Lest you harbor the illusion that Satan is a one-dimensional monster, what with all the brokering of Faustian bargains, offering up of temptation, and torturing the wicked in the fiery pits of Hell, allow me to dissuade you. When not authoring worldly evil, the Devil is historically and ecumenically, both a musical enthusiast and consummate musician. In particular is the consistent cross-cultural and temporally enduring mythos that Satan is a virtuoso violinist and exceptional fiddler. Musicologists lean towards the hypothesis that there is no technical difference between the fiddle and the violin, rather the instrumental distinction is etymological and cultural, that is in the price, the player, the musical style, and the audience, or more succinctly summed up by Cajun fiddling legend Dennis McGee, “You take a violin to a concert in a case, and a fiddle to a dance in a flour sack.”
Fans of the American country and southern rock group, The Charlie Daniels Band, no doubt recognize the characterization from the 1979 U.S. Country Billboard number one hit (charting in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Denmark, and the U.K.), “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”, where the Prince of Darkness challenges young Johnny to a fiddle-playing contest, wagering his golden fiddle for Johnny’s soul.
The devil went down to Georgia, he was looking for a soul to steal.
He was in a bind ‘cos he was way behind and he was willin’ to make a deal.
When he came across this young man sawin’ on a fiddle and playin’ it hot.
And the devil jumped upon a hickory stump and said: “Boy let me tell you what:
“I guess you didn’t know it, but I’m a fiddle player too.
“And if you’d care to take a dare, I’ll make a bet with you.
“Now you play a pretty good fiddle, boy, but give the devil his due:
“I bet a fiddle of gold against your soul, ‘cos I think I’m better than you.”
The boy said: “My name’s Johnny and it might be a sin,
“But I’ll take your bet, your gonna regret, ‘cos I’m the best that’s ever been.”
(Excerpt from the Devil Went Down to Georgia, lyrics by Charlie Daniels, 1979)
Charlie Daniels has been a little vague about the origins of the song (we proceed from the unfounded assumption that there was no infernal involvement), suggesting that he may have been thinking of a 1925 poem by Stephen Vincent Benet called “The Mountain Whippoorwill (Or, How Hill-Billy Jim Won the Great Fiddler’s Prize)”. The similarities are certainly observable between the poem and the song, and there is little doubt they are based on older oral traditions among fiddlers.
My mother was a whippoorwill pert,
My father, he was lazy,
But I’m hell broke loose in a new store shirt
To fiddle all Georgia crazy.
Swing yore partners — up an’ down the middle!
Sashay now — oh, listen to that fiddle!
Flapjacks flippin’ on a red-hot griddle,
An’ hell’s broke loose,
Hell’s broke loose,
Fire on the mountains — snakes in the grass.
Satan’s here a-bilin’ — oh, Lordy, let him pass!
Go down Moses, set my people free;
Pop goes the weasel thu’ the old Red Sea!
Jonah sittin’ on a hickory-bough,
Up jumps a whale — an’ where’s yore prophet now?
(Excerpt from poem “The Mountain Whippeerwill”, Stephen Vincent Benet, 1925)
The mythological association of the Devil with the fiddle and his reputed skill are part of the American cultural heritage, but the origins of the symbolic link are actually ancient, and appear concurrently in diverse theological and cultural traditions, which may have ultimately cross-pollinated. In the traditions of the Abrahamic religions we can reach as far back as the Hebrew Tanakh’s Book of Ezekiel (finalized roughly between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D.) and identify the possible connection of the personage of Satan with music, although this passage is variously translated.
You were in Eden, the garden of God;
Every precious stone was your covering:
The sardius, topaz, and diamond,
Beryl, onyx, and jasper,
Sapphire, turquoise, and emerald with gold.
The workmanship of your timbrels and pipes
Was prepared for you on the day you were created.
(Ezekiel 28:13-15 New King James Version)
Although not definitive, the fact that angels were thought to spend eternity singing the praises of God, and the mention of “the workmanship of your timbrels and pipes” seems to suggest that Satan was involved with producing heavenly harmonies, a divine Paul Schaffer to Yahweh’s David Letterman. Indiana State University musicologist Todd E. Sullivan in his essay “Instrument of the Devil” observed, “Associations between the violin and death or the devil reside deep in the modern Western consciousness. Traditional, popular, and classical music cultures have reinforced this viewpoint many times over. The identity of the ‘Devil as fiddler’ has evolved in stages over the past two millennia or longer as numerous religious beliefs, folk legends, and literary tales merged to produce a central myth.” Sullivan traces this back to ancient Greek religious cults that associated specific deities with ethical attributes, in particular the Dionysus/Bacchus themes (the pan pipes, dancing, wine, and general debauchery) and the fact that the image of the Satyr blended into the standard caricature for devils.
