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Devil Songs for Halloween

Postcard showing a creature made of harvest fruits, a devil, a witch, and a black cat walking in single file holding jack o'lanterns on the end of sticks.

The Devil has long been part of American Halloween imagery. This greeting card was published in Germany for the American market as part of a set of Halloween postcards in 1908. It’s from the author’s personal collection and is in the public domain.

In his book The Folk Songs of North America, in an introduction to one of the American Folklife Center’s finest songs about the Devil, Alan Lomax wrote:

Early America saw the Devil as a real and living personage. Rocks in New England were scarred by his hoofprints, as he carried off maidens, screaming and howling, over the hills, or came after the men who had sold their souls to him in return for money or success. […] A mountain woman tells of the last moments of her mean old husband…’I knowed he war goin’, because all the dogs from fur and nigh come around and howled. Hit wur a dark night. But plain as day, comin’ down yon side the mountain, through the bresh so thickety a butcher knife couldn’t cut hit, I seen the Devil a-comin’. He war ridin’ a coal-black cart, drivin’ a coal-black oxen. The cart come down to the door and stopped. When it come, it come empty. But when it went away, hit had a big black ball in it that war Arzy’s soul. […]

In the recurring dream of one of the best mountain ballad singers, she ran through the woods towards her home, pursued by the Devil, tall and black. When she fell exhausted, heard him approach, felt his hot breath, she looked up to see her father leaning over her.

Lomax uses this dream to argue that the Devil figure in American folklore arises from authoritarian fathers…a more psychoanalytic approach and perhaps a more personal one than I think he would have taken later in life. Still, it serves as a fine and atmospheric introduction to our own Halloween exploration of the Devil in folksongs from the American Folklife Center archive. Let’s get started!

The Devil’s Nine Questions

Alan Lomax and Texas Gladden stand outside Gladden's house. She is holding a fan.

Alan Lomax and Texas Gladden. The photo is probably by Shirley Collins. Alan Lomax Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

The ballad Lomax was introducing is probably the oldest of the songs I’ll mention: “The Devil’s Nine Questions.” In Francis James Child’s standard reference work The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, it has the distinction of being Child 1, the first ballad in his numbering system. Child called it “Riddles Wisely Expounded,” and you can read his entry on this ballad at this link. The Roud Index numbers it 161.

In this ballad, a young woman is confronted by the Devil, who challenges her to answer his riddles. By answering correctly, she escapes his power. In this form, the song goes back to about 1450. A manuscript version from around that time (Rawlinson Manuscript. D. 328, fol. 174 b, Bodleian Library) features the Latin title “Inter Diabolus Et Virgo” (“Between the Devil and the Maiden”), but the lyrics are in Middle English. In that version, the Devil promises that if the maiden becomes his lover, he will teach her all the wisdom of the world, and proceeds to ask her riddles. She first prays to Jesus for help, then answers all his riddles correctly. She finishes by telling him to be still and vowing not to speak with him anymore! More modern versions of the song sometimes omit the courtship aspect, so that the young woman is riddling for her soul. Others omit any overt reference that the suitor is the Devil, so that her answering correctly wins her the suitor’s hand in marriage! Remarkably, several of the riddles in the manuscript of 1450 are the same ones sung by modern singers. Read the Middle English version here.

A woman dressed in a white dress and wimple punches the Devil in the eye. He wears nothing but a short skirt.

A woman battles the Devil. From The De Brailes Hours, ca. 1240. The book is in the British Library and the image is in the public domain.

The version we will hear was sung by Texas Gladden for Alan and Elizabeth Lomax in Salem, Virginia, in 1941. It was learned by Gladden from Alfreda Peel, herself a folklorist, who had collected it twice from Mrs. Rill Martin, also in Salem, in 1922 and 1933. The 1922 text was published in Arthur Kyle Davis’s Traditional Ballads of Virginia, and the 1933 text in his More Traditional Ballads of Virginia. Mrs. Martin’s two texts are much the same, except that between 1922 and 1933 she had added an opening stanza:

The Devil went a-courting and he did ride
Sing ninety-nine and ninety
A sword and pistol by his side
And you are the weaver’s bonny

This stanza is interesting on two counts: it seems to be borrowed from “Froggie Went a-Courtin’,” and it introduces the idea of courtship, which otherwise is absent from Mrs. Martin’s version of this ballad.

Since Texas Gladden learned the version without that opening stanza (presumably having gotten it from Peel before 1933), her version is not overtly about courtship at all. Instead, the Devil is deciding whether the young woman is “God’s” or “one of mine,” suggesting instead the convention of God and the Devil competing for people’s souls. In Gladden’s song, the woman defeats the Devil and he declares, “You are God’s and none of mine.” See her lyrics below, and hear the song in the player beneath that.

