Balaam Foster's Fiddle
by Chapman J. Milling
Back in the olden times all de music in dese parts was made by negra fiddlers or banjo pickers or guitar players. Ever' plantation nuster have two or three real good ones to play for de white folks' dances an' parties. Hit was good pickin' for a man what hadn't been converted - co'se now, fiddlin' was never de thing for a man atter he bawned ag'in - but the fiddler boys would be give' a good dinner an drinks an finally a han'ful of money too. Natchelly, mos' de young bucks want to be fiddlers.
Now dis here, Balaam was as likely a boy as ever been raise in dis part de country, so I been tole. He six foot tall an' able to do a power of work. All de 'oomans crazy 'bout him, but he never stick to one 'em at a time. All he care about was dat fiddle of his'n. He fiddle from Mawnin till night, den fiddle right on atter de las rooster crow. He could beat anybody else fiddlin', but he warnt to say satisfy. He say he gonna be de best fiddle in de world, let 'lone de country. Everybody tell him t'ain't no nuse to try to git any better, 'cauise he done able to outfiddle anybody else what had been hear tell of. He already playin' to all de white folk dances an' totin de silver money in he pocket an he tu'nin' up his nose at de other color folks.
Well one day he gone down by de creek wid he fiddle in he han' lak he allas use to tote it. He set down top of a stump an' he start studyin'. He say to hisself, "I shore wisht I could play dis fiddle like I wanna play it. Co'se I know I got all dese here other collo beat, but I want to show 'em some real fiddlin!"
Wid dat he take an scrape a few notes off his fiddle an' say, "Ole fiddle, you do very well now, but I aims to make you natchelly talk one of these days."
De words want outta his mout' for a voice come right outta de fiddle an say," If you wants me to talk, Balaam, I tallkin' now. What you want me to say?"
When he hear dat voice in de fiddle, Balaam most drop it outtta his han', he so scared, but he git up enough strength to answer de voice back.
"Ole fiddle," he say. "I'll tell you what I want. I want you to make us nuff money to buy us freedom. Den you'n me'll go all over de country an' see all sorts of places an have all de licker us wants."
"All right," say de fiddle. "But you can't play good nuff yet, Balaam. You jes startin' good. But you got to shore get better dan you is now!"
"Well, I lowed I play pretty good now," says Balaam.
"Pretty good ain't to say plum good," say de fiddle.
"What I hafta do to get plum good?" Balaam ax.
"Nutthin much," say de voice. "All you got to do is go to de crossroads ever night for nine nights an make a crossmark in de middle of de road. On de las night you make de mark somebody be dere to tell you what to do nex." Atter dis de fiddle speak no mo.
Balaam sit an study, an' de longer he set de mo he study. Somepin tell him dat if he follow dat voice out de fiddle he'll be losin in sin, but when he done 'bout decide not to go somepin suade him it ain't no harm no how. So he set dere rasslin wid dem two notion' till dark catch him for he knowed it. Den he get up an go home still studyin'. He study so hard he ain't pay no min to whar he gwine, an' fuss news you know dar he be in de middle of de crossroads. He get kind of frighten when he find hisself dar, but he takin de fiddle an' he play a chune or two right dar in de middle of de road, an when he finish playin' he takin a foot an mark a cross right whar de two roads meet. Jes as he make de mark he hear a noise and when he look up dar been a great big ol rabbit a settin' by de side in de moonlight, an' a-lookin' straight atter him. Balaam ain't like de looks of de rabbit but he make out he ain't scared so he's retch down and heeve a rock at him. De rock miss de rabbit an jes as Balaam tu'n to leave it seem like he hear de rabbit say sompin ' bout he'd fiddle better Friday atter next. Den he gone on home.
De nex' day Balaam ain't no good for work. He jes set 'roun' an play chunes on de fiddle, mournful an scary like. An dat night he take an ramble off an whar you reckon he end up? De crossroads, you mought know!