The specific Western European motif of the fiddling devil seems to have roots in the timing of the modern violin’s early 16th Century appearance (it was a brand new string instrument, supplanting the older vielle, rebec, or lira) in the shadow of the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation, but may very well have earlier associations with the introduction of the first bowed instruments to Europe by conquering Moors who rolled over North Africa and into Western Europe, threatening a still young Christianity in the 8thCentury A.D., and creating a Spanish Caliphate that was to last for several centuries. “It is interesting in connection with our subject that very soon after this historical event, the Mussulman conquest of Spain (or rather, after Abderrahman, driven from Persia, founded, in 756, the Caliphate of Cordova in Spain), bow instruments appear for the first time in Spain and Southern Europe, and in response, musical historians have from this fact drawn the not illogical conclusion that that modest escutcheon of peace, the fiddle-bow, came to us from its Eastern home on the wings of war” (Stoeving, 1904, p.30). The introduction of Islam to North and West Africa is thought to correspond to the beginning of a decline of the fiddle and violin like instruments in the Muslim world, and their growing association with evil spirits, independent of similar constructions that emerged in Renaissance Europe.
Although the majority of West African fiddlers identify as Muslim, over time, fiddling diminished in appeal for Muslims. From the 10th to 11th century, heads of state and rulers of various societies in the region adopted Islam to enhance their trade, while most of the populations maintained indigenous practices. Between the 14th and 16th centuries, Islam was adopted by the masses for social advancement as people from all over the globe, including Europe and Asia, came to West Africa to teach and study. In the 18th to 19th centuries, which is also when the faith began to expand exponentially, reformists led jihads to restore more fundamental Islamic worship practices and moral standards. Many northern Nigerian Muslims view the fiddle negatively because of the wide-spread Islamic perspective that all instruments are forbidden and only unaccompanied chanting of religious poems, religious hymns and the playing of certain types of drums are permitted in mosques. Not only do Muslims in Hausa land and other parts refer to the melodies produced on the chordophone as the music of the devil, some believe fiddle music led people to engage in various unhealthy practices, such as the drinking of alcohol. Since the Hausa fiddle is one of the main instruments used to venerate Bori spirits, it is understandable why Muslims did not receive fiddling with much enthusiasm. These reasons and the instrument’s association with pre-Islamic rites, including spirit possession, made fiddling especially taboo (DjeDje, 2010).
With the emergence of the violin in mid-16th Century Europe it rapidly became the chosen instrument, particularly among peasant performers for dances, weddings, and other exuberant entertainments, enormously popular due to its portability, loud tone, and tunability. The Protestant Reformation likely had the largest impact on the translation of the violin/fiddle to the instrument of the devil, with a general degradation of worldly pleasures as sinful.
Viols had by this time [1670’s] crept out of the cloister and joined hands with the frivolous Rebek, used at fairs and pothouses. At all events, in Cromwell’s time and the ‘Barebones-praise-God period,’ everything that savoured of festivity was tabooed, and the fury against art seemed part and parcel of all sincere religion, according to the masses at least. To Cromwell’s honour be it set down that he was personally no such extremist, and that he, moreover, saved for us Raffael’s cartoons; but still music in any of its secular forms was mightily discouraged by the Puritans, whilst in its higher religious form it was associated with Prelacy and Papacy, and we have to wait for that reaction in favour of the world, the flesh, and the devil, which marked the Restoration, and which also made provision for the more innocent as well as the more perilous delights of music in the home, the concert room, the theatre, and the sanctuary (Haweis, 19–, p120).
The Golden Age of the Devil as Fiddler/Violinist was certainly the 17th, 18th, and 19 th Centuries. A robust literature emerges examples of which include Anthony Woods biography describing the German violinist Thomas Baltazar’s performances as demonically inspired, the 18th Century claims of violinist Giuseppe Tartini to having made a pact with the Devil , the Opera Un Violon du Diable (1849), Benjamin Webster’s “The Devil’s Violin” (1849), and most notably, the rumor and widespread belief that the only explanation for Nicolo Paganini’s otherworldly violin abilities and technique were a Faustian bargain (incidentally a popular, contemporary story), which Paganini capitalized on for publicity.
