Fiddler Magazine

The Circle Remains Unbroken
by Leo Hickman

    The silver-haired old man sitting on the porch of the rustic Camp Washington Carver lodge with fiddle in hand, eyed the young fiddler approaching him. As the young boy drew nearer, the old man asked the boy if he knew any of his tunes. The older man was not aware that the young fiddler had wanted to meet him for two years and had carried his picture in his fiddle case all that time. The young fiddler timidly answered, “Yes, sir. I know a few of your tunes.” And they began to play. Unknowingly, with the start of this interaction, a friendship and mentorship began that was to last for nine more years. The older man was West Virginia fiddler Melvin Wine and the young fiddler was Jake Krack.
    At the age of six years, Jake began to learn to play the fiddle. He soon became immersed in learning the old fiddle tunes of West Virginia and the heritage behind them through the oral tradition (learning by ear).
Jake’s first teacher, Brad Leftwich, introduced him to the music of the old fiddlers of West Virginia and passed on his knowledge of the music to Jake for three and a half years. The value of Brad’s mentorship was immeasurable in the laying of the strong foundation he gave to Jake. During this time Brad instilled in Jake the wonderful opportunities that could be his if he were able to get to know the older fiddlers before they vanished. Jake’s family took this advice to heart for the next year by making constant trips to West Virginia from southern Indiana. Later, with a five thousand dollar grant from the Indiana Arts Commission the Krack family was able to continue their travels to West Virginia until eventually moving there in 1998. Continuing on since that beginning, Jake has spent the last fifteen years learning from a number of West Virginia master fiddlers and has immersed himself into the wonderful opportunities Brad had told him about.
    As he met more and more with his mentors, Jake did not just learn their fiddle tunes but also learned about their lives and their families and very quickly became intertwined with them in friendship and family. Through these interactions Jake, in short order, became aware of the priceless treasures that would befall him in his journey “back in time.” One of these treasured experiences took place during Jake’s first visit to Melvin Wine’s home when Melvin patiently instructed him in the fine art of flipping a pancake by just using the pan and a skillful flip of the wrist. The ear-to-ear grin on Jake’s face upon accomplishing this feat would last a lifetime in his memory. Another treasured experience would be the hours spent at the side of his old friend in the “sleepy corner” (an old couch in the corner of Melvin’s living room).
    Melvin Wine was born in Burnsville, West Virginia, in 1909. At the age of nine he began to play his first fiddle tunes by sneaking out his father’s prized possession (the fiddle). Melvin eventually gained the courage to inform his mother of the progress he had made with his father’s fiddle. One evening his mother bravely shared this with his father. At the time, Melvin believed he might receive a whipping for sneaking out the fiddle. But instead, from this point on, Melvin’s father supported the young boy’s efforts. Melvin’s father, Bob learned the fiddle tunes he passed on to Melvin from his father, Nels ( Melvin’s grandfather). Nels could only sing the tunes he remembered from hearing Melvin’s great grandfather, Smithy, play them on the fiddle. This family heritage has now been partly continued through Jake. Melvin, many times with tears in his eyes, told Jake that he could rest peacefully knowing that his fiddle tune would be passed on and preserved by the young fiddler. Melvin passed away in 2003 with Jake at his bedside. The Wine family honored Melvin and Jake’s relationship by presenting Jake with one of Melvin’s fiddles that Melvin called “the ladies fiddle.”
    As Jake’s father stood in the lobby of the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia, watching Jake play in a jam with a variety of musicians, a man standing next to him stated that the young fiddler had a very powerful bowing arm. When Jake’s father turned to respond, he realized that the older gentleman was Lester McCumbers of Nicut, West Virginia. Lester was a fiddler Jake greatly admired and soon after he would become Lester’s first apprentice. Later, on CNN, Lester stated that “Jake is the only one of a few young people I know that can go as far back with the old time sound.”
    Lester was born in 1921 and, like Melvin, came from a musical family.
Lester learned to play fiddle from his father and from many local area fiddlers like Harvey Sampson and French Carpenter as he played back up guitar for them. As time went on, Lester began to pick up the fiddle and became an accomplished bluegrass and old time fiddler and singer in his own right. For many years Lester performed, with his wife Linda and other members of his family at many local festivals and radio stations billed as the “Sandy Valley Boys.” Lester has shared many stories with Jake about life in Calhoun County, West Virginia, such as walking eight miles to the movies, or catching a ride with the mail hack up the dirt roads to town, or about his families’ first radio. Jake and Lester have played many times together at the local community centers and festivals, and for many hours in Lester’s home.
    Bobby Taylor of St. Albans, West Virginia, and contest coordinator for the Appalachian String Band festival was the latest fiddler to agree to accept Jake as a apprentice. As with Melvin and Lester, Bobby has a long family history of fiddling, being a fifth generation fiddler himself.Bobby’s father, ninety-four year old Lincoln Taylor, is the oldest fiddler, and fiddle maker, Jake has known. Lincoln played the first tune on Jake’s CD Hope I’ll Join the Band. Getting to know Lincoln and Bobby was another of Jake’s treasures and, true to the experiences with Melvin and Lester, Bobby and his family became very close to Jake and his family. At a young age Bobby was taken aback by the fiddling of his two mentors, Clark Kessinger and Mike Humphreys. Bobby combined the styles of his mentors with his own to become one of the most dynamic fiddlers of his generation. He is also a historian of old fiddlers and their styles, and has continued to incorporate many of their styles into his own playing. By doing so he has saved many bow licks and phrasings that might otherwise have been lost. So Bobby, too, undertook the task of sharing and passing along the old fiddle tunes and the heritage of the men behind them to Jake through an apprenticeship program. On Jake’s first CD Bobby stated that “Jake is the finest young fiddler I know. Even at a young age he has surpassed the talent and skill of many fiddlers who have played for a life time.”
    During Jake’s first visit at the age of nine to the Clifftop, West Virginia, Appalachian String Band Festival, he participated in the fiddle contest. The contestants consisted of Jake and seventy seven adults - there was no youth category at that time. Since that time a youth competition was added, with more and more young people entering every year. Jake has reached a point where he inspires many young fiddlers as well as older fiddlers, and is passing on the heritage that was given to him from Melvin, Lester, Brad, and Bobby. He also shares the music and friendship he has experienced from other fiddlers such as Glenn Smith, Wilson Douglas, Woody Simmons, Lefty Shafer, and others through the Augusta Heritage Center workshops. He has also been able to share these treasures with audiences at places such as the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival in Washington D.C., the Kennedy Center, and the Chicago Folk Festival, Jake, Melvin, Lester, and Bobby have also been featured together on CNN Television, Canadian National Television, National Public Television, and in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune .
    Many time at his father’s shop, “Krack’s Fiddle Shop” (which can be found at most of the local old time music festivals such as Mt. Airy North Carolina, and Galax Virginia), Jake has often been informed by visitors to the shop that unbeknownst to him, they had been learning to play the fiddle by watching him and listening to his Cds. Jake plays for hour at the shop on fiddles his father made, with his mother backing him up on guitar. They have welcomed musicians of all levels and styles from fiddle to banjo, guitar, and mandolin players to join them and jam. He has also shared many of his experiences and tunes with younger fiddlers who stop by to see him. He sees this as a way to pass along the traditions handed down to him the old way, in the oral tradition - a promise he made to his mentors and a promise he continues to keep.
    Jake now twenty-one and a student at Berea College , is planning a possible career in folklore or a musical career with his fiddle. He currently works in the Berea college library’s music archives preserving the old music from reel to reel tapes to digital format. He finds great pleasure in this. In fact, his first project was to save forty-three of Melvin Wine’s tunes and put them on the archives’ website:
So the circle remains intact. In the current culture, Jake has been told that it is rare to see someone as young as he as (and is) to take to the old ways as he has, to carry on the traditions of a time gone by, and to keep alive a part of our culture that is rapidly disappearing. Many people feel a sense of peace knowing that the old ways our to be carried on and remembered by some of the youth of today. John Lilly, Editor of Goldenseal magazine, wrote in the liner notes of Jake’s second CD, One More Time:

