Fiddling JoeFiddling Miners

Eileen Mountjoy

In today's world of mass production, high-speed living, and addiction to the passive sport of television watching, it's a pleasure to meet Joe Yesolivich, a man who not only built his own house, but a lot of the furniture, too. And when Joe wants to hear some music, he doesn't switch on the radio or slide a tape into a cassette-player. He takes out one of his own fiddles and treats himself and his listeners to some toe-tapping, foot-stompin' professional fiddlin'.

For most of his life, Joe was a coal miner. "I was born in the company town of Ernest, in Indiana County, Pennsylvania My dad was a miner before me. In 1927 1 started at Sample Run, I was fifteen. That was just a year or so after the big explosion there that killed over 40 men. I saw the twisted rails and everything. Because of that terrible accident, they were really strict in that mine.

"It was a real gassy mine, all right. You could hear the gas coming out of the seam and forcing the water out. It sounded like the buzzing of bees all the time. I only worked there about a year, and then I started at Ernest with my dad."

It was then that Joe began his musical career, starting out with a few guitar lessons. "A man named Guy Gearhart had sold me his guitar and I really picked it up fast, on my own. I learned to chord, and played for a lot of fiddlers. That's how I got interested in the fiddle. I got a teacher in Indiana (PA), his name was Al Tresshe charged me $1.00 a lesson- I guess you might say I spent the 1930's learning to play the fiddle."

"I still have a rare guitar that I picked up during the guitar-playing phase of my life. After I started taking lessons, my brother Teddy started on the guitar, and Glenn Lentz joined us we soon found ourselves in great demand at coal company safety meetings, as entertainment."

"People in mining towns in those days really enjoyed music. We had another group at Ernest that had a mine superintendent in it. One of his guys played the washboard, and another had an electric bell from a mine motor. Our group finally got so good that we made it on the Wilkin's Amateur Hour in Pittsburgh. We were really thrilled.

"Later, my parents and I moved to nearby Fulton Run, and we started playing for square dances. We danced the old-fashioned waywe'd take all the furniture out of the parlour, and we'd play and dance until two or three in the morning. Gradually, it seemed like all the old-time fiddler players passed away, and I began taking their places."

While he was working underground, it's hard to understand how Joe ever found the time for fiddlin'. "There isn't much I didn't do in the mines," he says. "I worked as a loader, spragger, and cutter. At first, I started with my dad. But he got real sick one November and had to go to the hospital- I had to go to work without him, and I had to do alone what the two of us had done together. I used to get so tired one night I came home and fell across the threshold of the house and couldn't move another inch. I just laid right there and slept. I was sixteen then.

"Finally, the other, older miners got to worrying about me and told the foreman: 'You better get that kid out of the back heading before he kills himself!' Then, they put me in a room with an Indian.

"Now, this Indian was quite an interesting guy. He came from Oklahoma. Up to this time, the only Indian I had ever seen was in the Tom Mix movies I saw in the nickelodeon at Ernest, and in those movies the Indians were always done up in feathers and killing the cowboys. So when I walked into that room and saw that huge man, stripped to the waist, I was terrified."

Joe's fears soon proved unfounded, however, for "that guy really befriended me. He'd say, 'get out of the way, Lad,' and he'd do my drilling for me and a lot of the real heavy work. Finally he bought a car, and told me he was only going to stay until the car was paid for and then go back to his reservation. You know, I think he may have lived in that car. I never knew his last name or if he had a place to- stay. One day, when the car was paid for, I suppose, he simply was never seen again."

Not surprisingly, Joe's other "memorable character" from his mining days concerns fiddles and fiddle-making. "There was a miner at Ernest that everybody called 'Whiskey John,' it's not hard to figure out why. But one time, old John was out of cash, and he needed money for his favorite drink.

There were quite a few people around at that time who sold moonshine, so being without funds. John took an empty 25-pound sugar sack, filled it with sand, sewed it up again, and traded it off for a nice jug of the good stuff. By the time the woman who made the trade discovered the deception, the liquor was long gone. After that time, some people called the miner 'Sugar John.'

"But I don't want anyone to get the idea that Whiskey John drank ALL the time he was one of the hardest-working miners around. Once, when I was a kid, I worked with him two days and he nearly killed me, he worked so hard. Now and again, though, he'd just go on a binge.

"Whiskey John also played the violin in an orchestra we had in Ernest. They played for weddings and christenings. But John not only played the violinthat wouldn't be so amazingbut he also made them. He had no education at all; he could barely write his name. But if he'd been at the right place at the right time, he could have been another Stradivarius.