Condemnation of the violin as an instrument of the Devil spread during the nineteenth century to other parts of Europe and North America. Churches in Sweden and Norway outlawed the violin and created a substitute string instrument, the psalmodikon, to accompany hymn singing. Scandinavian settlers transported this “bowed zither” to the Upper Midwest region of the United States. Calvinist adherents in the British Isles denounced the violin because of its evil associations with dance. Such prejudices also traveled with some Scots-Irish immigrants to the U.S. Numerous British folk ballads and fiddle tunes, transplanted to Appalachia and other parts of the country, make reference to the Devil (Sullivan, Essay: ‘Instrument of the Devil” on www.rachelbartonpine.com)
Simultaneously, missionaries among African-American slaves in the United States encountered the fiddle utilized in both secular and sacred contexts throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries, particularly with respect to folk traditions that were imported from West Africa and syncretized with Christian overlays, and did their best to eradicate fiddle music, which nonetheless persisted into the development of a robust tradition of blues music depictions of a musical Mephistopheles, translating to a primary motif of blues musicians developing extraordinary skill through deals with the devil at the crossroads, the most famous instance being the renowned Faustian legend of blues guitar great Robert Leroy Johnson.
Folktales from diverse sources recognize the devil as a fiddler, from Transylvanian Gypsy myths to Texas folklore:
I a hut on a mountain, in a fair forest, lived a girl with her four brothers, her father, and her mother. The sister loved a handsome rich huntsman, who often ranged the forest, but who would never speak to the pretty girl. Mara wept day and night, because the handsome man never came near her. She often spoke to him, but he never answered, and went on his way. She sang the song:
‘Dear man from a far country,
Slip your hand into mine;
Clasp me, an you will, in your arms;
Lovingly will I kiss you.’
She sang it often and often, but he paid no heed. Knowing now no other succour, she called the devil. ‘O devil, help me.’ The devil came, holding a mirror in his hand, and asked what she wanted. Mara told him her story and bemoaned to him her sorrow. ‘If that’s all,’ said the devil, ‘I can help you. I’ll give you this. Show it to your beloved, and you’ll entice him to you.’ Once again came the huntsman to the forest, and Mara had the mirror in her hand and went to meet him. When the huntsman saw himself in the mirror, he cried, ‘Oh! that’s the devil, that is the devil’s doing; I see myself.’ And he ran away, and came no more to the forest.
Mara wept now again day and night, for the handsome man never came near her.; Knowing now no other succour for her grief, she called again the devil. ‘O devil, help me.’ The devil came and asked what she wanted. Mara told how the huntsman had run away, when he saw himself in the mirror. The devil laughed and said, ‘Let him run, I shall catch him; like you, he belongs to me. For you both have looked in the mirror, and whoso looks in the mirror is mine. And now I will help you, but you must give me your four brothers, or help you I cannot.’ The devil went away and came back at night, when the four brothers slept, and made four strings of them, fiddle-strings–one thicker, then one thinner, the third thinner still, and the thinnest the fourth. Then said the devil, ‘Give me also your father.’ Mara said, ‘Good, I give you my father, only you must help me.’ Of the father the devil made a box: that was the fiddle. Then he said, ‘Give me also your mother.’ Mara answered, ‘Good, I give you also my mother, only you must help me.’ The devil smiled, and made of the mother a stick, and horsehair of her hair: this was the fiddle-stick. Then the devil played, and Mara rejoiced. But the devil played on and on, and Mara wept. Now laughed the devil and said, ‘When your beloved comes, play, and you will entice him to you.’ Mara played, and the huntsman heard her playing and came to her. In nine days came the devil and said, ‘Worship me, I am your lord.’ They would not, and the devil carried them off. The fiddle remained in the forest lying on the ground, and a poor Gypsy came by and saw it. He played, and as he played in thorp and town they laughed and wept just as he chose (Groome, 1899, p.131-132).
