Most musicians start out by learning to play an instrument at a young age from a teacher or mentor. Early attempts at playing music usually involves pieces that most people know.
But sometimes, musicians find a mentor who prefers their own music – music that has been passed down for generations.
That’s exactly how Jake Krack got his start.
Jake Krack played the fiddle at Green Bank Elementary-Middle School last week while Sarah Sullivan read her book, Passing the Music Down.
Passing the Music Down tells the story of the friendship between Jake and his mentor, Melvin Wine.
Sullivan said the book was inspired by the true story of two celebrated musicians, Melvin Wine and Jake Krack, who, despite an age difference of seventy-five years, performed fiddle music together and became the best of friends.
“When I watched him play, his gentle spirit shone through the music,” Sullivan writes of Melvin. “There was something timeless about him, like the ancient sage who passes on essential knowledge to a chosen apprentice – not for pay but out of an abundant reverence for his art and an abiding love for the world. I was in Charleston one day when I read an article in the paper that said Melvin Wine was going to be playing at the Appalachian String Band Festival, and a little boy was going to be coming all the way from Indiana to see him play, and hopefully play a song or two with his idol. And that little boy was Jake Krack.
‘Will you teach me all your tunes?’ Jake asks with a gulp. ‘Will you show me how they go? I want to play like you.’ The fiddler wipes his brow, takes a long, slow look. ‘You ought to bring that boy to see me,’ he tells the young man’s folks. ‘Pay a visit to the farm, and we’ll play some old-time tunes.’ And that was how their long relationship would start,” Sullivan writes.
Krack’s passion for the fiddle started out at a very young age.
“When I was about four years old, my father started trying to learn how to play the fiddle,” Krack said. “I was instantly hooked on the beauty and elegance that came from that instrument. I would always ask him if I could play, but I wasn’t really big enough to even hold it, much less learn how to play it. So he made me a little one out of cardboard, and I had a blast just pretending to play that one. When I turned five, I was a bit bigger, and he got me my first fiddle. One of my heroes, so to speak, someone that I looked up to and wanted to meet was Melvin Wine. Melvin was born and raised in Braxton County, where he and his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all known as musicians. And I knew at a young age, I wanted to meet him one day.
“At the time, we were living in Spencer, Indiana, where I was taking fiddle lessons from a local teacher, Brad Leftwich. It was there that I got my first opportunity to go and meet Melvin. My teacher told my parents about a festival in Clifftop down in Fayette County, where Melvin would be playing. Well, my parents loaded up the car, and drove me all the way down there, and I was so excited I could barely contain myself. Once we were at the Appalachian String Band Festival, I set out to find him, and once I did, I was hooked. He was amazing, and all the music he knew was as old as the hills around us. I had brought my fiddle along, and actually got to play with him. After playing for a while, we got to talking, and he asked my parents if he could teach me a few times a year. And that was where it all began.”
Over the next two years, Jake and his parents would make several trips to West Virginia so he could study with Melvin and learn his tunes and bowing techniques.
“Rolling up the hollow through the early morning mist, the boy’s father steers the car around two friendly old hounds,” Sullivan writes of those trips. “‘Been wondering when you would get here,’ the old man tells the boy. ‘Got a lot of things to show you. I hope you’ll spend some time.’ They flip flapjacks for breakfast. They hunt ginseng in the woods. They pick runners from the garden. And when the work is done, they sit on the porch. The old man tunes his fiddle, and the boy leans in close. They play ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat’ and ‘Yew Piney Mountain’ tunes older than the towns the boy had traveled through, tunes old as the mist and twisty as the roads.”
“My parents were extremely supportive of me,” Krack said. “In 1998, when I was thirteen, my parents decided to take jobs in Calhoun County. That was where Melvin started introducing me to other legendary musicians, such as Wilson Douglas, Bobby Taylor and Lester McCumbers.
“Life scoots along,” Sullivan’s story continues. “The boy’s back grows straight and tall. The old man’s knees turn wobbly. He turned ninety a few years past. Still he tends the garden and plays music with the boy. Until one cold frosty morning just before spring, the old man’s legs won’t move the way they need to go. Sitting at his bedside, the boy holds his friend’s hand, hums a tune low and soft all the way to the end. Sees the old man smile when he hears the boy’s words. ‘I’ll do just like I promised. I’ll teach folks all your tunes. There’s a part of you that will always be around.’”
Melvin Wine passed away in 2003 at the age of 93. Melvin left behind 10 children. He felt as if Jake was his 11th child, and he left one of his fiddles to him.
“I made a promise to Lester and Melvin,” Krack said last week. “It was a promise to continue playing the songs just like they used to, and I plan to keep that promise. I teach a few people now, and I only have two rules: You have to practice, and regularly. And you have to have fun, the same way I did learning from Melvin as I grew up.”
Jake will never forget the last thing his friend and mentor said to him: “Play that fiddle, son. You got to pass the music down.”
Sarah Sullivan has a MFA in children’s writing from Vermont College and lives in West Virginia, “where old-time fiddlers play throughout the seasons.”
Passing the Music Down is beautifully illustrated by Barry Root.
The book was published by Candlewick Press and is available online from Amazon and other outlets