Author: Ken Oakley
Jehile (pronounced “Gi-hile” rhyming with “a tile”) Kirkhuff was legendary, blind fiddler who lived in nearby Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. Born in 1907 to a long line of old-time fiddlers, he was said to have a repertoire of over 1,500 tunes, 400 of which are recorded in the Library of Congress. Jehile’s “credential” is winning the 1954 Old Time Fiddle World Championship in Crockett, Texas, barely nipping Texan Smokey Butler for the title.
But that honor is eclipsed by his ability to pass along the old ways of mountain life to new generations of musicians and his neighbors. Without the benefit–or perhaps, distraction–of TV, radio, media, and even electricity–he lived most of his life as 18th and 19th century old-time fiddlers lived. Although he had little money and was afflicted with blindness, illness, and lacked the creature comforts we take for granted, Jehile kept a positive outlook and lived a life overflowing with music and friends.
In 238 soft cover pages Ken Oakley’s extensive research relates Jehile’s story from his ancestors’ first arrival at Plymouth Rock to his funeral in 1981. Through his experiences and music you’ll catch a glimpse into his world view and philosophy, which is more relevant than ever in 2009. In addition to wonderful stories, the book contains lots of photos, copies of important documents, and Jehile’s poems, musings and musical wisdom. Here’s something that caught my eye, an introduction to a tune I love to play:
“Here’s a tune that has many titles. Around here we call it “The Jolly Old Miller,” “Little Beggarman” or “Old Gilroy.” Our neighbors to the north call it “Red Haired Boy.” Our neighbors to the south call it “Soldier with a Wooden Leg.” The more titles a tune has, the better it is. Yesss.”
Jehile, at age 32 married 56-year old, Lola. They survived by playing music and raising bees. Here’s a brief snippet of an original poem, “A Comb of Clover Honey,” which imagines how eating honey in the depth of winter conjures up visions of a warm summer day:
“And every lucious drip that drops
So slowly off your spoon
Is just a drop of life blood
From the very heart of June.”
Jehile passed on in 1981. But thanks to Ken Oakley, Jehile lives on in both this book and accompanying CD. Though crudely packaged, lacking liner notes and somewhat scratchy sounding, the CD is a treasure trove of Jehilian wit and fiddling. Many of the cuts may sound like field recordings. Don’t misinterpret this as a complaint. To the contrary, the marginal quality of the recordings make apparent that Jehile’s music, like that of hundreds of old-time musicians before him, could easily have been lost to future generations and benefitted only those ears lucky enough to have heard old Jehile drag bow across strings.
Most of the tracks are obscure (to me) fiddle tunes, including several original numbers like Don’t Cry and Mabel Henry’s Fling, recorded in 1958 and 1959, respectively. Some of the more well known tunes include Wreck of the 97, (Listen to the) Mocking Bird, Redwing, and Leather Britches. I love Jehile’s fiddling on Leather Britches‘ and the simple sock rhythm guitar accompanyment. He announces the tune as such: “Leather britches full of stitches, mother sewed the buttons on. Father kicked me out of bed because I had my britches on.” I also like Redwing. I normally think of this as a fiddle tune but here the fiddler recorded it as a solo vocal number accompanying himself on piano.
Another highlight is Uncle Jehile, part of an interview by the late, former New York State Champion fiddler, Larry Downey. Larry was best friends with Jehile at the time of his death in 1981. The cut relates how Jehile’s namesake fiddling uncle would tell him “Go play it yourself” when young Jehile would ask him to play Devil’s Dream. Later in the CD Jehile does play it himself and does a damn fine job I might add.
To be sure, his music is not bluegrass as these tunes predate the genre. However, fiddlers and students of traditional Northern music and folklore will enjoy both the book and CD.
Jehile’s influence was far reaching. WVIA public television (Scranton/Wilkes Barre) made a documentary on living off the land in Northeast Pennsylvania. “Journey to the Endless Mountain” included a segment on the lives of Ed and Geraldine Berbaum, a couple who gave up professional careers in New Jersey to moved to the hills and live off the land. Ed took fiddle lessons from Jehile and recorded and categorized many of his songs. Jehile’s influence on the Bernbaums inspired the producers of the documentary to dedicate the show “to the music and memory of 1954 World Champion Old-Time Fiddler Jehile Kirkhuff.” The video is available through WVIA by calling 570.344.1244 or at www.wvia.org
“Jehile: The Blind Fiddler from Lawton Pennsylvania” is available for $10 and the CD is an additional $9. Order copies directly from Daniel Fassett, at 105 Lost Lake Drive, Groton MA 01450. You may also reach Dan by phone or text at 978-337-6130.
Jehile Kirkhuff was a living legend who touched the lives of many in the hardscrabble region of Northeastern Pennsylvania and the Southern Tier of New York. Thanks to Ken Oakley’s research his life and music live on for us to enjoy.
Doug Smith: In my youth I learned to play guitar at age fourteen and began learning to play accompaniment for Jehile. He spent the winter of 1955-56 with our family in Owego, New York. We p had a radio show on WEBO Owego station. We made many recordings for oldtime collectors. I think it is wonderful that Jehile is receiving recognition for his genius and dedication to oldtime fiddle music.
Jeffrey A. Wasserman: Great job you’ve done presering Jrehile’s legacy!!! I spent many days down at Jehile’s (and his mother Lea) in the early 70’s. Have dozens of cassettes of both him and Barney Allen (reading his poems, singing old songs & telling tales and stories from around Lawton, Meshopen and the Susquehanna area. Have a priceless video of the 2 of them performing together at a local school to raise money for a crippled young woman (who also sang), Will restore and edit when time allows – I live in Norway now.
Anonymous: You are right. That website has, apparently, been taken down. I found another site that might help you: http://jehile.org/Jehile.or…
sue4: I cannot get the link for the sheet music to work.
Happy Jester Music: Thank you for this interesting review. On the following link you’ll find Kirkhuff in a vintage photage from 1975 sitting on stage enjoying performance by Jeff Wasserman, Jeff Davis and Ross Levinson: http://www.youtube.com/watc…