You simply can’t have a proper train song without the long, lonesome wail of a harmonica. John Ball, a true buff of this unique wind instrument, knows that for sure. Throw in some chug-chug-chugging riffs, listen carefully and that steam-driven locomotive puffing in the distance springs to life.
So why the fascination with this unpretentious instrument that’s small enough to be tucked into a pocket? Well, for one thing, Ball says, it’s so versatile it can lend its distinctive sound to blues, jazz, country, classical and pop. Choose any musical genre and the harmonica has been there, whether it's playing solo lines or part of an ensemble, with its unique sound. An enthusiastic devotee, Ball, who is a research assistant in Pharmacology, is a member of the generically named Huntington Harmonica Club. No tricked-up, cutesy name for this group of dedicated musicians. And just like the modest little instrument they love, the club had humble beginnings, taking root in a small coffeehouse gathering of people who just wanted to hang out and play the harmonica.
“Í have always been a musician and I just always wanted to play the harmonica,” Ball says. “ I heard there was a club [that] met at the Java Joint on Tenth Avenue. It started out about 10 years ago with just a couple of guys sitting around drinking coffee and discussing harmonic ideas. Then someone came in with a guitar, and other people started coming with instruments and now after 10 years it just evolved. We now have guitar players, keyboard players, drummers and about 30 of us who play the harmonica.”
They’re eager to perform and show off their skills, so the group will play just about anywhere, Ball says. “We do shows all over the Huntington area and anyplace else they’ll feed us,” he laughs. In fact, the club sponsors an annual state harmonica competition, and this year for the first time they joined with the fancifully named Diamond Teeth Mary Blues Festival held in Huntington in late August. The festival was named for Huntington native Mary Smith, the half-sister of legendary blues singer Bessie Smith. Mary hopped a train at 13, rode the rails out of town and went on to carve a unique niche for herself as both a blues and gospel singer. Her fame among musicians was so great a young Elvis Presley shyly stopped by her house in Memphis to pay homage to her. When she died in 2000, her ashes were scattered over railroad tracks in West Virginia where she hopped her first train, as she wished.
Not everyone feels comfortable playing before a crowd and that’s okay, too, Ball says. “We have a lot of shy people who don’t like to play publicly so we had about 10 people [playing] at the festival. But everyone got a turn in the spotlight, doing a lead riff or whatever.”
Ball began his musical career in a pretty traditional way, playing guitar as a teenager. He was a drummer in his high school band but quickly found “that definitely was not my instrument,” he says emphatically. And actually there never was an “aha” moment when he felt drawn to the harmonica; it was just a fanciful notion with some practical aspects. Plus, he loves the versatility of this tiny instrument. “Harmonicas are the cheapest instruments you can find. Five bucks will get you one, although you can spend much more. It costs nothing to be in the club; there are no dues or membership fees and we mentor people. Our main goal is to encourage people to play the harmonica. We give free lessons to anyone who wants to learn. And the great thing is you can improvise, put your own spin on music. Some people gravitate to western or blues, some like classic and pop, or country and railroad songs. It doesn’t matter--whatever you like best is what you’ll do best in.”
If Ball is committed to his music, he’s equally involved in his second avocation, body building and weight lifting. And just like the harmonica club, this intensive workout program began casually as well. “I started with body building, which provides really good aerobic exercise just to keep in shape. The group I was working out with just fizzled, so I began looking for another group because working out by yourself is no fun. A friend invited me to the YMCA to play basketball and to do power lifting. It turned out I really enjoyed the lifting, so I’ve been doing it for 20 years.” And because he trains well and knows how to lift properly, he’s never had an injury. Today he can dead lift 350 pounds and bench press 225. For a lark he entered his first completion last month in Charleston and to his complete surprise took home the first-place trophy in his age division. And he still plays basketball three times a week. “We play for fun, certainly not for competition,” he wryly admits.
A native of Paintsville, Ky., Ball earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry/biology from Morehead State University. When his wife, Jan, was admitted to veterinary school at Auburn University, he followed her there and later the couple located to Huntington where for several years they owned and operated the Huntington Dog and Cat Hospital. Not surprisingly, the couple currently share their home with three dogs and three cats.
He’s been with the School of Medicine for more than 25 years, doing biological research and analytical analysis of compounds. He’s excited about the increased emphasis he says Marshall is placing on research and the productive work of faculty members who have brought large grants to the SOM. “We have several professors who have been very successful in getting grants and several that serve on grant committees. There’s also an emphasis on administrators to obtain money for research.”
His wife, Jan, who is semi-retired now, is the “creative genius,” Ball says, who has turned their yard into a lush neighborhood showcase. If she’s the designer, he’s the willing muscle that keeps plants growing. The meticulously planned and profusely blooming gardens have become something of a neighborhood attraction, drawing visitors who come by just to marvel at their yard. His wife loves flowers and grows them everywhere, in artfully planned plots as well as in urns and big pots. “It’s a big yard and it is a lot of work to maintain, it but we work on it together so we really enjoy it, because we can spend time together.” And the pair loves to travel when they can fit it in their schedules, but only if their grown daughter, Ashlee, can travel with them.
And there’s rarely a dull moment in the Ball household, he says.
There’s always something interesting going on in this lively home. His
mother-in-law, Barbara McPherson, now lives with them and they like spending
time with her. An avid sports fan, Ball grew up following Kentucky basketball
but now he’s a big Marshall fan who follows both the football and basketball
teams and he’s optimistic about their future. “I see good things ahead for both
teams, just as I see good things ahead for Marshall.”
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