The Devil, That Serpent, Old Scratch, Dickens, the Black Man, Old Horny, Blacklegs, Ole Bastard.
In Appalachia, as in many places, the image and talk of the Devil has strayed from dogma’s path into the folkloric forests. In many places around the world, especially Europe, the Devil has been separated into many forms. Straying from the biblical Anti-God of all Evil, he is often seen as playing the part of trickster, ill-fortune bringer, and crooked business man.
Many tales talk of going to the crossroads to meet the devil, the black man, and selling your soul for fortunes and fame. But growing up in Appalachia, my family folk (as well as the other folk I’ve spoken with) never spoke of it that way. You was to go and make a deal, yes, but he didn’t give fortunes and material things. He gave knowledge, talent, and power. It’s from these tales of musicians going to the crossroads that arose the superstition around the fiddle. It was not to be brought inside at all, or it’s bring bad luck. They were kept out on the porch or hung in the rafters of the barn. But never inside the home.
His roots in Appalachia stem out to other lands. Some come from Europe, others come from Africa and the American Indians. The Cherokee recognized him as “The Black Man” who lived in the West and brought disease and death. He’s connected to African thought in the fact he is a wise and wiley trickster. His fun is his own whether causing good or bad to others.
It’s in the following folktales, most from my own family, where the paths of the biblical Devil and the Appalachian Devil split.
The first story is noted the same in The Devil’s Run, where the person thought to be joshing campers and fisherman turned out to be a black shadow with goat prints left behind.
The next story was one told often by my Papaw Tipton, and one that has been handed down to me. He told a tale of some friends who live just down the holler and in one house tucked way back, there lived an old drunk and his wife and kids. He was mean to his wife and children, especially when he was under the shine. Papaw Tipton said one night he was walking home drunk down the path to his house back in the mountain.
Off the path was a big rock. Well as he was walking he heard footsteps coming from behind. Mingled with the sound of footsteps was the sound of chains smacking the ground. As he turned around someone tackled him down, jumping down on him from that rock, and they began wrestling in the dirt path with the huge chains smacking all about. The person told him he better start being nicer to his wife and kids or else he’ll come back for him. Then he was gone.
Next morning, Papaw said his friend took others out to investigate the trail and they saw the foot prints in the dirt. Along with those were the huge prints of the chains that were smacked on the ground during the tussle. Now Papaw Tipton had a drinking problem too, so his “friend” may have been him. But Papaw swore it was the Devil and nobody else.
Another one, I may have to try harder to remember. I vaguely remember it as I heard my uncle Clarence talk about it once. I’d say I was around five years old. It was about what some call “Fiddel Mountain”, atleast when I’ve heard it. The story took place somewhere down in Georgia. Two fiddlers had decided to go up on a mountain to play and they discovered a big nice house full of folks dancing and partying.
They sat down and began to play, joining the rest of the music going. They were playing there hearts out. Just then, the Devil came in and took a seat, all dressed up and fancy. Then a woman came and asked the Devil to dance. He bowed to her and off they went to dance. They started going faster and faster. The crowd gathered. Some noticed he had a pewter eye. Then others noticed he had a wooden leg. He did dance that girl to death and that crowd fell to their knees dying away. He then stormed out the side, baying like a mule. When he did that, the whole house disappeared and all the people were gone except the two fiddlers so wrapped up in their music they didn’t notice.
Another is more of a grouping of happenings. Stories often detail the Devil showing up to one’s door with a challenge of some sort. “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band is a good example. An older one is the folksong “The Devil’s Nine Questions.” Below are the lyrics to the latter:
“You must answer my questions nine, sing ninety-nine and ninety
Or you’re not God’s, you’re one of mine, you’re the weaver’s bonny
If you don’t answer my questions nine, sing ninety-nine and ninety
I’ll take you off to hell alive, you’re the weaver’s bonny
What is softer than the silk, sing ninety-nine and ninety
And what is whiter than the milk, you’re the weaver’s bonny
Down is softer than the silk, sing ninety-nine and ninety
And snow is whiter than the milk, I’m the weaver’s bonny
What is louder than a horn, sing ninety-nine and ninety
And what is sharper than a thorn, you’re the weaver’s bonny
Thunder is louder than a horn, sing ninety-nine and ninety
And hunger is sharper than a thorn, I’m the weaver’s bonny
What is higher than a tree, sing ninety-nine and ninety
And what is deeper than the sea, you’re the weaver’s bonny
Heaven is higher than a tree, sing ninety-nine and ninety
And hell is deeper than the sea, I’m the weaver’s bonny
What’s more innocent than a lamb, sing ninety-nine and ninety
And what is meaner than womankind, you’re the weaver’s bonny
A babe’s more innocent than a lamb, sing ninety-nine and ninety
And the devil is meaner than womankind, I’m the weaver’s bonny
You have answered my questions nine, sing ninety-nine and ninety
You are God’s, you’re none of mine, you’re the weaver’s bonny.”
