen to, I actually like the heavier music.”
    Unlike most boys his age, some of Jake’s closest friends are men in their 80s and 90s. He practices an hour a day, spends weekends getting together with his mentors, plays music festivals and records Cds in the summers. (He has privately released six Cds on his own label, WiseKrack Records.) These activities leave little time for sports or extracurricular activities. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
When Jake and his parents pull up in front of Melvin’s house on Friday afternoon in a red pickup truck, Melvin steps out onto the porch using his two canes. Dara and Reed each hug him., while Jake pretends to grab at his canes and Melvin playfully draws one back as if getting ready to hit him with it. It’s clear that master and pupil adore each other. “I got some applesauce on the stove I been making if you’re hungry,” he offers.
The move into the living room, where the walls are crowded with pictures of Jesus and letters of commendation for Melvin from the National Endowment for the Arts, U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, West Virginia Gov. Gaston Caperton and President George H.W. Bush. Jake’s parents who will later accompany teacher and pupil to the regular Friday night jam at the Copen Community Center just down the road , sit quietly on the sofa.
Before the play, Jake and Melvin exchange local gossip for a few minutes: who has had a hip replacement, how the resurfacing of a nearby road is progressing, what kind of tomatoes Melvin should put in this year. They sound more like to elderly farmers than teacher and pupil.
Finally, they uncase their instruments and begin to play. Melvin tucks one of his seven instruments into the middle of his chest, the way he was taught, and begins playing. Jake falls in after the first few notes, on an instrument made by his father, and suddenly the two, separated in age by three-quarters of a century, are matching each other’s fingering and bowing note for note and stroke for stroke. The songs are almost completely instrumental, but in “Meat Upon the Goose Foot,” Jake sings a refrain while fiddling:
Meat upon the goosefoot
Marrow in the bone,
Pretty girl at my house
And I’m not at home.
    Around 7 o’clock, it’s time to go down to the community center. A dozen or so pickups are already parked along the narrow road outside, the sounds of fiddles and guitars coming from within. Inside the small building, two fiddlers and three guitarists are playing. Men in plaid shirts and ball caps sit in chairs lining the walls one keeps time with a set of wooden spoons. Two women sit by the kitchen selling coffee and candy bars to help defray the rent on the building.
    Melvin makes his way to a seat, stopping to joke and pinch the knees of friends. They all smile when he does this. It is obviously an honor to be pinched by Melvin. Jake and Melvin take seats in the center of the room with the other musicians and start up.
Fiddling has always been a competitive undertaking in West Virginia, and it seems that spirit is alive and well. Jake has won the West Virginia State Folk Festival in the 50-and-under category and the state fiddling championship at the Vandalia Gathering in Charleston, and was named performing artist of the year at Tamarack: The Best of West Virginia arts center. HE has played on National Public Radio and at the Kennedy Center in Washington. He appeared at the University of Chicago Folk Festival last Winter. Jakes parents don’t push their only child, but he is obviously aware of the sacrifices they’ve made and their aspirations for him - chiefly, a college scholarship.
    “It’s getting harder for me now [to win competitions], because I’m not a cute little kid anymore,” he says. “You have to learn some tricks, things to do that impress the judges and make you stand out in a crowd.” ON the other hand, he maintains that he doesn’t want to make a career out of fiddling. “I want to have fun with it,” he says. “I don’t want to lose that ever.” He is leaning toward majoring in chemistry in college. He hears pharmacists make a good living.
    At 9 o’clock, Melvin has had enough, and we take him home from the community center. The music will go on for hours still.
The next morning, Jake’s parents drop him off at Lester McCumbers’ house just up the road for a lesson. Lester, 80, volunteers that he bowled a 205 last night and that his fingers are a little stiff for fiddling today because of it. Jake says he heard that a man up the road was firing into the air with his new .357 Magnum. “it hit the power line, split it, and it came down and hit his doghouse and fried his dog.” Lester shakes his head. “Some people got rocks in their heads for brains.”
Lester and Jake play “Old Mother Flanagan,” a rollicking, jouncy tune, and the rosin from their bows drifts down through the still, sunlit air. Jake tells Lester that he tried to show one of the tunes Melvin taught him, “Ida Red,” to some younger players he occasionally fiddles with. “They liked it but said it confused them a lot,” he laughs. Lester launches into the song, a driving powerful air, Jake focused on Lester’s bow arm to get each nuance. All of a sudden, Lester remembers a long-gone snatch of the lyric: “Ida red, she lived up town/ She rote me a letter she was coming down.”
     He looks triumphant at having remembered this lost snippet. For a moment, he is transported back to the old days. Jake doesn’t say a word, but you can almost see his brain working, tucking the phrase carefully away so it won’t get lost.