Chicago Tribune Magazine
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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.