(by Art Rosenbaum) — Fleeta was born on February 27, 1913 in Cadwell in Laurens County, to Rev. John and Queen Echols. Mostly blind from birth, Fleeta said she could “’scern”, discern, until an accident left her totally sightless. Nonetheless she helped with chores, and learned old spirituals in her singing family. As a young child, she sang “Let Me Fly to Mount Zion” as collection was taken at church, standing on a table so she could be heard. She learned piano by ear not long afterwards.
In 1921 Fleeta entered the Georgia Academy for the Blind in Macon. It would be fair to say that at that time a sightless black child in Georgia who was fortunate enough to attend that school, segregated though was, stood to get a better education than many poor sighted black children who would be lucky to go through a grade or two. Fleeta learned Braille, formal music, and literature, as well as workaday skills.
Among her classmates was a young man later to be known as the great 12-string guitar player and blues singer, Blind Willie McTell; and another was to be a singer and slide guitarist of some renown, Rev. Pearly Brown.
Fleeta’s musical talents were on a par with these schoolmates and might have given her the opportunity to record on early 78rpm records, as McTell did, but she took another path: at the Academy for the Blind she met Nathaniel Mitchell of Wilkes County, and helped him train his powerful baritone voice; not long thereafter they married.
In her young adulthood Fleeta played blues as well as religious music. She once had a close call in a juke joint when a man with a knife lunged between her and her piano, aiming for another person. But she decided definitively to quit playing and singing the blues when Nathaniel was ordained as a minister. Fleeta recalled recently, that God had tapped her on her right shoulder and whispered in her ear, “What kind of a preacher’s wife will you be, playing boop-de-boop-boop?” She quit the blues, “like you cut off a washing machine” and never played them again, although one might hear some echoes of the blues in her rocking piano riffs in “Burden Down.” Her vast repertoire of old spirituals, up-beat jubilees, gospel songs like “Jesus is My Air-o-plane,” as well as her ability to accompany any song a singer “set,” whatever the key, served her well enough.
Though raised Methodist, Fleeta became sanctified, Pentacostalist, in 1937. It was about that time that the Mitchell’s moved to Athens. Nathaniel and Fleeta earned some of their living caning chairs, but they were active evangelists, running revivals locally and as far north as Boston. They saw hard times, such as the death of their only son, Andrew, in 1971. “That [music] is what carried me through when my son passed,” she told me. The Mitchell’s were sought-after musicians and singers, and Fleeta especially was called on to play piano at many churches, and with groups like the Belle Hill Singers.
Among their closest musical friends were the late Brady “Doc” and Lucy Barnes. In 1991 I helped them record a CD “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere” with Lucy Barnes, shortly after Doc’s passing. Another fine singer and loyal friend over the years has been Rev. Willie Mae Eberhart, who took the couple in when Rev. Mitchell was in failing health, building an annex to her house so the couple would not have to go to a nursing home.
First Nathaniel and then Fleeta spent their last days with the close support of Rev. Eberhart and her Bible Outreach Mt. Ararat Mission church community.
Fleeta was a generous, bright, and loving person. Although she bore burdens and had tribulations, as the old songs have it, she never had a bad word to say about anyone, although she might have a wise word of correction for a young person taking the wrong path. She had nicknames for her friends. For some reason she called me “Arkansas.”
She did get to sing at the Georgia Grassroots Festival, the National Folk Festival at Wold Trap Farm, Virginia, and the North Georgia Folk Festival, and was happy to reach peaople beyond her own community. For several years I took my UGA freshman folk music seminar students to visit Rev. Eberhart and Mother Mitchell. The students would crowd into the small living room, and see a feeble and stooped woman helped into the room and seated at the piano. Fleeta would answer some questions about her life in a barely audible voice.
Then Rev. Eberhart took up her tambourine and Mother Mitchell hit the piano keys, they began to sing, and the room rocked—the students almost fell off their chairs with happy astonishment at the energy and power of the music.
On hearing of her death, a friend in England, who had heard her voice on a recording, sent me an email, saying, “She must have been a woman of spirit.” He was right.
– Art Rosenbaum
Athens Loses Two Traditional Music Treasures
Mother Fleeta Mitchell is featured in the documentary, “Sing My Troubles By.”