Take heed of outdoor weather conditions for an upcoming gift of Christmas music from two local musicians. “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Jingle Bells,” “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” and biblical lyrics are all on tap from Steve Israel and Fran Wold. Steve and Fran perform outdoors at Black Bear Outpost in Black Diamond on Saturday, Nov. 24.
For Fran, taking up the mandolin at age 62 was “challenging in the beginning and a good distraction.” The mandolin tackled life’s stress and anxiety: she had just quit smoking; her personal life was in transition with a family death; she retired from her productive job of inside sales but almost immediately wished she had not. Trying to find something else to do, she took up the mandolin. “I thought I could teach myself – ha!” she declared. She later began lessons.
During lessons one day, Fran asked the music teacher if he could recommend a handyman. Chores of necessity and other upgrades were piling up at her home. The teacher was quick with a reply. His recommendation was Steve Israel, a guitar player who also took lessons. Steve and the music teacher had bartered, trading home construction services from Steve in exchange for lessons. Fran’s first encounter with Steve ended with a few inquiries from each of them, “You play music? Let’s try it together.” Steve concluded, “Dynamics of guitar and the high notes on mandolin were almost like harmonizing.”
Steve had four songs he had written. They eventually became part of his 12-song CD, “Echoes From the Mine,” with arrangements, guitar, harmonica and vocals. The lyrics were a departure from traditional methods of preserving history. He composed the essence of life as a coal miner from original stories documented in artifacts at Black Diamond Historical Museum and through interviews in the book, “Black Diamond: Mining the Memories.”
“We practiced those songs forever,” they said, “on Sundays at the museum.” Fran still found the mandolin challenging, but now enjoyable, “Especially when you have someone to share with.” Others in the community liked the extra musical touch as they explored the museum, the statue of a coal miner, and the 28-foot memorial wall that lists the names of miners in Washington State who perished while coal mining. Lyrics in Steve’s song, “Memorial Wall,” caught the attention of visitors. Literally hundreds of people, including former state senator Dino Rossi, “squeezed in like sardines” on one particular Sunday in June 2013, dedication day. They listened to Steve’s unique contribution to the world of music – lyrics detailing Black Diamond coal mining history and events. The dedication that day was in honor of the eleven-foot tall bronze statue of a miner, complete with a miner’s prayer. That miner was now standing among an audience with a pickaxe in his hand.
Early in his life, Steve felt a connection with the biggest influence on his own lyrics – the style of Bob Dylan who spent five decades writing hundreds of songs. “The way he put words together, a phrase together; they mean something. His play on words, it would blow me away,” Steve said. An example is Dylan’s 1962 classic hit with the lyrics: “How many ears must one man have – before he can hear people cry? How many deaths will it take ‘til he knows – that too many people have died? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind…” As Steve describes it, “The lyrics echoed in my soul.” They also now echo in Steve’s songs about coal mining. He lyrically documents lifestyle both inside and outside the mines – the decisions, the tragedies, living conditions, wives and their difficult positions, and the children’s perspective.
Fran’s introduction to a musical lifestyle came when her brother found an “old A-style” $75 mandolin as they attended a Bluegrass festival. But there were roadblocks to success. ”The world is built for right-handers. It’s worse in music,” she said. “Plus, all the chords are backwards for me.” She upgraded, replacing her old instrument. With a new left-handed Weber that was made for her, plus the lessons, the mandolin became almost her third arm. She practices at home, alone, with the TV going, fire in the fireplace, playing along with artists on YouTube.
Steve and Fran’s most recent two-hour practice session (after nine years of work “pretty much every Sunday”) started with two Willie Nelson pieces. They quickly moved to seven traditional songs of the holiday season, ranging from “What Child is This?” to “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.” They practiced the lively “Jingle Bell Rock,” a piece they had struggled with in the past. Their 2018 Christmas present to the community, with Santa Claus in attendance to greet children, is now set for 10:00 am until noon next Saturday, Nov. 24, when they perform outdoors at Black Bear Outpost. It is a gift for all of us.
By D’ann Tedford