The Devil’s Nine Questions
Texas Gladden
Alan and Elizabeth Lomax collection of Virginia recordings, AFC 1941/028: AFS 05231 A01

The Devil, carrying a snake, talks to a young woman, carrying a comb

An 18th century woodcut image of the Devil tempting a woman. Image is in the Public Domain.

Oh, you must answer my questions nine
Sing ninety-nine and ninety,
Or you’re not God’s, you’re one of mine
And you are the weaver’s bonny.

What is whiter than the milk?
Sing ninety-nine and ninety,
And what is softer than the silk?
And you are the weaver’s bonny.

Snow is whiter than the milk
Sing ninety-nine and ninety,
And down is softer than the silk,
And I am the weaver’s bonny.

Oh, what is higher than a tree?
Sing ninety-nine and ninety
And what is deeper than the sea?
And you are the weaver’s bonny.

Heaven’s higher than a tree
Sing ninety-nine and ninety,
And hell is deeper than the sea
And I am the weaver’s bonny.

What is louder than a horn?
Sing ninety-nine and ninety,
And what is sharper than a thorn?
And you are the weaver’s bonny.

Thunder’s louder than a horn
Sing ninety-nine and ninety,
And death is sharper than a thorn
And I am the weaver’s bonny.

What’s more innocent than a lamb?
Sing ninety-nine and ninety,
And what is meaner than womankind?
And you are the weaver’s bonny.

A babe’s more innocent than a lamb
Sing ninety-nine and ninety,
And the devil is meaner than woman-kind
And I am the weaver’s bonny.

Oh you have answered my questions nine
Sing ninety-nine and ninety,
And you are God’s, you’re none of mine
And you are the weaver’s bonny.

The Little Devils

Two photos: one of a woman holding a dulcimer, the other of two women holding a large pumpkin.

Portraits of Jean Richie from the Jean Ritchie and George Pickow collection, 1923-2015, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. We do not know who the woman with Jean is in the photo to the right, but we thought it was a great Halloween photo because of the pumpkin! If you have any further information on Jean’s friend, please leave a comment!

The traditional old-world ballads collected by Child generally tend to be more serious than humorous, but the exceptions include one funny song about the Devil. We’ll present a version sung by Jean Ritchie, which was recorded at a gathering in Scotland in 1953. One of my mentors in folklore, Kenneth S. Goldstein, also recorded Jean singing this ballad for one of her Folkways records, and he wrote this note for Jean’s version:

Child summarizes this humorous ballad (titled by him ”The Farmer’s Curst Wife”) as follows: “The Devil comes for a farmer’s wife and is made welcome to her by the husband . The woman proves to be no more controllable in Hell than she had been at home; she kicks the imps about, and even brains a set of them with her pattens or a maul. For safety’s sake, the devil is constrained to take her back to her husband.” Child published only two texts of this ballad, but in the numerous variants collected since his time in England and America, the ballad tale has remained exceedingly stable, a comment perhaps on its basic charm and meaning to the folk who have aided its persistence in tradition.

It is probable that in an unreported earlier form of the ballad the farmer made a pact with the devil in order to secure help to plow his fields. In return the devil vas to receive the soul of some member of the family. This would explain the wording in stanza two, in which the devil indicates that he is ready to receive a member of the family “now”.

Many variants collected in recent years in England and America end with a humorous philosophic commentary on one of womankind’s most unique virtues. Most versions contain jingling nonsense refrains, or on occasion (as in Jean’s version) a whistled refrain. Jean’s version was learned from her uncle Jason.

You can read the rest of Child’s entry on this ballad at this link. Jean’s family version of this song was first published in Cecil Sharp’s important book English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, where it is variant E. One of Jean’s books explains:

The great English folksong collector, Cecil Sharp, told us that he had long heard in England how the ‘Farmer’s Curst Wife’ song used to have a whistled refrain, but he could find it nowhere existing in England. He was very happy and excited when my sister Una and our cousin Sabrina Ritchie sang and whistled it for him in Knott County, as they had learnt it from Sabrina’s father, Uncle Jason Ritchie. Uncle Jason had to specialize in this song at play parties around the countryside, because the young courting couples, when the singing would begin as resting times, liked to have ‘a funny one to settle down with.’

Read more about Jean Ritchie at this previous post. See the Ritchie family lyrics below, and hear the song in the player below that!

The Little Devils
Jean Ritchie
Jean Ritchie and George Pickow collection, 1923-2015, AFC 2008/005

A woman points down at a small devil. He looks ashamed.

A woman scolds a little devil. This image by an uncredited artist was published in 1888 in William Butler Yeats’s Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. It is in the public domain.

