John Specker was born in 1950.
He grew up in Astoria, Queens, absorbing early Rock 'n Roll and Motown beats. Summers, he spent in the Catskills with an extended clan of relatives on his great-grandfather's farm, driving tractors and hunting woodchuck. John started classical violin lessons at age thirteen. To avoid being harassed on the street as a "sissy," he disguised his violin case by wrapping it up in shopping bags.
By age sixteen, John had quit his lessons to concentrate on the visual arts, starting at Philadelphia College of Art in 1968. As a sophomore, he got the notion to get out his violin again, this time to play "Old Time Music." From the second he first heard this music, he recognized it as what he had been searching for. He was most inspired by the Holy Modal Rounders, and sounded out his first tunes by listening to County Records reissues of 1920's and 30's fiddling. After his third year at P.C.A., he dropped out and went to Newcastle, England, hanging out at folk clubs and learning tunes.
From 1974 to 1977, Specker was part of the vibrant Old Time Music foment occurring around Ithaca, New York. He helped form the Correctone String Band, lived with the Puryear family sharing in twelve-year-old Jeb's paper route, and made the rounds at southern festivals each summer. His bandmate, Danny Kornblum, writes of that time, "We wanted to take ourselves and our dancing friends to another level where the droning buzz of the fiddle and the chunk of the banjo hung in the air like a ball of fire. We played into that fire to make it grow and burn brighter."
By 1978, Specker's band was burnt out. He was broke- and so was his fiddle. He took a break to pick apples in Vermont, at that point effectively disappearing from the music scene, but leaving behind a legacy which grew to mythic proportions in his absence. In Vermont, he met and married Susan Leader, a potter, with whom he has two now adult daughters and a home pottery business.
Serendipitously, the relative isolation of Vermont over the next forty years provided Specker the opportunity for almost inconceivably intensive solo practice. Raising his children, he played his fiddle morning, noon and night, against all odds- in between diaper changing duties and in the car during soccer practice. In the process, he accomplished the seemingly impossible, creating the sound of a whole band by himself in real time, perfecting to a unique degree the ability to simultaneously bow sustained triple stops, sing, and tap each of his feet independently.
He continued to perform during those years with groups of friends but, most notably, as a solo act. An early flyer for Vermont's Champlain Folk Festival proclaimed, "John's influence on other musicians is legendary, and he performs with an intensity that has to be seen to be believed."
Specker, whose passion from the start was for the instrument itself, as well as for the music, owns two Vermont made violins: one, a late 1800's Conant from Brattleboro, the other a late 1900's Edelman from Andover.
For twenty-five years starting in the early 1990's, Specker revisited Ithaca periodically, most notably to perform at the Grassroots Festival each July. The Ithaca Journal called Specker, “…a revelation to those not on the old-time circuit, playing dark, driving and highly individualistic fiddle." The Old Time Herald Magazine declared, "John can be considered a pioneer of what is called the 'Ithaca Sound,' and his influence still carries on to the newer generation of Ithaca fiddle players."
Occasionally John will stun his audiences with rousing versions of Cash and Dylan classics, but as a rule he remains possessed by the old Appalachian Mountain tunes, trance-inducing kitchen and dance music with its own unique tradition of rhythmic beat and lusty, honest lyrics. When Specker in-cants in his gritty baritone, "Police come, didn’t wanna go... Ain't gonna work for no damned man this morning." -- you'll believe him!
In his fifty-year thus far career as a fiddler, Specker has influenced several generations of players, including his own two daughters and now grandchildren, who often take the stage with him. Specker, ever the iconoclast, refers to himself as a "kink in the chain" of this traditional art form. He remains ever respectful of the British, African and Native roots of this unique American musical idiom, while at the same time claiming it as his own. He has been known to respond when asked where this music comes from, that "It comes from the trees."
Specker is an avid "Top Forties" fan, but for his own art, he chooses not to compose new music. He is an original folk stylist who invites us on a bewitching ride into the melting pot of American folk tradition. He uncompromisingly 'Aims for the Art,' channeling spirits from centuries past and bringing them roaring back to life. As John is fond of saying, "I can take you there, but I can't promise to bring you back."
"On stage John stomps and screams, whispers and grins, crowds fall to his attention and he works them with professionalism and wit...fiddle music the way it should be played, with heart, Crazy, crazy, heart". [Funkyside.com]