© American Profile, (Central Edition) July 30, 2006.

Harping in the Pines

by Laura Stavoe

An enthusiastic crowd erupts in applause as Marvin Jaramillo blows the closing notes of "The Star-Spangled Banner" on a small pocket harp in Yellow Pine, Idaho (pop. 35). Jaramillo's soulful rendition of the national anthem was an obvious crowd-pleaser during the town's annual harmonica contest last August. The event drew 4,000 spectators and contestants who traveled 25 miles of dusty, backcountry road to celebrate an instrument that has been played—and enjoyed—for more than a century in remote mining towns like Yellow Pine.

"Whether you're good or not, they go wild," says Jaramillo, 50, after walking off the Main Street stage in Yellow Pine.

Jaramillo is good. He can bend harmonica notes into gospel, jazz, blues or music from his ancestral Spain, and he won first place in the Yellow Pine Harmonica Contest's diatonic division the last two years. Jaramillo points to a 100-foot ponderosa pine as the other obvious reason for making the 19-hour drive from Albuquerque, N.M. Thousands more conifer trees blanket the steep mountains surrounding Yellow Pine, a former mining town bordering the 2-million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.

Gold prospectors first homesteaded the region in the early 1900s, but Yellow Pine's heyday came in the 1940s when nearly 80 percent of the nation's tungsten (an alloy of steel) was extracted from the nearby Stibnite mine to produce World War II armaments. In the years since, the mine, which also produced gold, reopened only briefly when the precious metal's price spiked in the early 1980s. Now, Yellow Pine's economy relies on hunting, fishing and harmonica music.

"You have to love living here for reasons other than business," says Darlene Rosenbaum, who with her husband, Robert, owns and operates Yellow Pine Lodge. "We moved here over 20 years ago intending to fix and sell the place the next year, but we never got around to leaving." Harmonica fans line up all weekend for a taste of Darlene's sweet apricot cobbler and pie made from huckleberries she gathered from the mountainside.

Yellow Pine residents embraced the harmonica in 1990 as a way to celebrate a century of Idaho statehood. "(Former) Governor (Cecil) Andrus wanted every community to do something to celebrate the centennial," recalls Lynn Imel, 65, who moved to Yellow Pine in 1968 with her husband, Dave. "Someone mentioned that the early prospectors came to Idaho with either their fiddles or pocket harps. Weiser, Idaho, already had a fiddle festival, so we decided on the harmonica."

Townspeople worked together to launch the contest, which drew 300 people the first year and since has grown into the second largest harmonica contest in the nation.

"We try to find musicians from out of state a place to stay," says Imel, a member of the Yellow Pine Enhancement Society, which hosts the annual contest. "This year we took the books out of the library so the Monroe Brothers from Ohio could sleep there." Most attendees stay in campgrounds in the nearby Boise National Forest or camp at the entrance to town where the music of harmonicas, fiddles and guitars filters nightly through the pines.

"People have a perception of harmonica as a lowly instrument, a toy even. And it is," says Bud Boblink, of Schererville, Ind., a festival judge since 1996. "But when they hear the music you can make with it, there is this astonishment."

That sense of "Wow!" parallels what visitors experience when they drive to the remote town of Yellow Pine and are surrounded by the natural grandeur.

Dave Imel first encountered the town's magnificent setting while elk hunting in 1962. "I looked down on the town from that mountain over there and said, 'That's the place I'm gonna die." He adds, "I still feel that way. Yellow Pine is a half step from heaven and as close as I'll ever get."

The 17th annual Yellow Pine Harmonica Contest is scheduled Aug. 4-6 (2006). Visit www.harmonicacontest.com or call (208) 633-3300 for more information.

Laura Stavoe is a freelance writer in Idaho City, Idaho.