There was an old man, he lived near hell
(Whistle)
He had a little farm and upon it did dwell
Sing hi oh rattle ding day

Oh the devil come to him one day at his plough
(Whistle)
There’s one in your family I have to have now
Sing hi oh rattle ding day

Oh its neither your son nor your daughter I crave
It’s your old scoldin’ wife and it’s her I must have

So he hobbest her up all on his back
And like a bold pedlar went a-packin’ his pack

As they drew near the high gates of hell
Said, rake back the coals, boys, and we’ll roast her well

Oh two little devils come a-rattlin’ their chains
She hauled back her cudgel and knocked out their brains

Two more little devils peeped over the door
She hauled back her cudgel killed ninety-nine more

Two more little devils peeped over the wall
Said, take her back daddy or she’ll kill us all

So he hobbest her up all on his back
And like a bold pedlar went a-packin’ her back

Here’s your old scoldin’ wife and it’s her I won’t have
She ain’t fit for Heaven, she shan’t stay in Hell

Oh it’s twenty years goin’ and twenty comin’ back
She called for the ‘baccer she left in the crack

Oh the women they are so much better than men
When they go to hell they get sent back again.

Blow the Man Down

A man in a suit stands next to a 1930s era car.

James Madison Carpenter standing by his roadster during his collecting trip in Britain in the early 1930s. James Madison Carpenter Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

I’ll mention just for fun another variant of “The Farmer’s Curst Wife,” this one collected in dictation by James Madison Carpenter in the 1920s. The fun thing about this variant is that it’s not only an old traditional ballad, but also a sea chantey; sailors sang the verses of “The Farmer’s Curst Wife” with the melody and refrains of “Blow the Man Down.” In keeping with an occupational rivalry that occurs throughout maritime songs, the hapless man in the sailors’ version is not a farmer but a tailor. Carpenter collected versions like this from at least four different retired sailors, two in New York (Dennis O’Connors and Frank Waters) and two in Cardiff, Wales (James Garricy and Richard Warner). Since he got four versions, Carpenter considered it one of the main variants of “Blow the Man Down,” yet as far as I know, no other collector found it in oral tradition.

Since Carpenter collected these texts by dictation, there is no archival sound recording. But for a special concert and presentation honoring the Carpenter collection, I myself took the version he collected from Dennis O’Connors, combined it with a few lines from the others, added one line of my own, and changed a word here and there. I learned the resulting version and performed it at Cecil Sharp House in London for a special event honoring the Carpenter collection, which you can read about here. I performed it again in the 2018 Archive Challenge Sampler concert, with the Ship’s Company Chanteymen in the Coolidge Auditorium. My lyrics are below. The original lyrics can be found with AFC’s Carpenter collection, online at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. You can see our performance at this YouTube link…it’s at 5:30 of the video!

Blow the Man Down
Compiled from versions in the James Madison Carpenter Collection
AFC 1972/001

Three men face the camera. Two wear pea coats, one a warm jumper. Two are smoking pipes and all are wearing caps and neck silks. They are standing on what looks like a beach, and behind them appears to b the sea.

Three unidentified men photographed by James Madison Carpenter in Britain in the early 1930s. Their clothes suggest they may be sailors. Carpenter collected a lot of sea chanteys from sailors, including this version of “Blow the Man Down.” James Madison Carpenter Collection, American Folklife Center Library of Congress.

As I was a walking one morning in spring
Way-hey, blow the man down
I found myself next to an old country inn
Give me some time to blow the man down

So I set myself down and called for some gin
A commercial traveler was the next to come in

We talked of the weather and things of the day
Says he, “I’ve a story I heard on my way”

It’s of an old tailor in London did dwell
The Devil came to him one day out of Hell

Says he, my good friend, now I’ve come a l0ng way
Especially this visit to you for to pay

Not you nor your daughter nor son do I crave
Its your dirty old wife; she’s a drunken old Jade

So the Devil he bundled her into a sack
And down into hell he took her on his back

There were three little imps who staid outside the gates
She pulled off one slipper and stove in their pates

There were three little devils all bound down in chains
She took off the other to beat out their brains

These three little devils for mercy did bawl
“Chuck out the old hag, or she’ll murder us all!”

She’s not fit for heaven, she can’t live in hell
I reckon that London’s a place she can dwell

So the Devil he bundled her back in the sack
And back to the tailor took her on his back

She went down to hell and she came out again
Which proves that the women are tougher than men

Tom Devil

Close up of James Carter's face

James Carter swings an axe at Parchman Farm in 1959. Photo by Alan Lomax. Alan Lomax Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

In this previous blog post, I introduced Bessie Jones’s version of the song “Oh Death,” which is about a sinner waking up to find Death standing next to her bed, and then attempting to negotiate with Death. “Tom Devil” is similar, except the character who shows up is the Devil rather than Death. The song was collected by Alan Lomax at the Mississippi State Penitentiary known as Parchman Farm in 1959, sung by a group of prisoners including James Carter, Ed Lewis, Henry Mason, and Johnny Lee Moore. (Carter is the same singer whose version of “Po’ Lazarus” was on the “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack, prompting Lomax’s daughter Anna and her associate Don Fleming to track Carter down in Chicago to pay him royalties; read about it at Wikipedia.)

