Mitch Jayne: The Dillards' Wordsmith on "Fiddler's Ghost" and Legends of Fiddledom
One of bluegrass music’s most learned and articulate ambassadors, Mitch Jayne made an indelible impression as the Dillards’ pipe-puffing bassist and resident raconteur, ever ready to engross an audience with a kneeslapping story when a guitar string broke or a banjo went out of tune. Mitch’s pastoral lyrics have graced a raft of bluegrass standards (“Dooley,” “The Old Home Place,” “There Is a Time,” “The Whole World ’Round”), but he is also a distinguished short story writer, novelist, and humorist with an uncanny gift for putting the poetic –– and often perplexingly rustic –– nuances of Ozark English into a context few can resist laughing along with. Fiddler’s Ghost, his new novel published by Wildstone Media, concerns a genteel spirit, limbo-lost since the Civil War, who is befriended by a young Ozark couple in the 1950s and, through his mentorship of a gifted black musician, discovers the key to his ghostly wandering. Interviewed via email from his home in Eminence, a hamlet in the Missouri Ozarks where he lives with his wife, Diana, a marvelous artist who painted the book’s evocative cover, Mitch talked about his book, the Dillards, and the many extraordinary fiddlers he’s been privileged to know.
What inspired you to write “Hiram,” the first draft of “Fiddler’s Ghost”?
When my log house in the woods burned, the week before Christmas of 1980, I found myself, at fifty-one, without anything, including a livelihood. Fires being thorough erasers of personal history, I no longer had the tools of my trade, evidence of my previous work or even a way to start over again. What I did have –– and all survivors know this truth –– were friends. In the weeks it took to replace even the most elemental things of living, one of these friends gave me an old Underwood typewriter, a couple of ribbons and a ream of paper. People gave us lots of things back then, putting our lives back into some kind of order, but this typewriter was a gift of purpose, and when I had, at last, a table to put it on, I began a book about a man worse off than me, who has lost his life, and searches through time for its meaning.
My mind was a mish-mash of loss back then and I wrote neither easily –– nor soberly, to tell the truth –– nor very well, but I stayed at it, hoping my ghost would be an acceptable idea, and knowing I could fix my hurried faults if a publisher liked it. I was as poor in money as I was rich in friends and I needed to repay their faith as much as pay my debts. If I had known I would need twenty-five years and a renewal of my own faith to turn my story into Fiddler’s Ghost, I would probably have worked at “Hiram” anyway. I needed so badly to write and show my friends I still had spirit and belief.
Tell me about the book’s musical theme.
Obviously, my own forty-year career playing music with the Dillards has everything to do with trying to write about what I know best when it comes to background. We played bluegrass, which to us was the most American music we knew, but we knew its roots, like its instruments, ran deeper than that, coming over the water from places like Ireland and even Africa, much like its players. Bluegrass’ songs came mostly from the mountain places –– a high, lonesome sound that distinguished them from gentle country and simple living. We knew better than to think we played the only American music, but like Hiram, my ghost, we searched for what it might turn out to be, and the fun was in the looking.
Why did you make Hiram a fiddler, rather than some other kind of musician?
Because violins are ghostly creatures themselves to me, creating emotions of their own and an atmosphere around themselves. Best of all, they capture time in a way that’s almost visual. Try that on a banjo!
Hiram plays a 1730 Guarnerius violin. How did you choose that particular instrument?
I heard my first Guarnerius played by our old friend Byron Berline, the amazing fiddler with whom the Dillards recorded the first album he had ever played on, Pickin’ & Fiddlin’. After that, we used Byron every time we needed a fiddler to record and he was available, and on one of these sessions he appeared with this marvelous violin, bought for him by his father. Byron never ceased to amaze us. He was a big, rawboned Oklahoma boy and in those days looked like a football player, not a fiddler. Seeing that delicate antique in his huge hands was a shock, but nothing compared to the one I got when he drew his bow across those strings and brought a voice from a time before this land became a country, to play “Hamilton County Breakdown.” I get goose bumps just remembering, especially now that I realize Hamilton County was my ghost’s home in Tennessee and time travel is a cinch for anything as lasting as music.
[This article is from the sold out Winter 07/08 issue of Fiddler Magazine.]
[Kevin Cook of McDonough, Georgia, is a writer and book editor who plays the guitar middlingly and the mandolin badly. He has a scholarly interest in the music of the Dillards and the writings of Mitch Jayne.]
[To order Fiddler’s Ghost, send check/money order for $15.00 + $3.50 s&h to: Wildstone Media, P. O. Box 270238, St. Louis, MO 63127, or call 800-296-1918 during business hours to order with MC/Visa. Also available at: www.wildstonemedia.com and www.amazon.com.]
Photo by Connie Cook