by Wayne L. Carter
"I know that face," I mused silently, before reading the name associated with it. "That's Bill Mitchell." The obituary in the Daily Journal stated in part, " J.E. "Bill" Mitchell, 74, died Sunday, Oct. 20, 2002, at his home in the Eggville community after a long illness."
I could not have guessed his age, but I remember how I met Mr. Bill. Around 1960, my dad, after thirty or so musically silent years, took up the fiddle again. He never made a big production out of his return to music so the why is left to speculation.
In time, Dad got as good at playing the fiddle as he had been in his youth. Once he regained some confidence, he'd light out to play with whoever invited him. Sometimes it was up at Bernie McCarver's. Sometimes it was at A.B. MacDonald's, or Mr. Hadaway's. Dad played a lot of fiddle tunes with Fred Stegall, and O.C. Finley. Sometimes Dad would have a guitar great like Everett Wilder along with Anson Hall and one or two fiddlers over to our house. I met a lot of musicians during those years.
Dad spent years trying everything he could think of to get a better sound from his twelve-dollar fiddle. He bought different bridges, dropped a set of rattlers from a rattlesnake inside the fiddle, and he bought a sound post setting tool. He must have reset the sound post in the fiddle a thousand times, until he got it where he wanted it. At the time of his death in 1978, Dad was pretty much satisfied with his fiddle.
It was during Dad's search for ways to improve his fiddle that I met Bill Mitchell. Dad wanted to re-string his fiddle bow, and someone had told him he could buy the needed horsehair at Bill Mitchell's shop in Tupelo. Dad soon learned that Mr. Bill was a champion fiddle player who had won the national championship in "old time fiddling."
I was with Dad on the day he bought a new bow for his fiddle, and I remember
Mr. Bill's taking time to draw a few notes on his fiddle to help Dad figure
out a particular finger pattern on a fiddle tune I no longer remember. But,
I recall being impressed that a former national champion would take the time
to teach a customer a part of a fiddle tune. I also recall his being a
quiet, unassuming person, one not caught up in his own greatness.
According to Mr. Bill, it was Arabian horsehair that made the best "string" for the fiddle bow, and Arabian horsehair was what Dad bought. Though Dad was able to re-string his old bow, he never used it as much as he did the new bow he purchased from Bill Mitchell.
The final years of Dad's life were painful ones for him as well as the rest of us. Arthritis had a chokehold on a number of Dad's joints and was particularly debilitating to his hands and shoulders, two important anatomical aspects for a fiddler. Dad didn't do much moving without grunting, but on good days he played the fiddle, pain and all. We figured the playing was not only good physical exercise but good for his soul as well.
I was in a hospital waiting room when Dad's heart gave out. I could not weep at his passing because I knew he was in a better place. I remember driving home from the hospital thinking he must be fiddling in Heaven, free of pain and having a grand time playing every song he knew and maybe some new ones to boot.
I've the feeling he and Mr. Bill have since chatted about how they got to know one another years ago when Dad needed to re-string a fiddle bow. I even imagine they've played together by now. Who knows? Now that Bill's up there, Dad may soon be a champion fiddle player, too.
Wayne L. Carter is a Retail Technology Specialist for SUPERVALU, a wholesale food distributor. Wayne, a 1965 graduate of The University of Mississippi, makes his home in Pontotoc, Mississippi, along with his wife, Barbara, and son, Jason. His daughter, Rayanne and her husband, Anson Adams, reside in Belmont, Mississippi. Wayne and Barbara have three granddaughters.
Wayne's principal hobby is writing. He distributes a weekly newsletter, Ridge Rider News, to more than one hundred friends and family members through U.S. Mail, E-mail, and online at www.rrnews.org. This newsletter is now in its eleventh year of publication.
And read another of his stories here: Thaxton Christmas.
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