Parchman at that time was an inhumane institution, a state-owned plantation turning a profit on the slave labor of incarcerated African Americans. A classic 1996 book by David Oshinsky called Parchman “Worse than Slavery.” Like slavery, the nature of the work conducted at the farm was conducive to work songs, which led John and Alan Lomax to arrange recording visits starting in the early 1930s. This song was recorded on one of Alan’s last trips to Parchman.

Head and shoulders portrait of Alan Lomax

Alan Lomax in the 1950s. Alan Lomax Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Like the character of Death in “Oh, Death,” the Devil in “Tom Devil” shows up at the head of the narrator’s bed and tells the sinner he can’t escape. The narrator tries to bargain with the Devil, asking the fiend to leave him alone in exchange for his repentance. But the Devil tells him he’s about to die. The song then turns to other topics, including the narrator’s courtship of his girlfriend Mamie, his feeling of abandonment when Mamie continues to live a normal life after he’s condemned to Parchman, and his inability to hold onto money. Finally, he returns to the scene of waking up, only this time there’s a gun pointed in his face. He wonders then if “killing the Devil” would be “enough to die.”

On the one hand, we might imagine that the song rambles through many topics because it’s a work song, coordinating the swinging of the axes as the men chop logs. As such, it has to last as long as the work does, so the men might keep singing after the main verses are done. This is a dynamic we see in many work songs, where new verses are composed on the spot as needed, and the song sacrifices overall coherence for length.

On the other hand, it’s also tempting to look for cohesiveness, and at least one interpretation suggests itself to me. In my reading of the song, the narrator awakens to imagine he sees the Devil, tells the Devil to go away, and is told he is about to die. As is common in such near-death moments, he experiences his life flashing before his eyes, especially the decisions that led to his current predicament. His courtship of Mamie, in which he promised her money above all, and his inability to provide that money, suggest that the crime that landed him in prison might have been an attempt to get money for her; this would also explain his feelings of abandonment when she is living easy in Meridian while he’s confined to Parchman. After musing about trying to apply for a pardon, he comes back to himself in the moment of his conversation with the Devil–that is, “early in the morning, when I rise.” But now the Devil has been replaced by a man with a 38/40 stuck in the narrator’s face, and the narrator wonders if “killing the Devil” will be “enough to die.”

This last moment, with its obscure wording and its abrupt return to the Devil, strikes me as possibly the key to the song.  In The Land Where the Blues Began, Lomax wrote of Parchman:

The prisoners rose in the black hours of morning, and ran, at gunpoint, all the way to the fields, sometimes a mile or more, their guards galloping behind on horseback.

In Wake Up Dead Man, folklorist Bruce Jackson called prison work songs a tool for “making it in Hell.”

So the man with a gun that a Parchman prisoner saw “early in the morning, when I rise” would most likely be a guard. And seeing such a man, the narrator muses about “killing the Devil.” If prison was, as Bruce Jackson suggested, Hell, wouldn’t the man in charge be the Devil?

Is the “Devil” from the first stanzas the narrator’s imaginative vision of the armed man by his bed, the prison guard or overseer? With the song’s last line, “will killing the Devil be enough to die?” is he contemplating killing the guard, and wondering if that will earn him the death penalty? Is he possibly even thinking that might be worth it?

If “Tom Devil” is indeed the overseer, this makes the song also a protest song. It shows a prisoner thinking about killing one of his guards, and comparing the guard to the Devil himself. It was common for protest to be hidden away in work songs, and disguised by obscure language, so this interpretation is consistent with the song’s text and its context. But this is after all, just my reading. There are many little details in the lyrics yet to be explored, and as everyone knows, the Devil’s in the details!

There are two other versions of “Tom Devil” in the collection as well. Find one by Ernest Woodson at this link. Find another, sung with the harmonies of a gospel quartet by L. C. Hoskins and unidentified friends, at this link.

Find the lyrics to James Carter’s version below and hear the audio in the player underneath.

A young man has an axe poised to swing.

An unidentified prisoner photographed by Alan Lomax at Parchman Farm in Mississippi, 1959. AFC Alan Lomax Collection

Tom Devil
James Carter, Ed Lewis, Henry Mason, and Johnny Lee Moore
Alan Lomax Collection, AFC 2004/004

Though some folks say that
(Oh well)
The devil’s dead
(The devil’s dead)
Though some folks say that
(Uh-huh)
The Devil’s dead
(The Devil’s dead)

I spied Tom Devil at
(Uh-huh)
The head of my bed
(The head of my bed)
I spied Tom Devil at
(Uh-huh)
The head of my bed
(The head of my bed)

Now Go away Devil, Devil
And leave me alone
Now Go away Devil, Devil
And leave me alone

Gonna pray and do better
From this day on
Gonna pray and do better
From this day on

Said it’s too late to pray, you’ll have to
Die today
Said it’s too late to pray, you’ll have to
Die today

The axes talkin’ while
The chips are flyin’
The axes talkin’ while
The chips are flyin’

Oh Mamie
Oh hold on gal
Oh Mamie
Oh hold on gal

Oh Mamie Mamie gal
If ya just say so
Oh Mamie Mamie gal
If ya just say so

The same young man from the previous photo in striped prisoner's uniform swings an axe.

