Flawless fiddler plays old-time songs
From the comfortable porch of a pristine house tucked in the woods at the end of a dirt lane in rural Somerset County, you can hear a flawless rendition of the ‘Arkansas Traveler.’
The tune floats from the strings of a hand-painted violin as it rests tucked under the chin of 18-year-old Emily Engleka.
‘The year before I started playing I had seen a country music video on CMT of a girl playing the fiddle, and I just loved it. I told my parents I wanted a fiddle for Christmas, and I threw a fit, I just had to have it,’ she said.
From the time she turned 10 years old, playing the fiddle has been an important part of Engleka’s life. She has an impressive collection of trophies, won at fiddling contests, with the latest addition from the Old Time Fiddlers Contest staged last month in Friendsville, Md.
This was the first contest she entered in the last four years and she won first place in the teen division, an honor that carried with it a $200 cash award. Since 1995, her summer weekends have been spent playing at churches and festivals as the fiddler in Friends in Christ, a bluegrass and gospel group.
Other musicians in the band include Engleka’s mother, Sharon; her grandmother, Dolly Kelly of Garrett, Billy Seifert of Somerset and Todd Dively of Berlin.
‘My mom plays the banjo and my grandma plays the guitar, so that’s sort of where I got that (musical talent),’ she noted. ‘I get incredibly nervous whenever I get up to compete, but whenever I am with the group and we get up to sing and play I’m not nervous at all. Just knowing that there’s money involved, it makes me really nervous. I used the money that I won from Friendsville for college, so it makes me nervous whenever I need it.’
Her mother said, ‘We really enjoy going out with friends and family every weekend, and we enjoy getting together to practice every week.’
Starting with lessons from Ellinor Benedict, a very accomplished, champion fiddler from Grantsville, Md., Engleka has moved into developing her own method of playing, one she refers to as old time.
‘Whenever I first started taking lessons, she was teaching me notes and whenever she’ play it, I’d just mock what she did and I still don’t know how to read notes. I play by ear. So I think I’ve learned my own distinct style from doing that,’ the young fiddler explained.
‘After three years of lessons, I thought she was learning to play by note,’ said her mother. ‘And Ellinor did, too. A lot of people tell her she has the old-time style. Most of them have that classical style when they play.’
Emily Engleka loves older music.
‘I love Civil War music, that’s my favorite by far,’ she said. ‘I’m Irish and I try to play some Irish. I’ve listened to tapes and learned to play two or three Irish songs. My great-great-grandfather came over here in the late 1800s. …I had always been around Gram, she would always listen to records and stuff up there. I’d walk up through the woods to her house. She’d sit with her guitar and play, and mom would play with her sometimes, that sort of got me into it.’
The home where Engleka lives with her parents near Garrett, is a 15-minute walk through the woods to where her ancestors settled in a mining community called Merriltown. Another mining community nearby was named Blackfield. Her favorite violin was custom-painted by local artist Pauline Blubaugh with a scene featuring the Blackfield Union Sunday School, where her mother attended, just up the road.
‘I like to sing more now than play, since I’m in the group. They got me singing about two years ago and now I won’t stop. … My favorite song to sing is ‘Steel Rails,” she added.
She has started to write her own music with two gospel vocal selections that the group now performs, ‘Miracles,’ and ‘I’ll never see you again,’ and one instrumental bluegrass tune, ‘Breaking Daylight.’
In 1996, she was named first-place winner in the Pennsylvania State Junior Division Fiddle Contest held at the Fayette County Fairgrounds and state third-place winner from all age groups.
From 1994 to 1996, she played with the group Mountain Spirit. Engleka graduated third in her class from Rockwood Area High School this spring and plans to attend Allegheny College in Maryland to major in medical laboratory technology in the fall.
‘I plan to keep playing with the group as long as I can, but as for making a career out of it, I’m not going to. It’s just a hobby. If something would happen, I’d go for it, but I’m not going to chase after it,’ she concluded.