Passing the Music Down

As a musical family, we often gravitate toward books that have some musical aspect to them. Passing the Music Down by Sarah Sullivan is a wonderful story about Appalachian fiddling. The illustrations by Barry Root are the perfect pairing to the lyrical text of this book.

Passing the Music Down

Passing the Music Down is a picture book inspired by a true story of the lives of two musicians—Melvin Wine from Tennessee and Jake Krack from Indiana—who performed fiddle music together. They were best friends even though they met when Melvin was 86 and Jake was 9 years old.

In the story, a boy’s family travels “clear from Indiana” to “the old, old mountains slumbering east of Tennessee” just to hear an old fiddler play. After the fiddler “saws out a lick,” he asks the boy to play for him. The old man then shares a tip with the boy for improving his playing.

Like a katydid in spring, / the boy’s heart dances. / “Will you teach me all your tunes?” / he asks with a gulp. / “Will you show me how they go? / I want to play like you.”

The fiddler wipes his brow, / Takes a long, slow look. / “You ought to bring that boy to see me,” / he tells the young man’s folks. / “Pay a visit to the farm, / and we’ll play some old-time tunes.”

Passing the music down.

The boy begins traveling to visit the old man. They work on the farm together and play music together. Eventually the boy’s family moves from Indiana to live close to the old man.

On cold December nights / they fiddle by the fire. / Snow settles deep against the fence, and / the boy settles deep inside the music.

The story does not use any names for its characters, but merely refers to Melvin as “the fiddler” or the “old man” and to Jake as the “boy.” Notably, at the end of the book, after years of Melvin “passing the music down,” Jake becomes “the fiddler” on the last page. This echoes their real-life story, in which, according to the Author’s Note, Jake won first place in an old-time fiddlers’ contest at the same place in West Virginia that he had met Melvin 11 years earlier.

Passing the Music Down is not just a story about two musicians who shared a friendship that crossed generations, it is a story about the fiddle music passed down by oral tradition in the mountains of Appalachia. It is a beautiful story about how this music has been able to exist and continue for so many years by simply being passed on from one musician to the next.

For readers who want more information about either the characters in Passing the Music Down or about Appalachian music, Ms. Sullivan has provided many “extras.” There is an Author’s Note that summarizes details from both Melvin’s and Jake’s musical lives. There is a brief description of the “Tunes” mentioned in the book. And there is a page of resources, which includes books and articles, a discography, videos, and websites to visit for more information.

Ms. Sullivan’s own website is www.sarahsullivanbooks.com.

Have you read any great books lately?

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