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Mark Fackeldey: 1942-2004: Rare master of autoharp was known in bluegrass

Friends and family say he helped develop a style of playing the instrument.

MARTY CLEAR
Published October 29, 2004

OLD SEMINOLE HEIGHTS - Not too many neighbors and acquaintances knew that Mark Fackeldey was a musical pioneer.

But the people closest to him say he was a master of the autoharp, who helped develop a style that brought sophistication and complexity to the chordal instrument.

He died Sunday (Oct. 24, 2004) at age 62.

"It's no exaggeration, he was absolutely a pioneer," said his wife, Linda.

Mr. Fackeldey won the prestigious Winfield Autoharp World Championship in 1988. The annual competition, held in conjunction with the Winfield Bluegrass Festival in Kansas, brings together acoustic musicians from around the world. To win the competition for any instrument is a major honor in the bluegrass world.

"The only reason he wasn't champion after that was because you could only win once," said friend Ellie Daulton. "Everyone considered him the best autoharpist. There were people who really worshiped him."

What made Mr. Fackeldey special as an autoharpist was not just the precision of his playing, his wife said. He helped change the way the instrument was played.

Traditionally, autoharpists strummed chords. Mr. Fackeldey helped develop a method of fingerpicking notes that allowed faster and more intricate playing.

"He strengthened his fingernails so that he could play without a pick," his wife said. "When you use a pick, when you go that fast back and forth, the picks would come off your fingers."

Mr. Fackeldey was known in bluegrass circles for playing tunes that most autoharpists didn't think could be played.

"He even played fiddle tunes," Ms. Fackeldey said. "Everyone said you couldn't play fiddle tunes on can autoharp because you couldn't play that fast, but he did it."

Mr. Fackeldey was also known for designing and building autoharps.

"(They were) the most beautiful looking, beautiful sounding autoharps," Daulton said. "He called them Zephyrhill Harps. He was born a woodworker. He had orders from all over the world, almost every country in the world. And yet he was so unassuming."

Mr. Fackeldey's passion for music and autoharps was so consuming that he never felt the need for a more traditional career. In his younger days he made a living from various jobs, mostly in construction, but in recent times his life revolved around his music. He performed across the country, including locally at Skipper's Smokehouse.

Mr. Fackeldey grew up in Holland surrounded by musicians.

"Mark liked jazz," said longtime friend Doug Travers. "His dad was a jazz musician in Holland and got to meet a lot of real early jazz musicians. He was a very proficient guitar player. Really, he could play anything with stings. He was a consummate musician."

Mr. Fackeldey met his wife in California, where they were both playing music. They moved to Old Seminole Heights 14 years ago, mostly to be near her parents.

He had been in seemingly good health until Saturday evening. He complained about stomach pains and went to the hospital, where he had emergency surgery for an aneurysm.

"He died on the operating table," his wife said. "It was sudden, but not sudden enough. He was in intense pain for about an hour."

Besides his wife, Mr. Fackeldey is survived by a daughter, Lisa Tavares, a son, Paul Fackeldey, and four grandchildren.

- Staff writer Leslie Paredes contributed to this report.

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