An unidentified prisoner photographed by Alan Lomax at Parchman Farm in Mississippi, 1959. Alan Lomax Collection American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Know the bottom of your pocket book
It’ll never be seen
Know the bottom of your pocket book
It’ll never be seen

Well you won’t do nothin’ but
Oh wash and iron
You won’t have to do nothin’ but
Oh wash and iron

When you marry marry
A railroad man
When you marry marry
A railroad man

Every day is Sunday, a dollar
Is in your hand
Every day is Sunday, a dollar
Is in your hand

That looks like Mamie comin’
Oh down the road
That looks like Mamie comin’
Oh down the road

She walks just like her, but
She walks too slow
She walks just like her, but
She walks too slow

She walks just like she’s carrying
Some heavy load
She walks just like she’s carrying
A heavy load

Try and look on your finger, Mamie
And think of me
Oh look on your finger, Mamie
And think of me

See that ring I bought you when
Oh I was free
See that ring I bought you when
Oh I was free

Two men in prison stripes carrying axes and preparing to chop a large log.

Two unidentified prisoners photographed by Alan Lomax at Parchman Farm in Mississippi, 1959. Alan Lomax Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Well you’s in Meridian livin’
Oh like you please
Well you’s in Meridian livin’
Oh like you please

Crying “I’m on Parchman, got to
Oh work or leave”
Crying “I’m on Parchman, got to
Oh work or leave”

Oh work or leave Lord
Oh work or leave
Crying “I’m on Parchman, got to
Oh work or leave”

Well I don’t gamble and
Well I don’t see
Well I don’t gamble and
Well I don’t see
Oh how my money gets
Away from me
Oh how my money gets
Away from me

I would write the governor but
That would do no good
I would write the governor but
That would do no good

I ain’t got no money and that
That’s a good excuse
I ain’t got no money and that
That’s a good excuse

Well, in early in the morning, baby
Oh when I rise
Well, in early in the morning, baby
Oh when I rise

See the thirty-eight-forty stick
Oh in my face
See the thirty-eight-forty stick
Oh in my face

Will killin’ the devil be
Enough to die
Will killin’ the devil be
Enough to die

Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail

Five men dressed as cowboys and carrying musical instruments surround one man in a tuxedo.

Romaine Lowdermilk, third from left, as a member of “The Arizona Wranglers,” a cowboy band that played mostly in Phoenix Hotels. Lowdermilk supplied this photo to Ray M. Lawless and it is now in the Ray M. Lawless Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

There’s another famous song occupying the small portion of the Venn diagram where folk ballad, occupational lore, and Old Nick intersect, and it’s one of my personal favorites: “Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail,” originally written as a poem by cowboy Gail Gardner under the title “The Sierry Petes.” As a poem, it was one of the inspirations for the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, organized by the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada, and was printed in the program of the first festival 35 years ago, in 1985. As a song, it’s been recorded by some of the best known cowboy singers in the business.

In a 1977 article in the Journal of Arizona History, Katie Lee interviewed Gardner about how he came to write the poem. Lee explained:

On a train in 1917, going back East to get into the Air Service in World War I, somewhere in Kansas he saw a bunch of round-rumped cattle in the fields, not an earmark on one of them and farmers all round on foot! He’d just come from a camp gathering wild steers in Copper Basin, and the contrast between the lizard-tailed outlaws he’d been handling and those placid bovines set him to thinking about that camp.

One of the things that came to mind for Gardner was a particular night he’d spent drinking with a buddy. As he told Lee:

I was ridin’ to camp at the old Dearing ranch near Thumb Butte one evening with the late Bob Heckle. We’d been celebrating in town and were pretty well jugged up, when one of us remarked that the devil got cowboys who did the things we’d been doing, and the other replied that if the devil monkeyed with us, we’d neck him to a black-jack oak just like a steer. Imagination took over from there, so I sat down at the desk in the club car and wrote on Santa Fe Limited stationery the verses of the Sierry Petes. Incidentally, the name comes from the Sierra Prieta Mountains, just west of Prescott. An old miner I knew in these mountains always called them the Sierry Petes, not peaks.

A man dressed as a cowboy sits with smoke rising around him.

Romaine Lowdermilk at the campfire at Rancho Mañana, his dude ranch, in the early 1950s. Lowdermilk supplied this photo to Ray M. Lawless and it is now in the Ray M. Lawless Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Lee’s article also explains how the poem came to be set to a folk tune and sung by cowboy singers, as well as how, despite registering copyright on the lyrics, Gardner is often not recognized as the poet behind the song…including by Alan Lomax in the first edition of one of his books.

