Though Randy Mansell loves music, he doesn’t know how to play the organ. But that didn’t stop him from buying an antique Kimball pump organ once owned by his friend Mable White. I noticed it when I attended a performance party at Randy’s house, way up on top of Phifer Mountain, a couple of months ago.
“Is the organ going to be part of the show?” I asked.
He shook his head. “It’s not playable in its current condition, but I plan to get it refurbished so it will be. Right now, it’s just a beautiful piece of furniture.”
Randy went on to tell me about Mable White. “For decades, Mable played piano at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church, which has been my church home all my life,” he told me. He’s always lived within a mile of the small church, which sits at the corner of Sheep Bluff and Pleasant Ridge roads in a white clapboard building that’s more than 100 years old. “I can see the church from my house,” Randy said. “That’s always been special to me.”
Officially, Mable was the pianist and church historian, but in reality she was much more than that. “Mable and her five siblings—Ovha, Nellie, U.A., Alvy and Monroe–grew up on Phifer Mountain.” Randy said. “She knew everything there was to know about the history of this part of the county. I learned a lot about my neighbors and even my own kinfolk just listening to Mable tell stories.”
As a teenager, Randy cut Mable’s firewood and did other odd jobs, including maintenance work on her house. That might have been an early sign that he would one day teach carpentry at Cookeville High School, a job he’s held for 23 years. But working for Mable wasn’t what truly cemented their friendship.
“Music has always been one of the joys of my life,” Randy told me, “though I can’t read a note. My mom was in the choir so we hung around church a lot. I give credit for my lifelong love of old time gospel music to Mable, because that was the stuff she played. And she was always happy to have me join in with my guitar.”
Last Tuesday, October 29, Mable White turned 100 years old. Randy and several other friends and family members helped celebrate the milestone at Bethesda Health Care Center. “She was alert and excited and recognized everybody,” he told me. “It was quite a party.”
He went on to tell me that he owns an instrument with even more sentimental value than Mable’s organ, which—as far as he knows—was never used at Pleasant Ridge Church. A few years ago, church members came to accept that the 1921 Hamilton upright piano that Mable (and also Randy’s mom, Christine, who served for a time as interim pianist) had played for decades needed to be replaced. Randy went to Nashville to help pick out a new one.
“We didn’t have much money to spend and I negotiated a pretty good deal with the store owner,” he said. In appreciation, the church gave him the old piano, which sits in a place of honor in his house. “The piano tuner told me it’s on its last leg,” Randy said, “but that doesn’t change the way I feel about it. When I was a kid, I used to sit in the church house at this piano with my best friend and pick out little songs that my mom and Mable had taught us. This banged-up piano that’s almost as old as Mable is one of the big reason I love music. I won’t ever let it go.”
Happy, happy 100th birthday to you, Mable. And thanks, Randy, for sharing this story.
(November 3, 2019)