"It was a wonder to watch him at workhe never measured anything. He'd just take a piece of fiddle he was making, hang it up for awhile and look at it, and take it down and work on it some more. And he didn't seem to have any tools other than a pocketknife and a piece of glass he'd scrape with. I don't know where he learned to make violinswe never knew his last name. He'd spend almost a year on a single violin, and they were beautiful.

"I remember once that a big-shot coal buyer came up from Pittsburgh and he had a symphony orchestra player with him. These two guys came up in a big car and went to the super and wanted to see Whiskey Johncan you imagine two men like that coming to Ernest to look for the town drunk? They looked all day but they never did locate old John that day, and had to leave without their violin. Finally, Whiskey John just disappearedhe just drifted away. What I wouldn't give today for one of his fiddles!"

Despite his long hours of hard work in the mines, Joe found time to play his fiddle, "Weekends and evenings." Joined by his brother Teddy and Glenn Lentz, the little group was much in demand: "We didn't have a car but people came and got us and brought us back home again. During Prohibition, we did a lot of clubs," he laughs.

Finally, World War Two intervened and put a temporary halt to Joe's fiddle-playing. "While I was in the service, I played a little and I bought a really nice guitar for $12. But we got sent overseas and I couldn't take it with me or mail it home, so in disgust I wrapped it around a tree. If I had that guitar today, I could get two or three hundred dollars for it!"

In the late 1950s, Joe retired, after a mining accident: "I got squeezed by a loader," he explains. Joe was luckier than his brother Teddy, who had been killed in the mines some years earlier. Joe's wife, Helen, is also no stranger to coal-town tragedy; she lost both her father and a cousin in underground accidents.

After his retirement, Joe was kept busy doing "a lot of work around the house," and indulging his love of working with wood. "I made a lot of furniture and some kitchen cabinets. When our daughters, Nancy and Helen Jo, were little, I made miniature tables and chairs for them; I even built a barn once."

But mostly, it's fiddle music that fills the lives of Helen and Joe Yesolivich. "We're kept busy all the time, Two years ago, Helen took up the guitarnow she goes with me and chords for me; we entertain all over the place. We play for a lot of dances, perform in annual cancer crusades, and we also played for the first Pennsylvania lottery drawing in Indiana. Now, we entertain for senior citizens, do banquets, and last month, we played at an antique car show."

Sometimes, Joe and Helen are joined by their "talking dog" Chico, who often contributes to the music by singing along in accompaniment, waving in salute, and greeting newcomers by saying 'Hello,' with a Western Pennsylvania accent.

"Every July," he says, "we go to one in New York state, and there's the Tennessee Old-Time Fiddlers, and the Smokey City Festival at the University of Pittsburgh, and a whole lot more. We're going all the time. And when you go to one of these gatherings, you can't just throw your fiddle case in the car and take off. Most of us have at least two fiddleswith one tuned 'cross-key' for playing certain old tunes like 'Black Mountain Rag.' And you have to realize that fiddlin' is different in various regions. Jigs and reels are popular in New England, while Pennsylvanians like hoe-down type of music.

"Fiddlin' is really popular in Europein England and Scotland; that's where it all began. It was brought here by the coal miners who came from those countries. And since most Welsh, Irish, and English coal miners went to the anthracite fields and many into West Virginia, they took their music right along with them. That's why you don't find so many old-time fiddlers in Western Pennsylvaniaa lot of Eastern Europeans came into these coal fields, and they brought their accordions with them, and polka music."

Joe is interested in the historical aspects of fine fiddlin', and also in the preservation of the tunes brought from Europe. "I like traditional music," he says. "A lot of the old songs are being turned into jazz and bluegrass. If we're not careful, we'll lose our old tunes through too much improvisiona lot of young kids learning fiddling today have never heard the melodies the way they were Originally known. The old-time fiddler I admire most is a CanadianGraham Townsendthere's a real folk fiddler!"

Today, Joe and Helen Yesolivich, when they're not entertaining at a historical society dinner, a square dance, or teaching one of Joe's six to eight students, can be found at their home near Indiana, Pennsylvania. Often, they're seen sitting at their kitchen counter, sipping coffee and talking with a friend about the "good old days," of coal mining at Ernest. But it isn't long before Joe gets to his feet and crosses the room to the dining room table where his fiddle case and stacks of music perpetually repose. Plunking the strings to test their intonation, he tightens his bow and a smile gradually spreads across his face. The air fills with musicsoon, the visitor begins tapping her feet Cares are forgotten, the blustery weather outside fades away. Regrettably, the tune is finished, but Joe still holds his violin under his chin Flipping through one of his new books of music with his bow hand, Joe sums it all up in a sentence: "I just love fiddlin'."