By Wayne Erbsen
Throughout its long and spicy history, the fiddle has been both loved and loathed. In early frontier days fiddlers were held in the highest esteem, even above doctors, lawyers, and politicians. It was a lone fiddler who held sway at community dances, which were the most popular form of entertainment in early America. Without the fiddler, there simply was no dance. A pioneer community that could boast having a fiddler was the envy of all, and a skilled fiddler was always in demand to play for community gatherings, such as barn dances, log rollings, corn-shuckings and bean-stringings. Fiddle contests existed as early as 1736, when fiddlers in Hanover County, Virginia, competed against each other, with the winner taking home a fine violin.
In a strange twist of fate, despite their high ranking in the community, fiddle players were often among the most despised members of society. Fire-and-brimstone preachers accused fiddlers of walking hand in hand with the devil himself. From many a Sunday morning pulpit, congregations were warned that “the devil rides the fiddle bow” and that the fiddle was “the devil’s stalking horse.” Banished from the church, some distraught fiddlers were driven to burn their fiddles or bust them over a white oak stump.
Even in death, fiddlers were seldom allowed to enter either heaven or hell, but instead were sent to a place called Fiddler’s Green. According to Ozark folklorist Vance Randolph, Fiddler’s Green was to be found seven miles on the other side of Hell. Originally, it was reserved for fiddlers, but later they started letting in sailors, peddlers, tinkers, a few cowpokes, and even a thin smattering of old soldiers.
They didn’t call a fiddle “the devil’s box” entirely for nuthin’. In some ways, fiddlers had only themselves to blame for their sullied reputation. Their penchant for strong drink while playing for rowdy dances certainly didn’t help their standing in the community. Nor did their superstition of keeping a rattlesnake rattle inside their fiddle make them popular with the genteel set. Even worse, some fiddlers defied America’s work ethic and “fiddled their time away.”
A casual look at some common and not-so-common expressions will show you that fiddlers have had a somewhat sullied reputation:
The devil’s riding horse (a fiddle).
To fiddle (to trifle or to make mindless movements with the hands).
Fiddle on a broomstick (nonsense).
Those who dance must pay the fiddler (suffer the consequence).
Drunk as a fiddler’s clerk (drunk).
Drunk as a fiddler’s bitch (even drunker).
Adding to the fiddlers’ unsavory reputation is his long association with the devil. In Popular Beliefs and Superstitions of North Carolina, we discover the best method of learning the fiddle.
“Before sunrise on five mornings, and take a fiddle and go into the country until you come to one of the main roads or to a crossroads. On the fifth morning you will meet a man also carrying a fiddle. He will teach you to play. He is the devil.”
If you lived in Illinois and wanted to play the fiddle, here’s what you did:
“If you want to learn to play the fiddle, go on a dark night at 12 o’clock to the forks of a road. Sit down with your fiddle over your shoulder just like you were going to play. While you are sitting there a big black snake will crawl by you with his head up in the air. Don’t get scared. The snake will go up the road and turn around and a big man with a fiddle will come back down the road and stand by you and play three or four pieces on his fiddle. Then he will disappear and you can go home and play any piece on the fiddle you want. I knew a man in Missouri that did this and he was the best fiddler in the state.”
The popular fiddle tune Devil’s Dream was supposedly taught to a fiddler by the devil himself. We can only guess at the origin of such American fiddle tunes as Devil in the Strawstack.
Throughout history, fiddlers not only cavorted with the devil, but also had numerous unpleasant encounters with the hangman. Folklorist Alan Lomax wrote that Wilkes County, North Carolina, native Tom Dula apparently played his fiddle while sitting on his coffin on the way to the gallows while singing the ballad that was later called Tom Dooley.
Going back in history, we find many references to fiddlers who played their last tune just before the hangman cinched up the knot around their neck. In 1965 article entitled “Fiddler’s Farewell,” folklorist D.K. Wilgus describes how numerous fiddlers played their last tune on the gallows. The first in a long line of hanged fiddlers was a Scottish gypsy named James McPherson who was executed November 16, 1700. Just before his execution he played a “rant” or dirge on his favorite violin and offered it to anyone in the crowd who would think well of him. Since there were no takers, McPherson then busted the fiddle and tossed it into the freshly dug grave that was waiting next to the gallows. Another tale says that the condemned man played the tune now known as McPherson’s Farewell and then promised to give his fiddle to anyone who would play the tune at his funeral. When no one came forward, he dashed the fiddle over the hangman’s head.
For many years I’ve been playing a tune called Hangman’s Reel, which I learned from the late fiddler Albert Hash, of Whitetop, Virginia. According to this legend, a fiddler was about to be hung. While waiting for his execution, he could see workers constructing the gallows outside his jailhouse cell. Just then the prisoner noticed an old fiddle hanging on the jailhouse wall. He called the jailor over and claimed to be the best fiddler in those parts. After a heated argument, they made a wager. If the condemned man would get up on the gallows before his execution and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was the best fiddler, he would be set free. Otherwise, he would get the noose. The jailer gave the prisoner the fiddle to practice on and left him alone in his cell.
Unbeknownst to the jailer, the condemned man had never even touched a fiddle in his life, but he decided this was his best chance at freedom. You can bet he practiced that night. When morning came, the prisoner was escorted to the gallows where he expertly played the tune now known as “Hangman’s Reel.” Unfortunately, history forgot to record if he was set free or instead received the “suspended sentence” he so richly deserved. Nevertheless, it makes a damn good story!
Parts of this article are taken from the book Old-Time Fiddle for the Complete Ignoramus! by Wayne Erbsen.