Saturday, January 28, 2012

Melvin

 


Probably one of the only times I had sense enough to take advantage of an opportunity to exploit magnificence was in my meeting and playing with Melvin Wine. Melvin Wine was a farmer, coal miner, preacher,  and the best fiddler I ever had the pleasure of spending a lot of time with.

I was an Artist in Residence in Braxton County, West Virginia for a while. I was doing some rooting around searching in what I figured was an area rife with old time fiddlers. I found a few, andthey  all pointed me to one man, Melvin Wine. Melvin lived  just out of Burnsville, in a dirt road town of Copen, WV. It was so far out that they pumped in sunlight.

Melvin was baling hay the day I met him. He turned off the tractor and I introduced myself, and my mission. Melvin sighed that he couldn't play until he got the hay in 'cause it was calling for rain, and the boys, Denzil and Grafton, weren't going to be home 'till the weekend. I elected myself, and spent the afternoon loading and unloading two or three hay trailers. Melvin knew a strong back and weak mind when he saw one.

We went to the big rambling farm house where his wife had a big hay gathering supper ready for us. Afterwards, we sat on the porch and played, or rather, Melvin played and I tried to learn the tunes. I have never had such an experience. He played tunes I never had heard like Black Cat in a Briar Patch, Tippy, Get Your Hair Cut, Going Down to Georgio, Old Skedadalink, and the one in the video. I was blown away with the names. Tune after tune for 4 or 5 hours Melvin played. I went home tired, but happy with an invitation to come help with the hay, and  play some more. I was there the next day.

I spent many hours with Melvin, learning to play all over again. I learned his tunes, or at least the ones he was playing at the time. Melvin schooled me in how he prefered I play them. i listened to Grafton play with him, and tried to play as close to Grafton's backup as as I could. Grafton would tell me to play what I felt, cause Melvin would eventually get his way with a tune.

I learned the man behind the tunes. I pretty near wore out a Radio Shack cassette player recording him. One of my favorite stories was of him loading an 18 ton coal gondola, by himself. Melvin probably weighed about 120 pounds.

He played square dances at the county fair in Charleston for 5 cents per dance and  the dances would last 20 minutes, or more. They had two or three fiddlers to draw from, and the dances went on all day and half the night. Melvin said when you got the opportunity to play, you stayed up there as long as you could stand it, and went home at night with maybe a dollar in your pocket for a hard days fiddling.

When I met him, I wondered how he played the fiddle, his hand were so gnarled from hard work, even in the mid 70's. Every time I looked at those hands playing I wondered if it was painful to play, but he never indicated that. It took him a little time to hit his stride as he got older, but he would start off with simpler tunes when cold, and put power to it as he got warmed up. Melvin always had a punch and timing rare amongst fiddlers. I've never heard his sound reproduced. Oh, people play the tunes, but not like I heard them played on the porch on many a summer evening in Copen.

I was asked to take Melvin to the National Folk Festival in 1976. It turned out that West Virginia and the Ozarks area would be represented. Both had a strong musical heritage. I drove him up to Washington DC  in my snappy 64 Volvo P 1800. Melvin told everyone it was the most uncomfortable bed he ever slept in, Jiggle a nd jumped like trying to sleep on a train. Told 'em he was afraid because he could see was buzzards out the windshield, which was true, cause it was hard for him to see over the dashboard, he was so short. He used to tell some tales on me.

At the Folk Festival, Melvin was signed up to share a room with a banjo player from Arkansas named Buckmiller Shannon. Melvin swore Buckmiller could suck the paint of the wall, snoring. It took some doing, but Ralph Rensler found Melvin some non snoring digs.

Percy Danforth, the great bones player was there, and everytime someone started a fiddle tune he would start in on the bones. The constant rattling of the bones drove Melvin crazy. If he saw Percy coming he would put his fiddle up, and say he was tired. He explained to me later, he didn't want to hurt that fellers feelings, but he couldn't hear himself play for that racket, so just excused himself from it.

Melvin was pretty non plussed about the Folk Festival, which draws thousands of people. He would patiently answer questions, and play tunes or pose for pictures all day. He  generally had a great time. The only complaint after the snoring incident was "them people didn't know how to make strong coffee". I solved that. I had an aunt who lived in DC, and I borrowed a coffee peculator from her. Melvin made it through the week. 

That was probably his first big outing. My tenure in Braxton was over. Gerry Milnes and Carl Baron, both wonderful musicians, began to back Melvin up and take him to festivals in Chicago, New York, and every where in between.

Melvin traveled well, and always put on a show...part of which included spending hours with people fiddling and talking. The two videos at the top are from 1992 in Mt. Airy, NC. He parked himself there for the whole afternoon fiddling one tune after another, and happy to be there.

I left WV and didn't see him for about 10 or 12 years, I began to go to the West Virginia String Band Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia. We  renewed out friendship. I would see him once or twice a year, and we'd play a few tunes. He was schooling a 10 year old fiddler named Jack Krack, who comes as close to playing Melvin style as anyone I know today. I enjoy playing with Jake...he has become a monster fiddler.

I was flattered that Melvin asked if I would accompany him on guitar for his Master's Workshop at Clifftop one year. I always thought Grafton pulled the old "I ain't felling good, Mel, get Pat to back you up". I think Grafton wanted to see me squirm, knowing that Melvin had a whole new repertoire of tunes. Many of Melvin's tunes were of the "crooked" variety, dropping a beat, and picking it up in another part of the tune. Melvin threw me a curve that day with a tune called Hannah at the Spring House. I had never heard it, and after attempting it, I wasn't the slightest embarrassed to stop playing. Melvin just smiled, and kept right on, ending the tune with his classic bow flourish and hollering "How bout that?"

Melvin was presented the National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship Award, the highest honor a traditional musician can achieve in America. It was an honor he richly deserved.

Thinking back, I was playing with a man who embodied 150 years of West Virginia fiddle music. Melvin learned from his father, Bob Wine, and a neighbor, Pat Cogar, and other older fiddlers in the area. Melvin was 93 when he died. He knew tunes nobody else had heard. How many would have been lost were it not for Melvin? Who knows.

Thanks for the tunes, Melvin...

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