Rattler's Rattles in a Fiddle
Some years back I was at a jam session and one of the local fiddlers, an old timer, wanted to have a look at my fiddle. After turning it this way and that, plucking a couple of strings, and tapping the back of it, he tipped it a bit so that the light would shine inside.
“Checking the label?” I asked.
“Yeah - and the post,” he said handing it back to me. “But you're missing something.”
“The rattles - you're s'posed to have a tail inside - make it sound better. I got one in mine,” he said shaking his fiddle near my ear so I could hear. Swoosh! Swoosh! Swoosh!
I told a friend about this and that year for my birthday, there it was all wrapped up - the rattles of a rather large rattlesnake for my fiddle and me. One year a different friend had got me a silk scarf to wrap around my fiddle. He had traveled with the Gypsies in Europe and told me that legend had it among them that a silk scarf wrapped around a fiddle when it was put to bed for the night kept the evil spirits out of it. I had also heard that a fiddle string tied around your big toe would make you a good dancer and that you should always borrow rosin. Keep a store bought block for lending, but don't use it yourself or you could get your fiddle in trouble. I have borrowed rosin on several occasions, but generally use my own. My fiddle seems not to have suffered - knock on wood.
Now about those rattles -- is there a truth to this bit of folklore? There are many justifications for putting a rattlesnake's tail inside a fiddle. One is that because the rattlesnake lives in dry climates it is wont to be thirsty much of the time and will suck up all available moisture. The foggy Appalachians caused all sorts of trouble with the gut strings of years past. I tried them once at a gig and took them off after the first set. The finger fogs had grabbed hold of them and they just wouldn't stay in tune. Today's strings don't have the same problem, but what about bow hair? Would the thirsty spirit of the rattlesnake soak up the moisture that can flatten the hair to the stick on a humid night? Not that I noticed, and that tail sat in my case for several years. Note, I said case, not fiddle.
From Texas comes the belief that a rattlesnake's rattle will ward off mice and rodents. In Texas many times a fiddle was hung on the wall of the barn ready to go if the urge to dance hit the workers all of a sudden. Any mouse eying a fiddle as a good place to set up housekeeping was scared off by the smell of the rattlesnake even if it is was just its tail. Snakes eat mice. Mouse smells snake. Mouse looks for another place to call home. In Texas if a silk scarf is hard to come by, a rattler's rattle will also serve to ward off any bad spirits.
Some folks in the Appalachians believe that the swoosh and rattle of the tail will make the music sweeter. Mind you, this belief was here long before the existence of a PA system that could “enhance” the sound of a fiddle by tinkering with a wire and a bunch of knobs. It's a whole lot easier to just drop a rattle in a fiddle anyways.
In North Carolina there is another belief that because the fiddle is by nature a feminine instrument (which is another belief altogether) the introduction of a snake's tail made it masculine - or manlier.
One day when I was sitting out back on the swing, playing away with the fiddle tucked under my chin, right up close to my face, a big black bug crawled out of the F hole. It was an ant, but it could have been a spider. Another bit of the legend says that if you put a snake's rattle inside the fiddle it will chase away the spiders. The constant swishing motion of the tail in the fiddle works like a mini dust mop and keeps the cobwebs from building up. Truth?
The rattlesnake's rattler sat in my fiddle case for years. It served its time well. Kids loved looking at it and hearing the rattle, jumping back and bravely stepping up to have it placed in their hands. At times it seemed that this was the highlight of any show-and-tell about the fiddle session. It wasn't until just this past year that I finally tried it inside the fiddle.
There was one night I sat down to play and my fiddle sounded crummy. High, tinny, wheezy - hard to describe, but it just didn't sound so pretty. It could have been a change in the weather. It could have been me. Not wishing to wait for the winds to blow from another direction I thought to go for the quick fix - snake's tail in the fiddle will make it sound sweeter, or so I'd heard. Out of the case it came and into the fiddle it went. I just poked it through the F hole then gave the fiddle a good shake. Cool! It swooshed, it rattled, it danced around inside. Maybe it was just my imagination but after a few turns of a reel and jag of a jig, the voice did seem to clear up, kind of like it cleared its throat.
A few days later I upended the fiddle and gave it a couple of shakes, as a way of showing a student that yes, indeed, there was a rattlesnake's tail inside. There was also a great big ball of dust, fuzz, cobwebs and who knows what else all gathered up in a neat clump ready to pluck out with a pair of tweezers. It's not often we think to dust inside our fiddles when we dust the outside and as the years pass it stands to reason that things can collect inside. My reaction, “Well, I'll be darned!” There might just be some truth to the tale after all.
Copyright Beverley Conrad 2002
All Rights Reserved
This article was previously published in the National Old Time Fiddlers Association journal.
If you would like to reproduce this article in any form other than for personal use, please contact me.