And old Texas folktales, similarly describe a fiddling devil:
Adam Gimble was the very best fiddler in Texas. Folks came from miles around to the weekly barn dance, just to hear Adam play. Adam was right proud of his reputation. He liked to boast of his prowess with the fiddle and often said that he could charm rattlesnakes out of their dens. One evening, upon hearing this boast, a dark stranger spoke up from the far end of the bar. “Charm rattlesnakes out of their dens? That’s a mighty big boast,” the dark-haired man said. “I’m a pretty good fiddle player myself, and fifty dollars says I can charm more rattlesnakes than you.” “I’ll bet you anything you like,” Adam said defiantly. “Done!” said the dark stranger with a devilish grin, and he arranged to meet Adam the next evening at dusk at Rattler Ridge. Adam came striding up to the top of the ridge at the appointed hour to find the stranger perched on a flat-topped rock. He flashed a grin at Adam, and Adam shivered a bit.
Propping his rifle up against the rock, Adam tuned his violin while the stranger pulled out his own violin; his eyes glowed with a red light. “I will mark them as they come out,” he said, grinning at the unease he saw in Adam’s face. “How are you going to do that?” Adam asked, swallowing nervously. “I’m the Devil. I can do anything I please,” the man said. “Rattlers with a yellow dot on their heads responded to your fiddle, and rattlers with a blue dot responded to mine. You start.” Adam gave a muffled gasp when he realized the dark fellow was the Devil. But, pride came to Adam’s rescue. Raising his head and standing tall, he put his fiddle to his chin and began to play. He started with a jig and then a fast reel. The rattlesnakes came as he played, their triangular heads glowing with large yellow dots that lit up the darkness of night. Adam played on and on, caught up in his music and he had no idea how long he played before the Devil called a halt and took his turn The Devil began to play, marches and waltzes and slow ballads. Each song was lovelier than the one before, and the far side of the rock gradually lit with the eerie glow of many blue-dotted rattlesnakes.
Then the Devil and Adam played together, fast songs that made the rattlers whirl and slow songs that made them sway gently. It was only in the gray dimness just before sunrise that Adam realized that the strange night was over. Adam pulled the fiddle away from his chin and looked around. To his astonishment, there seemed to be twice as many yellow snakes as blue. “Well,” said the Devil, “It’s obvious that I must concede the contest to you.” He made a strange half-bowing motion and threw a fifty-dollar bill down on the rock. Then the Devil vanished. Grinning in triumph, Adam reached down for the fifty-dollar bill—and then froze when he heard a long, drawn-out hiss of a rattlesnake’s warning. The whole ridge rang with the warning of more than a hundred snakes. The snakes were slowly creeping up the rock toward him as Adam reached desperately behind him toward the rock where he’d propped his rifle. And that’s when he remembered the Devil’s strange bowing motion just before he vanished. The Devil had taken his gun! (“Rattlesnake Ridge: A Texas Folktale”, podcast at http://americanfolklore.net/mp3/rattler-ridge.mp3)
In retrospect, the Devil may have gone down to Georgia, but he arrived via ancient Judea, North Africa, Spain, West Africa, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, the British Isles, and with visits to countless other countries on the way to his destination, hanging out with Nero as he fiddled, making deals with famous artists, and otherwise maintaining his symbolic presence in the world of the musical arts. Rock ‘N Roll is only the latest incarnation of “The Devil’s Music”, and the modern, “Satanic” Heavy Metal bands that have adopted the mythos are simply recapitulating Paganini and Tartini, reveling in demonic signification that both attracts and repels. Ambrose Bierce famously defined the violin as “an instrument to tickle human ears by friction of a horse’s tail on the entrails of a cat.” No wonder the Devil prefers to fiddle. On the other hand, an anonymous commenter on a fiddler’s resource website may have been on to something when he quipped, “Don’t know the connection between Satan and the fiddle? You’ve obviously never listened to a child taking violin lessons.”
DjeDje, Jacqueline C. “The Devil’s Instrument: The Fiddle in West African and African-American Cultures”, The Institute For Signifying Scriptures, Claremont University. October 7, 2010.
Groome, Frances Hindes. Gypsy Folk Tales, London : Hurst and Blackett, 1899.
Haweis, H. R. 1839-1901. Old Violins And Violin Lore. London: W. Reeves, 19–?.
Stoeving, Paul. The Story of the Violin. London: The Walter Scott publishing co., ltd., 1904.
I am researching the fiddle in folklore for a story I want to write. Thank you for sharing your humorous, informative and well-written article – complete with references!
Pleased I could be of some help. Coincidentally, I’ve been working on a post on Giuseppi Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill”.
Then I’d better subscribe to your blog! 😉