Bitt Rouse (1923–2007) by Jesse Graves
Bitt Rouse was the only one-handed fiddler I ever met. He played old-time ballads and mountain tunes, learned when he was a boy, and when he had both of his hands. The way Bitt lost his right hand must have been unimaginably painful. For six hours, he knelt beside a corn picker that had caught his shirt sleeve and pulled him into the machine, until a neighbor finally heard him calling for help. My father remembers working for his cousin Bitt when he was a boy in that same field, plowing with a horse for 50 cents a day. My dad thought that was good money in the late 1940s, especially for a boy who should have been in school.
His real name wasn’t Bitt at all, but Palmer Steiner Rouse, a collection of three of the oldest family names in Union County, Tennessee. Doc Palmer delivered most of the babies in Sharps Chapel for a generation at least, and became the namesake for many of those children (like my father’s oldest brother, Eugene Palmer Graves). The Steiners may have been the only family in the community to have acquired more land than the Rouses. How he came to be called “Bitt” is anybody’s guess, though almost all the country men I knew from his generation had a nickname—some of my own great-uncles were known as “Cotton” and “Mutt.”
Bitt Rouse died at 84 years of age, on his way to unlock the doors of the restored one-room Rush Strong schoolhouse, where a group of local musicians played for a monthly barn dance. In cold weather, Bitt went to the school early, to get the wood-stove burning before the crowd arrived. He kept a kind of fire going in the old-time music he played, as well, like the hearth-fires brought across the ocean to the New World. Bitt tended the flame until his very end, and that seems like a good way to go out after 84 years.