I have been thinking about another great person in our area who has passed away during what would have been another Old Fiddlers Convention in Galax Virginia, canceled because of the pandemic. Harold Mitchell (in his 80’s) was in poor health for some time. He was best known as the stylish Emcee on the Galax OLD Fiddler’s Convention stage, so it is fitting that he check out during the time in August that was special to the local music scene as well as the world. In addition to the Galax convention, Harold was the emcee of numerous annual shows featuring local favorite bands that toured through Southwest Virginia. Fairview Ruritan Club (south of Galax) hosted many events over the years with Harold as the master of ceremonies. He was a radio show host back in April of 1981 on station WBOB and featured live music on a certain weeknight. Jenny and I had a small repertoire of old-time country duets and got up our nerve to ask to be on the schedule. Harold was a gracious host and made us feel most welcome and was very complimentary of our sound. He encouraged us to make an album, which flattered us. We knew that he had hosted a lot of great musicians in his time and was acquainted with folks like Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt. With the help of Bobby Patterson, we went on to make a vinyl LP on his Heritage label.
Another of my favorite fiddler’s conventions is usually held in the town ballpark in Fries, Virginia. Unlike Galax, the Fries Fiddler’s convention is small and intimate with mostly local musicians competing for small prizes. It has a hometown feel to it, from the entrance gate to the concession stand. No matter who you are, you are welcomed and respected by the volunteers who make it happen. Folks that camp are laid back and friendly, enjoying the music of jamming in the camps late into the night. Harold was always the MC, wearing his nice white broad brim hat and string tie. He tried to make everyone feel welcome who came across the stage.
Harold was truly interested in everyone involved in any event he was hosting. He respected the music, the heritage of the music, and the flatfooting. While the first-generation of bluegrass was the era he was from he appreciated the old-time styles as well, knowing how bluegrass grew out of the older traditions that fiddlers’ conventions were helping to foster. No doubt he saw many changes in the music over his life as MC.
I want to feature a tune by one of the families that Harold observed over the years. There was a period of time in the late 50’s early 60’s where old-time and bluegrass styles could be hard to distinguish in competing bands. The Burris family is a prominent family around the Galax and Fries fiddler’s convention scene. Otis Burris was an older fiddler, well-respected in his time for hard-driving versions of old tunes. He was basically an old-time fiddler with some modern influences from commercial fiddlers like Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith.
Otis’ back up band was driven by three-finger style banjo along with mandolin, guitar, and bass, all playing in perfect time. This tune is an example of one hard to categorize into either style, but the goal was clearly to play fast and tight in hopes of winning some money at Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention.
BTW, I got to see Otis play for a benefit in Floyd one Saturday in the 1980s with James Lindsay and the Mountain Ramblers. He was small in stature but a powerful player.
So this week’s tune is Fortune. Here’s to the memory of Harold Mitchell who loved the music with all his heart.