The idea behind “The Sierry Petes,” that the Devil can be treated like any other animal with horns, was not brand new when Gardner wrote his poem. An old English broadside ballad, which you can see here, features the Devil being gelded like an ox! Like “The Farmer’s Curst Wife,” these songs are examples of the old tradition of comic stories about the Devil.

Our version of “The Sierry Petes” was recorded by Romaine Lowdermilk in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1951. Lowdermilk, like Gardner, was a cowboy who also wrote poetry. He was roughly Gardner’s age (born in 1890), and like Gardner lived much of his life in Arizona. Like Gardner, he wrote two songs that have become true cowboy classics, “The Big Corral” and “I’m Going back to Arizona” (the latter being most famous as Patsy Montana’s hit “I’m Going Back to Old Montana”). But Lowdermilk was more an entertainer and less a working cowboy than Gardner, and spent most of his career running dude ranches where tourists got a taste of the cowboy life.

In the 1950s, Lowdermilk visited Ramsey’s Recording Studio in Phoenix and recorded two master tapes of cowboy songs. Whenever guests at his ranches enjoyed his singing and wanted a recording, Ramsey’s would cut them an instantaneous disc. In the 1990s, through a relative of my fellow Folklife Today blogger Stephanie Hall, the American Folklife Center acquired one of these instantaneous discs. For about 15 years we assumed that, like most such discs in our collections, it was a one-off recording cut straight to disc. But in 2006 my research into the disc for an article that you can read in this pdf of Folklife Center News revealed the existence of the master tapes, still in the care of the Ramsey family.

That same year, I proposed a deal on behalf of AFC: we borrowed the master tapes, made high-quality digital transfers, and returned the tapes and copies of the digital files to the Ramseys and their partner John Dixon. We retained digital copies of the tapes as AFC 2007/027. Later, I found out these transfers were issued on a CD and given away as a premium to subscribers of True West magazine, and both Stephanie and I were mentioned in this article on the collection by Marshall Trimble, Arizona’s official historian. Somehow, I think Romy Lowdermilk and Gail Gardner, both writers who loved the true West, would approve.

Romy’s version of the lyrics is below, with the song in the player underneath.

Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail
Romaine Lowdermilk 
John P. Dixon and Floyd Ramsey Collection of Romaine Lowdermilk Cowboy Song Recordings, AFC 2007/027

A Devil puppet, red and black with yellow horns.

This Devil puppet is part of the personal collection of Mark Walker, also known as Professor Horn, a professional Punch and Judy performer. Watch his lecture and oral history interview at this link. Photo by Stephen Winick.

Way high up in the Sierra peaks
Where the yellow pines grow tall,
Buster Briggs and Sandy Bob
Had a round-up there one fall.

They’s taken their horses and branding irons
And maybe a dog or two,
And they ‘lowed they’d brand any long-eared calf
That come within their view.

Well any old dogie that flapped long ears
And didn’t brush up by day,
Would get his hide scorched and his old ears whittled
In a most artistic way.

Then one fine day, says Sandy Bob,
As he throwed his saddle on,
“I’m tired of scorchin’ hide and hair,
Come on, let’s go town.”

Well I’m with you, says Buster Briggs,
On any them sorta rides
For there’s places down in Prescott town
We could oil up our insides

They saddled up, and they hit a lope
Left the rimrock far behind,
And they crossed the river, headin’ west
Bent on havin’ a whale of a time.

They headed in at the Kentucky Bar,
At the top of Whisky Row,
And they wound up down at the Depot House
Some forty drinks below.

They sets right up and turned around
And headed the other way,
To tell the plain unvarnished truth
Those boys got drunk that day.

A red devil hand puppet

This Devil Puppet was made by Walter Wilkinson in about 1920. It is in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The photo was placed online and made available for non-commercial use by the Museum. See the archival photo here.

And as they was a headin’ back to camp
And packin’ a pretty good load
Who should they meet but the Devil himself
Come a prancin’ down the road?

Oh you cowboy shrimps, the Devil cried,
You better be huntin’ your hole,
For I’ve come up from Hell’s rimrock
To gather in your soul.”

Well the Devil be damned, said Sandy Bob
Us boys is a little bit tight;
But if you get any cowboys’ souls
You’ll damn sure have to fight.”

So he punched a hole in his old seago
And he throwed it straight and true
And he roped the devil around the horns
And he’s taken his dallies too

Old Sandy Bob was a reata man
With his gut line coiled so neat;
He punched a hole in the busy end
And he roped the Devil’s feet.

They stretched him out and they tailed him down
While the irons was getting hot,
And they tipped his horns with a dehorning saw
And branded him up a lot.

