Passing the Music Down in Pocahontas County

By James Shepherd, Preserve WV AmeriCorps at the Pocahontas County Opera House

This past month, the Pocahontas County Opera House was pleased to bring author Sarah Sullivan to all three elementary schools of Pocahontas County in order to share her book, “Passing the Music Down,” alongside the book’s subject, Marlinton-based fiddler, Jake Krack. The book tells the story of Jake meeting and learning from his mentor, Melvin Wine, who was in his eighties when Jake was merely ten. In debriefing with school staff and community members who attended these performances, they felt that the programs were beneficial to the students on many levels.

James Shepherd - Great Story - Marlinton Performance

One teacher emphasized that seeing familiar landscapes and vistas presented in the illustrations, being able to see how photos of these fiddlers became beautiful works of art, and experiencing this in a performance setting elevated their West Virginia culture in ways these children get to see. Parents noted the ways their children were making connections between their everyday lives and the art that they saw and heard, especially in the ways these students were enabled to tell their own stories. It was clear from their questions – “can I learn to play like you?” – that these students could imagine following in Jake’s footsteps, becoming musicians and preserving traditional Appalachian folkways.

Jake spoke after the performances were concluded that the experience had reaffirmed his dedication to living out the message of the story – to take seriously his responsibility to not only preserve Melvin’s magnificent tunes, but to pass them along to the next generation. Brynn Kusic, who helped organize the event, noted that these performances epitomized community-supported cultural events, as the funding for these performances, which reached more than three hundred community members, did not come from grants but from gifts. Reviewing newspaper articles from the period of the Opera House’s restoration during the time we planned this event inspired Brynn to reclaim a part of the original mission for the Opera House that she thought had been neglected, inspiring her to institute the Ruth Morgan Arts & Humanities Series, with an aim to bring more cultural programming in a similar vein to the people of Pocahontas County.

Listening to the students clap and stomp in time to the music and join in Sarah’s refrain of ‘passing the music down,’ it was apparent that these students were not only enjoying themselves, but were engaging with the story and music in deep ways. As the children of Pocahontas County often have limited exposure to culture and the arts, most everyone I spoke to hoped that these students would be inspired by these performances well into the future.

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