“Folk culture is a lot like water. Where it comes from and where it goes is a matter of endless mystery and fascination to me. In this sense, Jake Krack is carrying a lot of water. Jake’s intuitive feel for the flow and subtleties of traditional fiddling is remarkable. His sense of rhythm and timing is rich and fluid. And his playful intensity is uplifting and refreshing. Still a young man, Jake is well beyond his years musically. He continues to learn directly from older musicians, particularly from West Virginia master fiddler Melvin Wine, and honors them each time he breaks out his fiddle. Traditions survive one generation at a time. So it does my heart good to realize that somewhere out there --- in Indiana or West Virginia or somewhere in between --- is young Jake Krack, carrying water.”

    The oral tradition and the passing on of a song and story is a centuries-old custom of preserving some of our old time ways. This tradition consists of handing down the songs and stories by word of mouth or by the playing or singing of songs--by demonstration rather than by written word. By continuing the oral tradition, we preserve particular nuances such as bowing techniques in a fiddle tune, or the inflection of the voice in a song or story, that otherwise may be lost through the written word or written description of a performance of a tune, or singing of a song, or of a story tellers whose haunting story relies , in part, on the inflection of one’s voice. These are fragile treasures that should be cherished and held onto and, if possible, carried on by our youth. We should appreciate the young souls like Jake that have taken this to heart and are willing to pass it on. And maybe, just maybe, your grandchildren or great grandchildren will someday hear a story or a song of long-lost loved ones, never to be forgotten, sung or played by a child who never knew them but by some haunting consciousness feels a connection to them.