Then there’s the time old take Old Jack and the Devil. It’s goes on that there was a man named Jack who lived on the mountain. He was a mean old drunk, who swore like a sailor and never stepped foot in church. He had no friends either, cause to be seen with him may lead folks to think you’re down the wrong road too. One night he was stumbling back to his house from the bar when he noticed a ragged man dunked down on the road. He stopped and nudged the man and told him, “Hey there, come back to my cabin and you’ll have a bed to sleep in and your belly will be full.”
Then the slumped man jumped up to his feet, startling Jack. The more Jack looked on at him he realized who was standing in front of him: Ole Scratch. The Devil said, “Jack, I’ve come to take your soul to Hell.” Jack replied, “You can take me to Hell, Devil, but grant me this one thing?”
The Devil thought on it for a long time and then spoke, “I’ll tell ya what. Since you were so kind to lend a hand to me laying here on the road, I’ll grant your request before I take you.” Jack thought on what it was he wanted. “Buy me my last drink of whiskey, Devil.” Old Scratch agreed and they went over to the old tavern. Jack ordered himself a whiskey and the Devil pulled out a silver coin and handed it to Jack. Jack looked at the coin, rubbed it once with his thumb, and said, “God bless this coin and the soul who gave it to me!” With that, the Devil was trapped and unable to move to go anywhere.
Jack got his whiskey and the Devil begged him to be released. “I’ll release you once I finish this drink and if you give me ten more years to live.” The Devil reluctantly agreed and Jack released him. The Devil disappeared into a puff of smoke and fire.
Ten years go by and there’s Old Jack, stumbling drunk back home when he sees a man sleeping in the middle of the road. He tells the man the same, “come back to my cabin and you’ll have a warm bed and good food to fill up on.” The man jumped up and Jack saw it was the Devil, come to get his due.
Jack shook his head and said, “Go on, take me to Hell, but grant me one last thing.” “Since you were so good to help me sleeping here on the ground, I’ll grant your request,” the Devil said. Jack replied, “let me get a taste of those delicious apples,” Jack pointed to the nearby orchard. The Devil agree and they went into the orchard and climbed one of the trees.
Jack pulled out his pocket knife and carved a cross into the biggest branch. Once again, Old Scratch was trapped and unable to roam anywhere. The Devil begged again to be released, but Jack just shook his head. “Not till I’ve eaten this bushel of apples.”
Come morning, Jack was done with the apples and the Devil was still begging. Jack said, “Devil, I’ll let you go if you give me ten more years to keep living.” The Devil agreed to the terms and Jack let him go again.
Ten more years go by and jacks stumbling up that drive again when he suddenly trips and falls down the mountain. Next thing, Jack’s waking up in a field next to some big golden gates. Shit I must’ve done died, Jack thought. Outside the gates, there was a man in a rocking chair with a ring of keys. “Is this heaven?” Jack asked. “Yes’ir it is, but don’t fool yourself too much cause you’ll never get it.”
At that point Jack took another road and started for Hell. He finally came up to the iron gates and knocked threes times to see if anyone was home. A voice holler out, “Get going Jack! The Devil doesn’t even want you!” From that point, Jack was a lonely haint, set to walk the Earth forever. And the Devil felt bad for him so he tossed him a hot coal to light his way. Jack picked it up, stuck it in a hollowed out turnip and still carries it today. (This may have been an explanation for the “ghost fires” that walk the forest in Appalachia.)
