Minstrel of the mountains
Folk musician Dave Matsinko of Lehighton is one of the featured entertainers at the No. 9 Mine and Museum, along with many other heritage and cultural celebrations throughout the region. DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS
A warm, welcoming gleam in his eye, Dave Matsinko lightly strums a banjo and serenades a group of tourists as they board a steel-caged mine shuttle.
They're about to travel to the bowels of the earth for a short visit to the beginnings of anthracite coal.
"My sweetheart's the mule in the mines," sings Matsinko.
"Way down where the sun never shines. On the bumper I sit and tobacco I spit. All over my sweetheart's behind."
The visitors laugh at the humorous, 1920s mining ballad, a throwback to the glory days of King Coal.
Matsinko's retro look and folk songs tell visitors that coal mining has a culture unto itself.
In a moment, their attention is diverted to yellow steel doors that clang shut and lock them inside.
Then slowly, the mine train lurches forward to the tunnel, swamped by darkness, as Matsinko's tunes fade into the background.
With the visitors out of range, Matsinko uses the opportunity to sit and take a break at the kiosk of the 1855 No. 9 Mine, the world's oldest continuously operating anthracite coal mine.
It's another day in the life of the minstrel of the mountains.
The retired Lehighton Area School District teacher is making the most of being born into a musical family.
"It's what I like to do," he says. "Play, talk, interpret the music."
Matsinko, a Nesquehoning native, is devoted to songs of our past.
He became interested in old-time music while listening to his grandfather play fiddle tunes at "house jams."
Inspired by music's message, Matsinko began dabbling with the trumpet at age 7, and later the guitar.
By age 16 and a student at Panther Valley High School, he got his start playing trumpet in a 9-piece Chicago-style rock band called Icarus.
"The other guys were older," he says.
He also played with a folk and bluegrass gospel trio "Mountain Grass."
Somehow, folk and traditional tunes flow through his veins, and audiences react.
"He's able to mix music and history in his own unique way," says Bill Harlemen, president of the Lansford Historical Society.
Always expanding his skills, Matsinko learned to play the mountain dulcimer, penny whistle, bass and mandolin and has acquired a wide base of fans.
"He has a warm, friendly manner," says Janet Davis of Doylestown. "I like his style."
Matsinko, 60, acquired a knack to communicate through song. It's a way for him to talk with others.
And that's a good thing because his passion for music is surpassed only by his passion for people.
"That's why I do this," he says in his quiet manner.
Matsinko studied elementary and special education at Lock Haven University and took a job with Lehighton schools.
There, he incorporated music into special education, what they call learning support and multiple disabilities classrooms.
After opting for early retirement, he immersed himself in the role of entertainer at cultural events and venues.
"He spends his retirement sharing his love and appreciation for folk music," says Dale Freudenberger, president of the Tamaqua Historical Society.
"He uses his knowledge and talent playing a variety of instruments far and wide at various venues."
For example, he's one of several strolling minstrels at Eckley Miners Village, where he regales visitors with history-rich songs such as "Goober Peas," a playful ballad popular with the Confederacy.
When Matsinko sings about the hard life of a miner, or maybe success, or disappointment, his lyrical delivery is authentic - a reflection of the unexpected.
In fact, it's a reflection of his own personal world. As with many others, Matsinko's life has been shaped by the unexpected.
In November 2009, he lost his beloved wife, Helene, a victim of cancer at age 51.
It was gut-check time for him and the couple's children, Jen and Patrick.
Less than five years later, winds of change again hit when Matsinko developed a serious medical condition.
"I had surgery for a pituitary tumor and was hospitalized for 3 1/2 weeks," he says.
In fact, he still deals with residual effects. Overall, though, he's met the challenge and prevailed.
His ongoing therapy is to speak through musical interpretation.
He feels music deep inside and shares the experience through song.
Not just any song.
But music of the mountains, the tunes of our ancestors, and the inspiration of men and women who built America.
Matsinko was born with a warm gleam in his eye and a story to tell.
He uses music to do it.
He sings to us and tells us the story of ourselves. He's the minstrel of the mountains with a message of harmony.
And all we need to do is listen.