Please welcome guest author Hilda Downer. Downer is an Appalachian poet who makes a living teaching English at Appalachian State University, and as a psychiatric nurse. She is a member of the Appalachian Studies Association, NC Writers Conference, and the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative. She has published poetry and essays in journals and anthologies such as the award-winning anthology of Appalachian women’s writing on the sense of place, Bloodroot. Her most recent book of poetry, Sky Under the Roof, was published by Bottom Dog Press, 2013. She lives in Sugar Grove, NC.
The postmaster handed over the small package saying he was sorry it was empty. Indeed, the box felt weightless and upon being shaken, its sound was inaudible like that of the first few flurries of a mountain winter. Because I knew what was inside, I opened the taped end gingerly, but with a quick tug to dislodge the flap – the stubby finger of a rattle flexed outward through the resulting side opening.
It swayed from side to side and lifted its “head” like a big fat bug in rigor mortis. My hand recoiled from the rattle’s touch. Between layers of cotton, six rattles filed away like expensive silverware, a strange gift from a friend in Oregon for me to distribute among my son’s bluegrass band, Sons of Bluegrass, comprised of all East Tennessee State University Bluegrass students in the only bluegrass major in the world.
The discussion about the use of a rattle in the fiddle and other traditional instruments had naturally occurred between my son, fiddler Meade Richter, and me. He had spent considerable time with elderly fiddlers in competitions over the years, as well as studied this practice in his Bluegrass History classes.
He knew fiddlers often inserted a rattle in the f-hole for good luck. Meade, even as second-time winner of Fiddler of the Festival at Union Grove, the oldest fiddle festival in the United States, put more stock into actual practice than the practice of possessing a good luck charm.
Could there be some logical rationale behind this superstition? Because rattlesnakes are only indigenous to the Western hemisphere, the root of magical or practical use of the rattle would trace back to Native Americans.
Opposed to the African reverence of the snake as an object of worship, the European Christian association of the serpent with Satan led to a “reversed bad luck” akin to current motorcycle gang and military jewelry depicting a rattlesnake coiled around a skull or dagger.
The famous Revolutionary War flag portraying the rattlesnake and slogan, “Don’t Tread On Me” represented the shared bravery of soldiers and a snake that warns its victims before striking (Yronwode).
The act of keeping a rattle in a musical instrument as an amulet to ward off evil spirits, especially for people steeped in superstition before their arrival to this country, could easily have derived from their own volition.
However, the use of rattles for warding off pests must precede the Revolutionary War, learned from Native Americans as early settlers adopted other natural remedies. The particular practice had to begin prior to the 1900s when the fiddle was considered to be the Devil’s instrument. Therefore, the fiddle was not allowed indoors, but was hung in the barn or on the porch as a compromise for what was useful to get the work done at corn shuckings and the like.
These open spaces had spiders, mud daubers, and mice seeking refuge in a new home. The smell of the rattle sent a strong message to such vermin to stay away (Miller). Certainly, from their first encounters with the Eastern Diamondback rattlers from the coastal area to the timber rattlers in the Appalachian Mountains as they migrated westward, settlers felt a need to be in harmony with a world wilder and stranger than fiction. To keep a part of something on them that belonged, the rattle of a snake with its own music, just might help them become more a part of the new world they had to either adapt to or not survive at all.
Another utilitarian aspect of placing the rattle inside a musical instrument rises from the belief that it renders a “sweeter sound” – more crisp and loud (Cox 26). Especially in a time before PA systems or modern recording enhancements, a lone fiddle might be the only accompaniment at a dance and would require the most volume it could muster. A singular rattle sounds like a rain stick turned upside down, perhaps a musical instrument in its own right. Alan Jabbour, known for collecting great old recordings, states that the rattle in his fiddle renders “a rhythm section” to his performances (Royce).
Usually, the explanation provided by mandolin players is that, ‘“Bill Monroe did it this way . . .”’ (Mandotim). Why did Bill Monroe do it that way, though? One account is that Monroe believed the rattle settled the dust in his mandolin, providing a deeper clarity of sound. Fiddler Bev Conrad, experimenting with a rattle in her fiddle, removed it the next day to find the rattle dust coated—“a big ball of lint, fuzz, dust, and cobwebs had been gathered up by the sweeping motion of the rattle as it wandered around the inside of the fiddle” (Conrad).
Indeed, scientific evidence proves that the movement of a snake’s body creates friction resulting in static electricity that cannot be dispelled as creatures with hair and feathers do (Luck-Baker). Instead, the snake utilizes this electrical charge for sensory purposes, navigation, and to conserve energy for striking when threatened. Also, the rattle distracts an attacker’s attention away from the vital organs of the snake (Vonstille 26). Furthermore, the vibrations of the rattle, attached or detached to the snake’s body, generate static electricity on their own (Luck-Baker) capable of attracting dust particles, thus clearing the inside of an instrument so it sounds less muffled.
No mater what, the rattle is a good thing. It warns predators and innocent bystanders alike. The rattlesnake just wants to live and be left alone. It exemplifies patience, lying in wait for long periods of time for prey. (No, they do not clear out when they hear hikers trekking toward their direction).
Playing an instrument exemplifies the same patience and dedication. Since my son first played fiddle at a young age, I can scarcely remember a meal or time to go out the front door when I did not have to ask Meade to lay the fiddle down first.
The difficulty of playing the fiddle prompted people to think that to play well, a fiddler must have to trade his soul with the Devil. I think of when a friend turned to me following Meade’s last competition performance at Fiddler’s Grove and saying through the darkness, “No human could make sounds like that.” Neither could a rattlesnake, like one of Rilke’s “terrible angels,” be more beautiful in its existence.
The fact that my son is even alive after nearly dying from an infection at one week old causes me to believe that, like the rattlesnake, we all have something extra, greater than we as mere organisms can even bear, so that beyond death and even in brave defiance of death, we can leave something of great beauty behind that takes on a life of its own.
Now that Meade has been playing a rattle-inoculated fiddle for a few days, he reports no variation in sound, though he has not been in a studio that might detect such nuances. However, when he lays the fiddle down, he alone hears the rattle, like a final note.
Sources: Conrad, Beverley. “A Rattle of Truth.” The Fiddle –Legends, Lore & Helpful Hints. 23 October 2012. 4 June 2013.
Luck-Baker, Andrew. “Sience: Snakes that Shake to Electro-locate.” News Scientist. 20 August 1994. 5 June 2013.
Mandotim. “Folklore, Rattlers and Fiddlers.” The Mudcat Café. 2 January 2006. 4 June 2013.
Miller, Ken. “Rattlers.” Ken Miller Guitar. 2011. 5 June 2013.
Royce, Janet Farrar. “What’s that Rattle Snake Rattle Doing in My Fiddle?” Flying Fiddle. 3 May 2010. 4 June 2013.
Verstille, W. T. and Stille III, W. T. “No Electrostatic Sense in Snakes.” Scientific Correspondence. 5 Jaunary 1995. 5 June 2013.
Yronwode, Cat. “Rattlesnake Rattles, Rattlesnake Salt, and Rattlesnake Dust.” Lucky Mojo. 2000. 5 June 2013.