MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Welcome back to "Metro Connection," I'm Rebecca Sheir. And this week we're paying tribute to some of the more unsung heroes among us, with a show we're calling "Lifetime Achievement." Earlier, we met a man who served as the National Park Service's first African-American director. And from a woman who believes that "life is dance," and has stayed true to that belief as a pioneer in dance therapy. But the guy we'll honor next on our "Lifetime Achievement" show, might actually take exception to that title, "Lifetime Achievement."
MR. JACK HOPKINS
You know, people ask me if I've been playing all my life. Oh, not yet.
And what is it Virginia resident, Jack Hopkins, has yet to play, all his life? Here's a hint.
This one, I carry in my pocket most of the time and a lot of people, in our dining room, like to have me play happy birthday on it.
Yes, indeed, it's the harmonica. And the dining room, Jack mentions, is at the Westminster, at Lake Ridge Retirement Community near Occoquan. The World War II Veteran has been retired for a while now, which should come as no surprise since less than a month ago, on Easter Sunday...
I just celebrated my 94th birthday.
Yep, 94th and Jack started playing the harmonica not long after his 6th birthday.
My father and mother dropped into my Christmas stocking a small plastic harmonica. It even had plastic reeds.
Jack took to it instantly. And within weeks, his father came home from work...
...and heard me playing "Yes, Sir, She's My Baby," or some other popular tune of the day. And I blew his non-musical mind.
Eighty-eight years later, Jack has a harmonica collection that would blow anyone's mind, including mine. When I arrive at his house, he has three long rows of harmonicas, lined up on a blanket. Oh, my goodness. Is this all of them?
Oh, that's a pretty good sampling.
It's a pretty good, how many are we dealing with here? One, two, three, four, five...
I don't know how many I own.
He guess' it's probably somewhere in the hundreds and includes more than 15 different types, from tiny harmonicas like the one he uses for "Happy Birthday..."
It's just a little over an inch, about an inch and a quarter, I think.
...to much larger ones.
The big one down there, the big 48 chord harmonica is just under two feet long.
He has chromatic harmonicas, with their signature push-button slide...
And when you push that in, every note goes up a half a tone.
He has paddlewheel harmonicas, which are actually several harmonicas put together in a paddle-wheel shape, each one in a different key.
So we start with C...
...and work up...
But the instrument Jack rocks the most, has got to be...
...the double-decker bass. Now, with this one, you play both the top and the bottom in one song.
Yes, because the sharps and flats are up here and then natural notes are down below.
The bass harmonica is an "all-blow" instrument. So while many harmonicas will give you different notes, depending on whether you're "blowing..."
With the bass, you only get notes when you blow or exhale. And for anyone, let alone a 94-year-old man, that's no small feat. So, I have to ask, what is it about the harmonica that has kept you captivated all these years?
Well, for one thing, its kept me breathing.
MR. FRANK JAMISON
Let's do one more on your bass Jack, I want to see if you're going to turn blue in the face. We'll give you "California, Here I Come."
My interview with Jack, falls on a Tuesday night. So after viewing his collection, we drive to Wesley United Methodist Church in Alexandria. That's the weekly meeting place of the Capital Harmonica Club, which Jack founded in 1991.
He didn't turn blue so it worked out okay.
This is fellow club member Frank Jamison.
I'm be 82, yeah, 82.
So harmonica does keep you young?
Yeah, well, I swim every day too.
That keeps him clean.
Yeah, that gets me clean.
As you can hear, Frank and Jack have quite the report, after playing together at so many meetings and gigs, from senior homes to civic organization gatherings.
We go back, 20 years, I don't know.
Twenty-four, yeah, okay.
And both men can remember a time when this little church classroom was bursting with harmonica devotes.
I meant to bring my picture, we had about 13 -- as many as 13 to 15 people in the club. And...
And now, how many?
Oh, we're lucky to get two or three.
The picture, Frank mentions, was taken in 1998, when the club appeared on the local TV news. Nowadays though, most of those members are either unable to drive, their eyesight is failing or they're just not with us anymore. But, at this week's meeting, there's some new blood in the room, Cliff Daniels, a recent retiree and a harmonica rookie.
MR. CLIFF DANIELS
This is probably my fourth time. And I'm going to push myself to the level in which I want to go and have a harmonica in my pocket and take it out and start playing it if I want to. And they are definitely -- when I found out his age and you're telling me your age, I feel there is a lot of hope for me.
One of Frank and Jack's favorite things to do is harmonize. When Jack's on bass, he's providing a rhythmic percussive element. But when both men are on chromatic harmonicas, Jack plays counterpoint to Frank's melody.
Jack works harder than I do. And we're going to see if he had his Wheaties today. I'm gonna -- we're gonna play a "Lullaby of Berlin."
In addition to jamming with Frank, Jack Hopkins has also kept himself busy reading about harmonicas, one of his favorite books by the way is Al Smith's "Confessions of Harmonica Addicts," as well as attending harmonica conventions and teaching harmonica.
But my wife kind of put a halt to that because I wasn't spending enough time with my seven kids. Seven, right. So you see, I didn't play harmonica all the time.
See, he did eat his Wheaties, his breakfast of champions, guy. It'll be on the Wheaties box next year.
Want to see Jack Hopkins and Frank Jamison jamming on the harmonica, we have photos from a meeting of the Capital Harmonica Club, as well as information about the club itself, on our website metroconnection.org.
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