Whe he git dar Balaam say to hisself, "Shorley can't be no harm makin jes one mo crossmark. Maybe I'll go to de big meetin' nex fall an dat'll make it all right." So's he gone on an takin he foot an make nuther cross mark right whar he make de one de night befo'. An jes as he turn roun to go dar been dat same ol rabbit settin' in de moonlight laughin at him. But Balaam a bol' fellow, 'cause he takin an throw another rock at him jes like he done de night befo', but it ain't no good 'cause he miss him again. An atter he throw de rock, he ain't sure but it seems like to Balaam dat de rabbit say de same thing as las night 'bout he fiddlin'.
Dis here bisness kep up for six mo nights, an Balaam study so much people think he gittin' mindless. Ever night he slip out an' head for de crossroads, an' ever time he git dar he make some scuse to go on an make de crossmark. An ever single time he make de crossmark he see dat rabbit laughin' at him when he turn roun'.
De las day Balaam study so much dat he mos crazy sho nuff. He play fiddle all day long an' set roun an look 'way off. De Cap'n sen fo de doctor to fin' out what ails Balaam, but all he do was to givem a big dose of psysic salts. De Cap'n ax him what ail Balaam an de doctor tell him nutin 'cept maybe he hoodoo'ed. So de Ca'n think he all right an go off an let him alone.
Well, dat night Balaam slip off agin an head right fo de crossroads dis time. He walk fas an when he git dar he make de crossmark fas, so's he won't have time to change his min. Atter he make de mark hit didn't look like nutin' gonna happen an Balaam begin to breave easy when he hear somebody call he name. He look up an shore nuff dar been dat same ol rabbit settin' right whar he allas set.
"I gwine git you dis time!" Balaam holler, an wid dat he grab up a rock an sail it at dat air rabbit hard as he could let her fly. But de rock sail right on thru de rabbit. When he seen dat, Balaam gin a screech and make a grab at a nuther rock but he han was strike to his side an make de rabbit jes disappear. In he place Balaam see a black cloud full of smoke an sulpher an he hear a fiddle comin from de cloud an a voice singin':
"Munanee, munanee, ho!
Munanee, munanee, ho!
Munanee, munanee, ho!
Big pot o' mush I gwine to git dar."
Wid dat de cloud part in tow an' out step de ol Bugger Man hisself lookin jes like people say he look. He had a tail wid a arre pint, he hoofs was clove an he tote a long slim narrer li'l pitch fork. He look to be 'bout six foot tall an bow perlite like white folks an he say,
"Evenin', Mister Foster, sho is a pretty fiddle you got dar. I hears dat you like to be able to play a little better dan you been a playin'. Now you jest let me hol yo' fiddle a minute an' I'll show you some rale playin'. I de inventor of de fiddle, you know."
By dis time Balaam so scared he han' he fiddle right over to de Bugger Man. De ole Bugger Man take he fiddle an bow low an' switch he tail sassy like, an start in for to play. An de chunes he didn't git outta dat fiddle. He make de air natchelly ring like silver bells; he make hit soun' like all de mockinbirds in de whole worl a bustin' dey throats at de same time. He make hit soun' like cow-bells late in de evening and de song of little frogs down by de mill pon'. He make dat fiddle sob and cry. Hit soun' like a 'ooman moanin' for her los' man. Hit soun' like people singin' acrost still water. Den he turnt 'roun' an' play dance chunes an reels an Balaam jes can't stan' it less'n he stomp an' pat he han'.
When de Bugger Man done playin' it want nuttin' Balaam wouldn't give to be able to play dat away, an de Bugger Man ax him would he 'gree to whatever he say, Balaam say, "Sho I will!" So right den and dar de ol Bugger Man make Balaam promise him serve him all he life an let him have he soul when he die. To bine de promise Balaam have to bow down to Satan an' receive de serpent mark on he lef shoulder. He have to eat a mouful of powder Satan give him an he have to swaller some of Satan spit. When he do all dem things de Bugger Man han' him back he fiddle an' disappear right fo' he eyes th'oo a hole in de groun' what opens up whar he standin'. When he drap outta sight a great smoke come out de hole an' flames belch an' Balaam smell sulphur an' brimstone.
