This story was updated at 10 a.m. on April 4, 2014.
Jack Hopkins received his first harmonica for Christmas in 1926, and has been playing ever since.
“I turn 94 next month, so that would make about 88 years,” he said. “That first harmonica was made of celluloid, one of the first plastics, and I played the dickens out of it.”
Within days, Jack was playing a popular tune of the day, much to his father’s surprise.
Today, Jack has a collection of harmonicas that would impress a museum curator.
“I’m not too sure how many I have,” he said. “Probably hundreds.”
Although unsure of the number, he does know that he has 16 different types of harmonicas in his collection: bass, chord and chromatic harmonicas are just a few. He says he buys traditional harmonicas in bulk and gives them away to anyone who shows an interest in his favorite musical instrument.
“I don’t collect them, I accumulate them,” he said. “There’s a fine distinction there.”
Hopkins said he taught himself to play and didn’t attend his first educational seminar until after the age of 50. The five-day seminar was sponsored by a company that repaired a harmonica for him.
He traveled to New York and was delighted to learn from his teacher that he hadn’t taught himself any bad playing habits.
Growing up in upstate New York and northern Indiana, Hopkins moved to Alexandria in 1964 after a stint in the Army. He served in Europe during World War II and later became a mechanical engineer in civilian life. Today he lives at the Westminster at Lake Ridge retirement community in Occoquan.
When he first moved to Northern Virginia in 1964 he sought out a local harmonica instructor. He called music stores, schools and even a musicians union. At the time, the union had only one member who played harmonica — as his second instrument. Hopkins said he couldn’t find a single teacher. So, he started teaching harmonica and music reading in local recreation programs and the Northern Virginia area. “I taught recreational classes in Fairfax County recreational centers and at Northern Virginia Community College,” he said.
In 1991, Hopkins founded the Capital Harmonica Club, which still meets to play every Tuesday evening at Wesley United Methodist Church on Richmond Avenue in the Mount Vernon area.
“When I moved to Alexandria I wanted to get together with fellow harmonica players,” he said. “In our heyday, we had about 16 members, but I have outlived them all. Today I can only count on two of us to show each week.”
Frank Jamison, 81, of Alexandria, is the second dedicated member.
“I began playing harmonica when I was about eight years old,” Jamison said. “But I took about a 40-year break, and then picked it back up later in life.”
Jamison returned last week from the Virginia Harmonica Fest in Virginia Beach.
Hopkins did not attend due to health concerns. In the last 17 years, Hopkins has attended all but two of the harmonica fests.
“We all missed Jack this year,” Jamison said. “He usually emcees the event and we really missed him.”
Both Hopkins and Jamison play performances together throughout Fairfax County, touring nursing homes and other civic organization events. “I love playing for older people who may be restricted to one location and not able to go out to see performers,” Jamison said. “There but for the grace of God go I. It really is moving to play a song from the 1930s and to see people either getting up to dance or beginning to tear up because they haven’t heard those songs in so long. Music is emotional, and it often has a lot of memories tied to it.”
Hopkins said he likes to play for both old and young.
He carries a 1.5-inch harmonica on a keychain with him everywhere he goes.
“I was recently at the DMV on a Saturday and there were a bunch of kids running around waiting for their parents,” he said. “I took out my harmonica and started playing. When I did, they all lined up to listen. Pretty soon, I had a choir singing along to every kid’s song I blew.”
The original version of this story didn’t mention that Jack Hopkins was given his first harmonica as a Christmas gift.