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The Ballad Of The Stolen Fiddle

Jimmy Betts plays the fiddle in the Mojave Desert. He carried the fiddle on a march from Los Angeles to Washington to call attention to climate change. (Kelsey Erickson)

Don’t call the musical instrument that was stolen last week from Jimmy Betts’s car a “violin.” It’s a fiddle.

“Fiddles are meant to be out and about in the world,” Jimmy said. “Fiddles are meant to get down and dirty, creating music. Violins, generally, are meant to be kept in an orchestra pit.”

John Kelly writes “John Kelly’s Washington,” a daily look at Washington’s less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

And Jimmy’s fiddle most definitely got around. Jimmy’s a community activist and climate-change protester, and he carried his fiddle with him on a 3,300-mile walk from California to Washington. It accompanied him as he trudged through the Mojave Desert. It was strapped to his back as he dodged thunderstorms in Colorado. It entertained crowds in small towns across the country as part of the Great Climate March.

Then, last week, someone smashed the driver’s-side rear window of Jimmy’s Honda Civic while it was parked in the District’s Columbia Heights neighborhood and helped himself to the fiddle. The thief also stole $300 in cash from the car’s center console.

Not cool, man.

 Every day it seems that someone is arriving in Washington via unconventional means to deliver a message: on foot, by bike, by kayak, by gyrocopter. It’s a long American tradition, and if the message is sometimes obscured by the method, well, occasionally the method gets the person some ink. Like today.

Jimmy, 31, is from Omaha. He instructs people in meditation, martial arts and xi gong, a traditional Chinese health practice, though he prefers not to be called a “teacher.”

“I have issues with ego worship,” he said. “I’m more of a guide as opposed to a teacher.”

Anyway, one of his students (guidees?) was a luthier named Michael Richwine, who owns a company called KC Fiddles. When Jimmy decided to pick up an instrument two years ago, he purchased a fiddle from Michael.

“I’m an adult learner,” Jimmy said. “It’s my very first instrument. Also, I picked it very specifically to have as a tool to share in the process of what people consider activism or community organizing.”

Bigger than a harmonica but more portable than a tuba, a fiddle struck Jimmy as the perfect thing to carry across the country. He had it when the Great Climate March left Los Angeles on March 1, 2014, and played it with an ad hoc group of musicians called the Climate Justice Gypsy Band. He played a waltz at a same-sex wedding in Joshua Tree National Park.

Music, Jimmy said, serves as a useful bridge for reaching people. If Woody Guthrie’s guitar killed fascists, Jimmy’s fiddle was designed to kill fracking.

The number of marchers waxed and waned over eight months as participants joined for various segments. Jimmy was one of about 35 people who did the entire trip, ending up in Washington on Nov. 1.

Since then, Jimmy has been involved in organizing “actions” on the East Coast. A frequent target is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. (“A rogue agency, owned and operated by the industry,” Jimmy said.) He thinks he must have been with a group of protesters who were blocking North Capitol Street near FERC’s headquarters when his car was broken into.

All told, the KC Fiddles Bluestem fiddle, bow and case were worth about $1,500, though the fiddle has priceless sentimental value. Jimmy filed a police report, and he’s been looking on Craigslist to see if it turns up there. He’s called a few pawnshops, too.

They say a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. I wondered whether this unfortunate episode had changed Jimmy’s outlook. After all, here he is doing what he thinks will make the world a better place, and someone busts his window and swipes his precious musical traveling companion. Are humans worth saving? Is he disappointed in his fellow man?

“I’ve had a little time to think about that very question,” Jimmy said. “I would hope wherever the fiddle may end up, it can bring some form of joy and expression to whomever finds themselves playing it, in whatever community they may be living in. I can’t hope that it will be returned. I do know that if something was stolen from me, someone needed it more than I did. I don’t hold it against them. It’s a symptom of a larger problem, of how these systems oppress people in our country.”

Still, Jimmy Betts misses that fiddle.

Give a little bit

If you want to donate to a good cause without lifting a finger, you’re in luck. Well, you will have to lift a finger, tap a keyboard, click a mouse. June 4 is Do More 24 day, a 24-hour online-giving marathon for Washington-area charities that’s organized by the United Way of the National Capital Area.

More than 600 nonprofits are participating. Starting at midnight, you can go to and search by nonprofit name, category and Zip code. Among those taking part are two Washington Post Helping Hand stalwarts: Community of Hope and Sasha Bruce Youthwork.

The donations go straight to the charities, not to United Way. Last year’s Do More 24 raised $1.1 million.

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