Balaam so scared by dis time dat he mos' forgit he fiddle, but in a minute he 'member it an he taken an' try a chune or so. He fin' when he done dat, dat he could play jest as good as Bugger Man, an' dat make him so proud he glad he bargain.
It want long 'fo' ever'body axin' for Balaam to play, an dey jes wouldn' be satisfy less'n he come. He repertation gone all over de country. De ol Camp glad 'nough to let him go, ' cause he got so he want no good nohow for nuttin' but fiddlin'. By'mby Balaam had save nough noney to buy he freedom. He kep' on playin' for ever dance an party he hear about. He git so he gone fifty an a hunderd mile way from home to play. He live to be a ole man, but nemmine how ole he been, he jes play good as ever.
One day, ater Balaam no tellin' how ole, he call he ole 'ooman an' all he chillun, an' granchillun 'roun him an tell 'em he gwine die. He ain't look sick, an' he say he ain't feel sick, but he sho he time done come. Dey want to sen for de doctor right away, but Balaam tell 'em it want no use. He say, dough, dat he got sompin to tell 'em an when dey be all gather roun' he 'splain to dem 'bout what happen dat night at de crossroads. When he tell 'em dat, dey all start to cry and moan an caron, but Balaam ax 'em not to do dat-a-way, 'cause it ain't gwine do no good. When dey sorta quiet down he tell 'em dat when he die dey mus' lay him out, an atter he be lay out a clap o thunder would come, an' when dey hear dat dey mought know he soul had enter Tarment. Atter he tell 'em dat, hit seem like he feel better, an' he git outa de bed an' fetch he fiddle outa de trunk an' start to play "Turley in de Straw."
He play so good dat de mourners couldn't he'p pattin' and stompin' to save dey souls. When he finish playin' he take de fiddle over to de trunk, lock de lid, an' throw de key in de fire. Den he walk back to de bed, lie down, an' breave he las'.
De mourners all stay quiet for a minute, den dey make sho he gone for true, an dey put money on he eye an' sen' for de preacher.
But while dey all a-standin 'roun' lookin' at de corpse, de fiddle in de trunk commence to play. Hit play de lonesomes chunes you ever hear, an' ever note hit play soun' like hit was sayin,' "Po' los' soui! Po' los' soul!"
De people in de house couldn' stan' no sicha doins, an' dey all make a break for de door. Soon's dey git outside de house dey git bolder, an' one de men's grab up an ax an' say he gwine in dar an bus open dat trunk an' smash dat fiddle. De res' o' de people back him up an' say for him to go on in, so he spit on he hands and take holda de ax like he mean business an' gone one back in de house. Time he outa sight de people outside hear a voice comin' out de house 'long wid de music o' de fiddle an' hit soun' like hit say:
"Munanee, munanee ho!
Munanee, munanee ho!
Munanee, munanee ho!
Big pot o' mush I gwine to git dar."
Jes' as soon as dat song stop dar come a turrible peal o' thunder an' de whole house shake same as de Charleston yearthquake. De man wid de ax come a flyin' out like a mule done kick 'im. De lamp inside was blowed out an' de whole place smell like smoke. Atter while some de mens got bol' nough to go in an' see what happen. But soon as dey git inside de ones outside hear'em holler, "Whar Balaam?"
Wid dat de res' of de mens gone on in an' dey fin' dat, sho nough, de corpse done gone, an whar he been a-lyin' all de bed clothes was scorch black as de chimbly flue. Atter dey see Balaam corpse done gone day think 'bout dat fiddle an gone over to de trunk, but it want no use o dat. Dat trunk got a hole burn out de top big as a nail keg, an' hit was all scorch on de inside an' dat fiddle was gone for keeps. So dat was de een o' Balaam Foster an' he conjured fiddle.
Tell me nuttin' 'bout no fiddlin! Dese days dey got fiddles in de chu'ches an ever'whars else, but us ole people what know 'bout Balaam, us ain't got no nuse for fiddlin'.
A Treasury of American Folklore
edited by B.A. Botkin