By Carla Christiano | Photos by Rob Jinks
When people ask Westminster at Lake Ridge resident Jack Hopkins if he has been playing the harmonica all his life, the 96-year-old Hopkins laughs and responds “Not yet.”
Hopkins, who has been playing the harmonica for almost 90 years, shows no signs of stopping any time soon. Although his repertoire is big band and classical rather than the blues or bluegrass most people associate with the harmonica, he can belt out a mean tune on any one of the dozens he owns.
A mention of “Begin the Beguine,” a 1930s-era song written by Cole Porter, gets tuneful blasts from the bespectacled former mechanical engineer, who is originally from Indiana. Hopkins estimates that he has 15 types of harmonicas, including one that is two feet long with 48 chords. Another, built by a friend, consists of two harmonicas, each with six chords. “Most people don’t realize there are that many kinds of harmonicas,” he said. “Most people only know about the little tin ones.”
Although Hopkins now favors the Chordette-20 and chromatic harmonicas, he said he began playing on “a toy harmonica made out of plastic back when I was 5 or 6 that was in my Christmas stocking.” Like most harmonica players, he taught himself to play. “I found that I could get a scale out of it, and I thought if I could get a scale, I ought to be able to play a tune.” And play he did, stopping only during college and a stint as an Army radio operator during World War II. “In those days, the only harmonica manufacturers that I knew were in Germany, and we were battling Germany,” he said. I wasn’t sure if I could ever replace a harmonica if I lost one.”
More of a challenge has been finding teachers. Hopkins recalled when he moved to the Mount Vernon area of Virginia with his wife and seven children in 1964, he contacted local music stores and schools but could not find a teacher. It wasn’t until he was 49 that he discovered a fiveday harmonica seminar in New York City. At the seminar, he discovered he had taught himself well and had not picked up bad habits. “It’s a matter of unraveling the secrets by yourself,” he said.
Don’t expect to see Hopkins at any open mics at your local coffee house. “I don’t go to coffee houses,” he said. Instead, you will find him accompanying the pianist every Sunday at his United Methodist Church. A long-time member of the Society for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica (SPAH) (spah.org/index.asp), he does play at open mics during their harmonica conventions.
“It was hard not to notice that he was very ardent in his support of SPAH and promoting the harmonica both locally and nationally,” said SPAH Historian Manfred Wewers. “In Jack’s case, it is not simply a case of longevity; he is actively involved as a player, teacher, club leader, photographer and convention volunteer.”
In 2005 Hopkins received the SPAH Award of Special Merit (now known as the Stan Harper Award of Special Merit) to acknowledge and honor his long-term special contributions to the harmonica community. “His contributions are indeed special as well because they are so generously given with a smile, a sense of humor and a unique view of life,” Wewers said.
Hopkins is also a member of the harmonica club he helped form more than 30 years ago, the Capitol Harmonica Club, and is actively recruiting new members. “We used to have about 15 members, all of whom were fairly active,” Hopkins said. Now only he and a friend are left.
Despite a Facebook page, YouTube videos and magnetic signs on his car to advertise the club, he has not recruited any new members to play the classical music and standards he enjoys. “Younger harmonica players are not interested in that type of music,” he said. At Westminster he knows of only two other harmonica players, but it hasn’t worked out. “We’re always looking for new members, who like to play our type of music,” he said.
Carla Christiano ([email protected]) is a native of Prince William County, admitted history geek and a technical writer for Unisys.