Mack Jenks, Union Bard

By: J. Roderick Moore

Page Two

RM: Where did you all learn to play your instruments? Did you learn through your father?
MJ: Naw, we just picked it up.
RM: When did you all move down here to this area?
MJ: We moved here in 1908.
RM: How old were you and how old was Orville?
MJ: I was eight and Orville was about ten. He's about two years older than I was.
RM: Were you all playing instruments, playing music, at that time?
MJ: No, no.
RM: Just started down here, then?
MJ: We mostly got together along in the '20's, the early '20's. I just picked up the harp playing, you know, and he did the same way about playing the guitar.
Well, now, he married into a family where he and the boys all played some kind of a string instrument. So he picked up playing the guitar. One of his wife's brothers, Jess, Jess Johnson - they called him "The Fiddlin' Fool." He was the best violin player in the state of West Virginia. And in fact he went, I don't know whether it was New York or not, but he got to playing in a big orchestra, playing second fiddle.
RM: About what year did you and Orville start playing for dances and things around here?
MJ: It was the early '20's.
RM: Did you all play for right many dances before you started playing at union meetings?
MJ: Yeah, because the union didn't come into here 'til 1933, the summer of 1933. That's when the union come in. And in fact we helped organize a lot. I don't know of Orville a-being into it, but I know I was. Gary Hollow-after these other places already had the local set up-- Gary Hollow, we didn't have it organized. We had a tough time in Gary Hollow. And then you might have heard tell of a place over here, in the northern part of the field here, by the name of Widen. We had trouble at Widen. At that time I was at Otsego in Wyoming County. That was in '40 and '41. I was president of the Otsego local.
RM: When you all were playing for dances and things back in the '20's, were you listening to many records or many other musicians?
MJ: No, the only thing we heard then was these old-timey Victrolas.
RM: Yeah, do you remember any of the people you used to listen to on the old Victrolas? What about Gid Tanner? Charlie Poole?
MJ: No, I don't remember none of them. But old Grandpappy Jones, we've listened to him.
RM: Tell me about the organizing.
MJ: We'd have these big meetings, you know, and you'd have to go in there and sign a check-off card and leave it there. Well, we didn't have no locals at that time, but we signed these check-off cards and the union-head officials of the union-gets these check-off cards.
Well that's the way we had to do it in Gary. We would slip around up there in Gary and get men to sign these check-off cards. We'd get all that we could to sign these check-off cards. We'd have to go in the late hours of the night, because these here, what we called thugs, Baldwin-Felts men and state police, caught us up at Gary Hollow, ah, buddy, it was just too bad. You just paid off. And they'd kick you out of that hollow.
Old man Ciphers lived on a lease way up there in the head of Gary Hollow, No. 9 Gary. And we'd slip up there in the late hours of the night and take these check-off cards to him. He kept a record book, you see, and he'd put all these names and check-off cards.
I was working for Ford up there at Twin Branch in '33, and a merchant there in Davy, Milt Burgess, he paid for our charter. It cost $20 then to get a charter, you see, for a local union. And Milt Burgess, he paid the $20 for our charter. We didn't get to keep the charter very long because Ford at that time, he was paying far better money than the union was paying, and they wouldn't recognize the union.
We had a grievance there which we shouldn't have nothing to have done with at all. But, you know, there was always what we called rednecks, someone to stir up trouble all the time, always keeps trouble stirred up. They called us the bunch of men up there that shut Ford down, and it was shut down on my birthday.
I worked on the 16th day of January, of '34, and I came home that night. I lived in an apartment right there on the main street of Davy. Goodson's store let us have one room upstairs for a union hall, you see, and we had our meetings in' there. And on the 16th night we had a call meeting at the union hall over this grievance. It was over the powerhouse, now, it wasn't concerning the miners, it was over the powerhouse.
RM: Was that up there at the dam?
MJ: Yeah. So we shut Ford down, and never did work no more, Ford didn't.
RM: He didn't open up Twin Branch again?
MJ: No. Well, he leased it out to other people, but he never did run no more at Twin.
RM: Do you remember the first time that you and Orville sang at a union meeting?
MJ Well, I'll say it was in '33.
RM: Do you remember where?
MJ: Well, over here at Coney Island. Used to be there wasn't no business at all over there, when the area was organized in '33. There was any number of little tents made out of brattice cloth.
RM: Coney Island. Would they advertise that you all were coming to sing at the meeting, or would you all just be there?
MJ: No, no. We'd just get there. Now, then, I'll tell you what Orville did. In '35, the first convention of the United Mine Workers after this southern part of West Virginia was organized, they had the convention in Cincinnati, Ohio.
I had a brother that worked down near laeger, back this side of laeger, He was a checkwayman for the United Mine Workers. And at this convention they'd send so many delegates from each local. Well, he was elected a delegate down there to represent that local in the convention. Well, there was a special train, they stopped every so often. They stopped at Welch, they stopped at laeger, and they'd pick all these here delegates up.
Now, Orville, he lived at Hemphill in a hollow we Called Slick Rock. He lived up Slick Rock Hollow. And he went out to Sherman's Pawn Shop there in Welch and bought him his guitar, a Gibson Second. It was a good guitar, but yet it wasn't the best that they made. And he said he went out there and caught that train that night. It run about the time No. 3 run, about 11 o'clock in the night. He went out there and bought him a ticket to Cincinnati and got on that train with his guitar and that bunch of delegates. And my [other] brother, then, he got on down there at laeger.

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