They hacked and swallow-forked both of his ears
And knotted his tail for a joke,
And they rode right off and they left him there
Snug up to a blackjack oak.

Way high up in the Sierra peaks
If you hear one hell of a wail,
You’ll know it’s the Devil a-bawlin’ about
Those knots that are tied in his tail.

The Devil (The Death of the Devil or The Devil and Little Mike)

The cover of a book, Stories from the Anne Grimes Collection of American Folk Music, illustraed with a portrait of a woman holding a dulcimer.

The author’s “shelfie” of his copy of Anne Grimes’s book. Bertha Bacon’s version of “The Devil and Little Mike” is in the book and on the accompanying CD.

One of our most unusual Devil songs was sung for Anne Grimes by Bertha Bacon in Columbus, Ohio, in 1956. Bacon called it “The Devil,” but Grimes referred to it as “The Death of the Devil.” Anne Grimes herself wrote of this song:

“The Death of the Devil” is obviously Irish. This rare little song may well have come to America with Mrs. Bacon’s maternal ancestor, an “English lady” who eloped to Philadelphia with the family’s Irish gardener. The couple eventually settled in Belmont County. Mrs. Bacon said that she sang the refrain a little differently from the way an older brother did. He started the refrain with “Whack!”

In the notes to Grimes’s excellent 2010 book and CD set, Anne Grimes’s daughters further noted:

The only printed reference Anne Grimes could find to “Death of the Devil” was 5 verses in Randolph 3 (“The Devil Came to My Door”) similar but not identical to Bertha Bacon’s.

In fact, the song goes back in print a long way, under the title “The Devil and Little Mike.” Although it may be rare in oral tradition, it was widely disseminated in print. The first version I can find was printed in England in 1832 in Hodgson’s National Songster, by the London publisher Orlando Hodgson. Exactly in what sense it’s a “national” songster is unclear to me, since it contains patriotic songs in praise of England, but also of Ireland and Scotland, along with assorted other types of songs, including this Devil ditty. Given that its first appearance is in an English songster, it bears considering that the song may not be Irish, but rather what’s called “Stage Irish,” that is to say, a song written in Irish style for actors playing Irish people on the music-hall stage.

“The Devil and Little Mike” was also printed all over England on undated broadsides, including in Durham, Manchester, Newcastle, and other cities, in addition to London. The song was popular in Ireland as well, as evidenced by its appearance in an 1845 Dublin Comic Songster; and it gained popularity in Scotland, where it was printed in songsters and also on broadsides such as the one reproduced below. In America, it appeared by the early 1840s in the Book of a Thousand Songs and the Comic Forget-Me-Not Songster, which were both published in Philadelphia, so Mrs. Bacon’s ancestors could have learned it on either side of the Atlantic! You can find out more about its publication history from the Roud Indexes, where it has the number 1696.

A puppet theater with a devil puppet gesturing at the audience.

This Devil puppet is part of the personal collection of Mark Walker, also known as Professor Horn., a professional Punch and Judy performer. Watch his lecture and oral history interview at this link. This photo was taken by Stephen Winick during Horn’s performance of a Punch and Judy show at the Library of Congress.

“The Devil and Little Mike” is a simple comic story you might find on the music-hall stage: the Devil comes looking for little Mike, who hides behind the door. Mike’s mother and sisters defend him, beating the devil with household implements and “father’s wooden leg,” and dumping him into the boiling washwater. This kills the Devil, and there is much rejoicing. Although Mrs. Bacon only had 4 verses, and the broadside typically had 6, her version tells more or less the whole story with efficiency and humor. Interestingly, in the broadside versions Mike is the narrator of the song, but in Mrs. Bacon’s version Mike is the narrator’s little brother, allowing the narrator’s gender to remain unstated; Grimes mentions that Bacon’s brother also sang it, so this might have been a family adaptation. The song incorporates the common idea of the Devil’s death, an idea also found in the better known Irish ditty and fiddle tune “Some Say the Devil is Dead.” (You can hear that one at 16 minutes into this interview with Father Sarsfield O’Sullivan of Butte, Montana.)

Find the lyrics to Mrs. Bacon’s version of “The Devil and Little Mike” below, and the sound recording in the player below that!

The Devil (“The Death of the Devil” or “The Devil and Little Mike”)
Bertha Bacon
Anne Grimes Collection, AFC 1996/003

A 19th century broadside of "The Devil and Little Mike." Also includes "The Young Waggoner" and a woodcut of the the Archangel Michael.

A 19th century broadside of “The Devil and Little Mike.” A copy can be found online at the National Library of Scotland. The item is in the public domain.

