The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Mountain Music - Bill Willet

By Philip T. Perdue © 1987

Issue: June, 1987

This story ends in the fall of 1931 and began in the early 1800's. Until 1929 the Albemarle Pippin was the apple grown in the Valley of Virginia. After the crash in '29 all export of apples to Britain ground to a halt and the apple export business became history. John Willet operated "Big Bend Orchard" and his brother Sam had orchards on Bent Mountain. The following is about the Willet Brother's cousin, Bill Willet.

Bill lived in a log–bodied house up against the "Pore Mountain" side of Bent Mountain. The family had a few fruit trees, but was mostly farmers, growing pigs, grain, corn and vegetables. In the late 1800's the family raised grains that had to be thrashed. Like all the other mountain people, this was done by hand. The cradle scythes were used by the men, but the flails were used on a special threshing–floor largely by the women and young people. The grain fell through cracks in the threshing floor, where it was caught on cloths and sacks.

Threshing time in the fall was a time of visiting and entertainment. Young people came together to work and meet each other and families apart all year reunited. Men went into the fields at dawn and worked until nearly dark. The women also cooked enormous meals, frequently outdoors. After all this work, you would think they would fall into a bed or sleeping bag exhausted, but no, they would put a layer of fresh grain in the barn and dance 'til after midnight. Then sleep exhausted until dawn and repeat the whole process, sometimes at another farm.

For a barn dance, they had to have fiddle music, so there was a fiddler who went along, usually only to make music. "Fount" Kingery was such a fiddler. Since Bill Willet's family lived at the end of this threshing circuit Fount Kingery would frequently spend the winter at the Willet's, hunting in the mountains and playing the fiddle. Young Bill was transported by the music. Since Kingery had an eager pupil, he taught Bill how to play all of the little musical tricks.

In 1931, Bill was tall, a wiry mountaineer in a pair of dollar overalls that flopped against him when he walked. His fingers were much to long to be a farmer and his black hair was cut with scissors above the shoulders. He was wild as any deer, and only family members could get to see him, much less get him to play music.

My dad had an old 'HOPF' violin that a lot of people admired, and he and Sam Willet decided to visit Bill and take the fiddle. Sam would do the talking, and get Bill to look at the fiddle. We parked the car at the end of the road on one late fall afternoon, and walked the foot–path about a mile through saw briers and blackberry bushes to the house. We got there before dark and Sam went to find Bill. It was quite a while before they came to the house and in the meantime my dad and I were seated before a log fire by the womenfolk. Finally Bill and Sam came in. Sam began to talk to my dad about the fine fiddle he was carrying and Bill just sat staring into the fire. After a long while Sam passed the fiddle over to Bill, while talking to my dad about the days of old fiddle music. Finally, after strumming on the strings for a while, Bill reached for the bow – talk continued unabated. Bill started finger exercises on the new fiddle and at long last crossed his right leg over his left and began to keep time by patting his right foot on the floor.

He struck up "Forked Deer" – reputed to be unique to Fount Kingery. Sure enough, the music had trills and runs that we had never heard before. Finally the glorious sound stopped and only the crackling of the log fire was heard. Sam made comment at length that it was as good as Fount Kingery at his best. Thus encouraged, Bill started tuning on the fiddle again. Finally he struck up another Fount Kingery special, "Deer in the Cane Brake." Again the sound was wild, with Bill tapping in time with his long fingers on the fiddle to make the sound of deer antlers striking the cane. You can find these old tunes in Nashville if you look hard, probably on '78 RPM records, but not like Bill played them.

It was then long after dark, and a couple logs were put on the fire in the fireplace. Bill was still making little runs and by this time had found his voice. Sam was telling us that there was one piece that only Fount Kingery could really play, trying to get Bill to try this. Bill started to retune the fiddle and finally began – this time playing very softly on 3 strings at once. Way off in the distance, you could hear the skirl of a Scottish bagpipe band, slowly growing louder until marching seemingly out of the fire was Wellington's red–coated troupe, four abreast, muskets and bayonets shining, with the soft insistent rap of a drum made by a tap on the fiddle. The music faded into the distance and was gone.

After we made what comment we could, we went out into the dark night and as we tried to follow the brown path through the briars with the music still ringing in our ears, I suddenly realized I was never going to hear "Bonaparte's Retreat" played again.