Okay, I’m gonna tell you a story about a fiddle player and his untimely fate.
How about we start with a fiddle tune, one such as Martin might have played?
In East Tennessee, we love our fiddle players, dead or alive. Up around Mountain City (known originally as Taylorsville), they still talk about Martin, and how he may have been the greatest of them all, back in his day. He lived and died before the Civil War.
Some say his great talent was due to the precautions his mother took when he got his first tick, that nasty little bloodsucker that haunts woods and fields and causes disease in animals and humans alike. She loved music—oh, how she loved music!–but neither she nor her husband were musical. When they had their first son, she waited, and then, when he first toddled home with a tick in his baby-fine hair, she took that tick and, in accordance with an old ritual, killed it on the strings of a neighbor’s fiddle, then, as she made her way home, hummed an old fiddle tune. Those two things, she firmly believed, would insure that her baby boy would be a fine fiddler who would startle the world, and thrill his mama’s music-loving heart, with his playing. Martin got his first fiddle as soon as he was big enough to hold it steady under his chubby little chin, and draw the bow across the strings with his chubby little right hand, and make chords with his chubby little left hand. And—although this may be just part of the legend, and not the truth atall—he was a champion fiddler from the very beginning, and only got better with age.
Martin was grown, and always looking for new musical challenges, when one day a neighbor came up to him and put a question to him. The neighbor’s boy had been reading about India in school, and had been particularly struck by stories of Indian snake charmers, who could make cobras—those deadly dangerous, neurotoxic beauties—dance to the rhythm of their flutes. The neighbor wondered if Martin could make our lovely—and deadly—timber rattlesnakes do the same.
Timber rattlers, unlike some of their relatives, tend to den up, in great tangles in the nooks and crannies of rocks, or in holes in the ground, many, many snakes in the single den. Like all snakes, they’re exothermic, and on cool crisp days they like to lie on rocks or in sunny spots to warm their long muscular bodies up. One such place was on a big flat rock in the Stone Mountains, not too far from Martin’s home. Walk by there on sunny days, and you’d see many timber rattlers, sometimes twenty or thirty, lying there.
Martin studied on it for awhile, and told the curious neighbor that he thought maybe he could indeed do with his fiddle what the Indian snake charmers did with their flutes, and he was going to try it out.
Snakes are deaf creatures. The snake charmers of India know that the snake is responding, when it dances, to the rhythmic swaying of the charmer’s body, not the sound. Martin, a mountain boy through and through, knew this as well. He was cautious. When he first went out to the big flat rock to play for the snakes, he was careful to confine all bodily motion to his hands—and eyes; he moved them continually, keeping a lookout for timber rattlers. On the very first sunny morning he spent at the big flat rock, he was joined by several big snakes, who stayed as long as he played. They raised their heads and swayed gently; he figured they could feel the vibrations from the sound of the fiddle and responded to that rhythm. When he stopped, he sat stone still until they all got warm and slithered away; one, who stayed longer than the others, he killed, to take back to town as proof he had been out there and played his fiddle for the snakes. He made a good luck charm out of its rattle, and dropped it in through one of the holes in his fiddle for safekeeping.
He didn’t just go one time; he went back many, many times. By now, his music-loving mother was long in her grave; he had never married, and so it was left up to his sister to scold him lovingly and tell him he was just askin’ for trouble, and that one day them snakes was a-gonna turn on him, for no better reason than because they was snakes, and like the Bible said, snakes and humans are mortal enemies. Still, Martin kept going; he insisted that if he didn’t go regularly the snakes got to missin’ him. Truth to tell, he just loved being out there with nobody but the snakes and his fiddle for company; no one to fuss at him, no one to interrupt his music.
We all make mistakes, though.
Martin only made one. He paid for it with his life.
He had begun to wonder, he told friends, if maybe he could get the same results at night, in the sultry heat of an East Tennessee summer. The temperatures drop some at night, especially as fall approaches; he theorized that maybe, if he went out to the rock at night, the snakes might crawl out onto the rock to warm themselves with the heat it retained from the sun, and he would find out if they would stay with him as they did during the day.
Now playing for the snakes in the daytime was one thing; in the dark of night, it would be altogether something else, since—unless the moon was bright—Martin would be at a decided disadvantage. Most humans don’t see all that well after dark. Martin thought he’d try it out, though, and one September night, when the moon was full, he went out to the rock.
He didn’t come back that time.
When he was missed, his neighbors went looking for him. They found him about halfway down the mountain. His hadn’t been a pretty death. He was swollen up something awful, and his hands and face were covered in snakebites—more than two dozen of them. He was clutching his fiddle, but his bow was missing. When they went on up to the rock itself, they found his bow, lying next to the big flat rock.
They figured that, in the darkness, he had dropped the bow and—forgetting, that one time, his audience—reached down to pick it up. The timber rattlers, startled by the sudden unexpected motion, had reacted, as snakes will, to a perceived threat, and struck, again and again and again, as many of them as were in reach of him, some glancing strikes, some giving him full loads of their deadly venom. Martin had somehow gotten away from them and started toward home and help, but halfway down the mountain, he collapsed and never moved again.
They buried Martin, but sometimes, on cool nights toward the end of summer, people say they can still hear fiddle music, up toward Rattlesnake Rock. Nowadays, some call it Fiddler’s Rock—because, they say, that’s no living fiddler; that’s Martin, come back to play lest the snakes get to missing him.
And who knows? Maybe they would.
I’ve combined two accounts for this story: one from Kathryn Tucker Windham’s 13 Tennessee Ghosts and Jeffrey (1977), the other from Randy Russell and Janet Barnett’s The Granny Curse and Other Ghosts and Legends from East Tennessee (1999). Russell and Barnett conflate their story of Martin and the rattlesnakes with the West Tennessee story of the Fiddler’s Dram, but originally, the two stories were separate.