It was on a frosty night,
And I was very poor,
And as you may suppose,
The Devil he came to my door.
He had in his hand a large hook,
His eyes did sparkle bright,
Says he to my sister Suke,
Suke, where’s your brother Mike.
Sing folthery-aye-ree-aye
Sing oraful-oraful-oraful-oraful-o

Now my little brother Mike
Had heard his voice before
And as lively as a linnet,
He jumped behind the door.
The Devil stamped and swore,
And with sulphur filled the room.
When he saw poor little Mike
Hiding behind the broom
Sing folthery-aye-ree-aye
Sing oraful-oraful-oraful-oraful-o

My little sister Peg,
She had a wonderful knack,
And with father’s wooden leg,
She broke the Devil’s back.
‘Twas on a washing day,
And the water was boiling hot,
She gave it him left and right,
And bundled him into the pot
Sing folthery-aye-ree-aye
Sing oraful-oraful-oraful-oraful-o

Next day the Devil died,
Twas joyful news to hear,
And as you may suppose
He was buried in the bottom of the sphere
So now you’ve nothing to fear,
Let your glasses sparkle bright,
For since the Devil’s dead,
You can do just what you like
Sing folthery-aye-ree-aye
Sing oraful-oraful-oraful-oraful-o

Fannitullen/Devil on the Wine Keg

“Le Songe de Tartini” is a color lithograph by François-Séraphin Delpech of an illustration by Louis-Léopold Boilly of the legend surrounding the origin of Giuseppe Tartini’s Violin Sonata in G minor, B.g5, more familiarly known as the Devil’s Trill Sonata. The French astronomer Jérôme Lalande reported that Tartini himself told Lalande that he had dreamed of making a pact with Devil for his soul and hearing the Devil play a magnificent piece of music, which he tried in vain to replicate in the sonata. If Lalande’s story is true, Tartini’s dream has much the same plot as many legends about other fiddlers and violinists. This lithograph is in the public domain. Find a copy online at the Musée de La Musique of the Philharmonie de Paris.

No musical rundown of the Devil in folk music would be complete without mentioning the fiddle. The Devil is, of course, reputed to be a good fiddler, and a good classical violinist too! Giuseppe Tartini and Niccolo Paganini are both said to have learned violin music from the Devil, and legends abound about folk fiddlers learning tunes from him too. In his work in the New Jersey Pine Barrens in the early 1940s, Herbert Halpert collected a whole cycle of legends about fiddler Sammy Giberson and the Devil, in which Giberson defeats the Devil in contests involving both fiddling and dancing, and also learns tunes from the Devil, including “The Devil’s Dream.” The stories are in AFC’s Herbert Halpert Collection, and have also been published in Halpert’s posthumous book of Pinelands lore. AFC already has several versions of “The Devil’s Dream” online, which you can hear at this link. So I thought I’d bring out a more unusual fiddle tune associated with “Old Scratch.”

“Fannitullen/Devil on the Wine Keg” was collected from the multi-instrumentalist Otto Rindlisbacher by Helene Stratman Thomas and Robert Draves on August 15, 1941. A Wisconsin native, Rindlisbacher lived in Rice Lake, where he ran the Buckhorn Tavern and maintained a large collection of musical instruments. Although Rindlisbacher was himself of Swiss descent, he played a wide variety of music from different ethnic groups in the upper Midwest. He and his wife Iva were fixtures of the “The Wisconsin Lumberjacks,” a folk band that played at the 1937 and 1938 National Folk Festivals in Chicago and Washington, D.C.; recordings from both events are in AFC collections.

A man plays the Hardanger Fiddle in front of a wall on which are hung many other musical instruments.

Otto Rindlisbacher plays the Hardanger fiddle in the Buckhorn Tavern in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. The wall of homemade musical instruments inspired the young Jim Leary and ultimately led him to write the book “Folksongs of Another America.” This is a postcard in the collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society, used courtesy of Jim Leary.

Otto Rindlisbacher learned to play Norwegian folk music on the Hardanger fiddle and other instruments from such musicians as Thorstein Skarning and Knut and Gunnar Helland. He also read widely about Norwegian traditional music, and published two articles about Hardanger fiddle and the Hardanger musician Targjei Augundsson, better known as Myllarguten. He told Stratman-Thomas and Graves that the tune “Fannitullen/ Devil on the Wine Keg” was from Myllargutten’s repertoire, and specified that the fiddle was tuned C#A E A.

Most importantly for us, he recounted the following legend about the tune:

At the wedding dance the fiddler was so good that the guests thought he was possessed by the devil so they murdered him.  They were pretty well drunk but decided to go downstairs and get the rest of the wine. There sat the devil on the keg playing this tune. The broken chord is the devil kicking his heels against the keg.

You can learn much more about Otto Rindlisbacher from James Leary’s Book and CD set Folksongs of Another America. For now, let’s hear his spooky fiddle tune–it’s in the player below!

Of course, there’s tons more devilish material in AFC’s collections, much more than we could listen to before Halloween.  But don’t worry–there’s always next year.  Until then, Happy Halloween from the American Folklife Center!

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