Jack Hopkins Marks 88 Years Of Harmonizing On His Harmonicas (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Jack Hopkins Marks 88 Years Of Harmonizing On His Harmonicas

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:09
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

00:00:40
You know, people ask me if I've been playing all my life. Oh, not yet.

SHEIR

00:00:45
And what is it Virginia resident, Jack Hopkins, has yet to play, all his life? Here's a hint.

HOPKINS

00:00:51
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.

SHEIR

00:01:08
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...

HOPKINS

00:01:24
I just celebrated my 94th birthday.

SHEIR

00:01:26
Yep, 94th and Jack started playing the harmonica not long after his 6th birthday.

HOPKINS

00:01:33
My father and mother dropped into my Christmas stocking a small plastic harmonica. It even had plastic reeds.

SHEIR

00:01:41
Jack took to it instantly. And within weeks, his father came home from work...

HOPKINS

00:01:45
...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.

SHEIR

00:01:55
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?

HOPKINS

00:02:10
Oh, that's a pretty good sampling.

SHEIR

00:02:12
It's a pretty good, how many are we dealing with here? One, two, three, four, five...

HOPKINS

00:02:14
I don't know how many I own.

SHEIR

00:02:16
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..."

HOPKINS

00:02:24
It's just a little over an inch, about an inch and a quarter, I think.

SHEIR

00:02:28
...to much larger ones.

HOPKINS

00:02:30
The big one down there, the big 48 chord harmonica is just under two feet long.

SHEIR

00:02:35
He has chromatic harmonicas, with their signature push-button slide...

HOPKINS

00:02:39
And when you push that in, every note goes up a half a tone.

SHEIR

00:02:46
He has paddlewheel harmonicas, which are actually several harmonicas put together in a paddle-wheel shape, each one in a different key.

HOPKINS

00:02:52
So we start with C...

HOPKINS

00:02:55
...and work up...

SHEIR

00:03:01
But the instrument Jack rocks the most, has got to be...

SHEIR

00:03:06
...the double-decker bass. Now, with this one, you play both the top and the bottom in one song.

HOPKINS

00:03:22
Yes, because the sharps and flats are up here and then natural notes are down below.

SHEIR

00:03:27
The bass harmonica is an "all-blow" instrument. So while many harmonicas will give you different notes, depending on whether you're "blowing..."

HOPKINS

00:03:34
...exhaling...

SHEIR

00:03:36
...or "drawing..."

HOPKINS

00:03:37
...inhaling...

SHEIR

00:03:39
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?

HOPKINS

00:03:53
Well, for one thing, its kept me breathing.

MR. FRANK JAMISON

00:03:57
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."

SHEIR

00:04:10
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.

JAMISON

00:04:31
He didn't turn blue so it worked out okay.

SHEIR

00:04:34
This is fellow club member Frank Jamison.

JAMISON

00:04:37
I'm be 82, yeah, 82.

SHEIR

00:04:40
So harmonica does keep you young?

JAMISON

00:04:42
Yeah, well, I swim every day too.

HOPKINS

00:04:46
That keeps him clean.

JAMISON

00:04:47
Yeah, that gets me clean.

SHEIR

00:04:49
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.

JAMISON

00:04:58
We go back, 20 years, I don't know.

HOPKINS

00:04:59
Twenty-four.

JAMISON

00:05:00
Twenty-four, yeah, okay.

SHEIR

00:05:02
And both men can remember a time when this little church classroom was bursting with harmonica devotes.

JAMISON

00:05:08
I meant to bring my picture, we had about 13 -- as many as 13 to 15 people in the club. And...

SHEIR

00:05:13
And now, how many?

JAMISON

00:05:14
Oh, we're lucky to get two or three.

SHEIR

00:05:17
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

00:05:37
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.

SHEIR

00:05:55
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.

JAMISON

00:06:08
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."

SHEIR

00:06:20
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.

HOPKINS

00:06:34
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.

JAMISON

00:06:53
See, he did eat his Wheaties, his breakfast of champions, guy. It'll be on the Wheaties box next year.

SHEIR

00:07:04
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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