As a globally held theory, the Devil was master over witches and they did his bidding. There are still many folkloric remnants of witch tales in Appalachia, rites to be had for the Devil, and rituals to be his own. One, among many, was to stand in a family cemetery on the oldest grave, naked, at midnight. One then renounces the Church and Christ and recites the Lord’s Prayer backwards. The it’s said Old Scratch would show up and they would have intercourse.
In Appalachia, the Devil has had many faces. He’s seen as the iconic red skinned devil, other stories say he’s black. Not African or another ethnicity, but black as coal, as if he’d been working fires or in the mines. He’s said to have goat feet, a pewter eye. Other stories, ballads and tales say he is white and dressed in a nice suit. He guards over treasure, especially money had by rotten ways. He is a shapeshifter as well, which is why Old Shuck, a phantom black dog infamous in Irish and Scottish lore, is associated with him and vice versa. The Devil’s said to be able to change into any animal. But in Appalachia, there’s one he can’t change into: a dove.
Many things take his name and many expressions include it, either by stories or characteristics, such as Devil’s brew (liquor), the Devil’s lettuce (marijuana), etc. Others, however, are obscure, especially in our language, such as deviled eggs and ham; “give the Devil his due”, “the Devil takes care of his own”, “the Devil and Tom Walker” (said to express surprise, seemingly crafted after the old tale known by the same name), “the Devil take the hindmost” (an older, Appalachian version of “You do you, and I’ll do me”), and talking about something bad you’d rather not have come about is called “telling the devil where your goat is tied.”
That last one is where we see something odd. The superstition is based on the thinking that the devil can’t read your mind so he’s always listening to see if you slip up and when you do he’ll “get your goat.” So here again the devil takes a turn away from scripture (pun intended): he is diminished to a mischievous spirit who has to wait until you mention a fear or bad thing before he can act, yet at the same time holds that biblical title of Tempter and Evil anti-God. Even here, he retains the title of Trickster, who waits out the game until he can play his cards right. But he can also be tricked himself by his own games.
In the above tales, we see a multitude of things that differ from biblical tale aside from having to eavesdrop. The pewter eye, coming to ask questions (which aren’t that hard), dealing out skills and knowledge instead of money and fame; and telling folks NOT to do bad. What?!! The devil bringing bad luck and mischief (mostly) as opposed to the world dominating, god of evil spoken of in the Bible.
I’m not 100% on why these have occurred, but my theory is it stemmed from superstition mixing with religion. The old folks back then were simple and faithful yet hard pressed on following the old wives tales the old folks talked about. When bad things happened, they needed a reason behind it and (prepare for cliché) they blamed the badest one: the Devil. While close to God, this familiarity with the Devil seems to be an acceptance of life’s trials. As each story teaches, faith overcomes it all.
Yet, he’s not all that bad according to Papaw’s old tale, among other’s. Whether it’s throwing some meat out for him to keep leaving you alone, sitting with him and a glass of whiskey, or being threatened by him to be good to your woman the Devil means more than a religious icon, teaching symbol or superstitious tale. The Devil represents the oppression and struggle of all the peoples who have settled here, willingly or not. In the above tales and tidbits, we can see a side to the devil no one talks about or hears about.
He sometimes shows kindness or compassion. He felt bad for Tom. He comes simply with tricks and trivias. If anything, the Devil or the “trials” that have been dished out to the Appalachian people throughout history has been the fire that forged our iron backbones. These tales create a tapestry, most of which are still undeciphered, because nobody dare get that close to the fire. These tests have been laid in our blood, hammered into our bones, and woven into our folklore.
Whether a spirit or a simple folkloric tone of these hills, the Appalachian Devil is set off from the rest. Red as the soil and mystery as these woods, yet as blue and harmless as the mountains.
Now I’m not advising you go dancing with the Devil or make a deal. Simply keep this all in mind. This was simply some ponderings of mine and I welcome your thoughts on it all. There’s a lot more to the image of the Devil and his real roots aside from the Church. However, as this blog is primarily on Appalachian magic and folklore, I’ve stuck to that Appalachian context.
Enough playing the Devil’s advocate (pun), my book is being published by Weiser Books!!! Thank you to everyone who reads my blogs and support my work. I truly appreciate it and cannot wait to get my book out to you all.