Back in the old days there were fine fiddle players around, and in Weakley County, Tennessee, way in the northwest corner of the state, the finest of all was Ples Haslock. Self-taught, Ples could mimic birds and bees and cows in the pasture and horses pullin’ the plow. And when he settled down to serious fiddlin’, he could make women sigh, grown men weep, rowdy boys sit still and crying babies hush. It was just like an angel bowing the strings; simple and sweet and oh, so beautiful.
They used to have fiddle contests around. There was no money for prizes; first place always won a demijohn of the finest whiskey, the so-called fiddler’s dram. Ples Haslock won so many fiddler’s drams that , just to keep other fiddlers entering the contests, a second dram was offered as a consolation prize to the second place finisher.
And so things might have gone on for many years if a wall of the jailhouse at Dukedom hadn’t collapsed. Now the county was broke, an all too common thing in the rural South. But somebody had the bright idea of holding a fiddle contest to raise the money. They’d charge a small admission, and sell pie, and they’d have the money to fix the jailhouse wall in no time flat. And the winner would get the coveted fiddler’s dram.
“Somebody needs to go tell Ples Haslock,” said the county clerk.
Coot Kersee, a fiddler who’d lost to Ples Haslock many times, said, “He might not be able to come. Hear he’s down with the heart dropsy.”
“Don’t you wish?” some wag snorted.
Nowadays we call heart dropsy pulmonary edema, an accumulation of fluid in the lungs and around the heart that can lead to cardiac arrest. If it kills you fast, you just drown one day; if it kills you slow, you get weaker and weaker and feel an oppression on your chest till your heart simply stops. Dropsy ran in Ples Haslock’s family.
When the county clerk rode out into the country to tell Ples about the contest, Ples was indeed on his sickbed. “But I’m feelin’ some better than I did,” he said. “Tell the folks I’ll be there. I’m gonna win that fiddler’s dram.”
On the night of the contest, Ples didn’t show up. People were disappointed, but they were treated to a fine faceoff between Coot Kersee and another great local fiddle player named Rob Reddin. They both were master showmen. Coot, up first, played an old tune called “Leather Britches” that brought down the house. As for Rob Reddin, he not only played hell out of “Hell Broke Loose in Georgia”; he got such an ovation that it was some time before the crowd even noticed that a sickly-pale Ples Haslock was onstage, playing a beautiful eerie old camp meetin’ tune called “Poor Wayfaring Stranger.” They abruptly settled down to listen.
They say Ples played for an hour or more, a succession of old tunes brought from countries over the sea; and when he was done, the crowd roared its approval as the judge awarded Ples the fiddler’s dram.
Ples pulled the corncob stopper out of the demijohn with his teeth and took a long drink from his prize, then crashed over backwards. They called for a doctor, but Ples Haslock was dead. As they waited for the doctor, they noticed that his clothes were muddy, like he’d walked through a swamp on his way to the contest..
When the doctor arrived, he examined Ples’s body and pronounced him dead. Then he asked, “How did this man get here?”
The judge said, “He walked in. Must have crossed a swamp, by the mud there. He fiddled awhile, then fell over dead.”
“Not hardly,” the doctor said shortly. “This man’s been dead at least two days. And by the look of his clothes, I’d say buried too.”
This story, actually a reanimated corpse tale, was collected in Weakley County circa 1938 by James R. Aswell of the Tennessee Writers’ Project, under the aegis of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration, and first printed in GOD BLESS THE DEVIL! LIARS’ BENCH TALES in 1940. More recently it has been retold by professional storyteller S. E. Schlosser in SPOOKY SOUTH (2004). Occasionally it is conflated with a story from Johnson County, in upper East Tennessee, about a fiddler called Martin who charmed timber rattlesnakes, as in Randy Russell and Janet Barnett’s THE GRANNY CURSE (1999), but originally the two stories were separate.
C’mon, guys, you KNEW my favorite ghost story would be about a musician, didn’t you?