Fiddling With the Devil
The exemplary life of Louis Alexander Southworth
Charlottesville, Va - Louis Southworth was born into slavery in 1830. He was a blacksmith, a farmer, and a fiddler raised in Tennessee and then Missouri. By the time he was brought to Oregon he was 21 and ready to dig for as much gold as it was needed to buy freedom. At Yreka and Jacksonville mining camps, he quickly learned that playing old-time music could earn him what he needed while playing the tunes he learned in the South. And so, he did.
His happiness would have been complete but for one circumstance. Although a freeman first, and an outstanding member of the community for the rest of his life, Southworth was kept from going to church by the white brethren who warned him against playing the violin.
The exclusion asserted an extraordinary blow to the old man, then in his late eighties, during Jim Craw and increasing racial tensions in America.
Shortly before his death in June of 1917, Southworth wrote that “The brethren wouldn’t stand for my violin, which was all the company I had most o’ the time. They said it was full of all wicked things and that it belongs to the devil.”
Fiddling has long been associated with the demonic in America religious communities. Almost fifty years before Southworth was expelled from his church in Oregon, Sy Guilliat was barred from his in Richmond for attempting to make music with the stroke of his bow’s horsehair against the fiddle’s strings made of cat guts. Even a hundred years before, a woman named Clarinda, born into slavery in 1730, was brought to court and accused being in communion with the Devil. The records show that folks would gather around her playing in joyous dance, “both sexes” reads the accusation, “not having the fear of God before their eyes, delighted like herself, in sinful and pernicious amusement.”
In his memoires, written shortly before his death, Louis Southworth recalls being told that “Playing a fiddle is a proceeding’ wholly unbecoming’ to a Christian in the sight of the Lord.” By then, one-hundred years had passed since charges where brough up against Clarinda, and since Sy Gilliat was expel from church in Richmond. What seems to have changed in his case, is that given his stature in the community he was able to contest, and this was what he said:
“I know, friends, you won’t think hard of me, and will give me the cold shoulder for lovin’ my fiddle these many years. Every man has his own way of looking at things and lovin’ them, you have your way, and I have mine; and my way is to love this old friend of mine that always pleased me and never went back on me. And I sometimes think than when you go up yonder and find my name, to your surprise, in the Big Book, you’ll meet many a fellow who remembers the old fiddler who played “Home Sweet Home”, “Dixie Land”, “Arkansas Traveler”, “Suwanee River”, and other tunes for the boys who were far away from home for the first time.
“And some of the fellows will tell how the lonely, homesick boys listened to the fiddle during the long winter evenings until they forgot their troubles and slept as they had once slept under their mothers’ roofs at home. And they’ll talk after the gold excitement days when there was no society out West for men like us; when there wasn’t any Bible, and hymn books were unknown; when playin’ poker and buckin’ were the only schoolin’ a fellow ever got; when whiskey ran like water and made the Whites and Indians crazy, when men didn’t go by their right names, and didn’t care what they did; when there was no law, and the court was the man who carried the best six-shooter. When they have talked over those early days, the fellows will say:
“‘Where’d we all been, and what’d we all done in the mines, but for Uncle Lou’s fiddle? It was most like church of anything we had.’ For the boys used to think the good Lord put a heap of old-time religion into my fiddle, and the old-time religion is good enough fo’ an old man who’s done some mighty hard work in 85 years.
“But I forget the work I’ve done and the years I’ve lived when my bow comes down soft and gentle-like, and the fiddle seems to sing the songs of slavery days till the air grows mellow with the music and the old-time feeling comes back. It makes me hear familiar voices that are no more.
“There are things a plain old man can’t tell in words, and there are feelin’s that won’t fit into common, everyday talk like mine, But when there’s plenty of rosin on the bow and the player’s feelin’ fine, and the fiddle pours out great torrents of music, he seems to hear the bob-white’s whistle and the rustlin’ of the corn. The whippoorwill and the mockin’bird come to sing for him, and he forgets what he ought not to remember, and he wants to make everybody glad – then it is that a plain man has feelin’s he can’t describe.
“But he knows he’s happier and better, and his next day’s work is easier. He has a smile and a kind word for everyone he meets, and everyone has a smile and a kind word for him. The word is heavenly to that man, and his feelin’s are night on the religious.
“So, my friends, I hope to keep my fiddler a little longer, ‘cause it’ll make it easier and pleasanter for me the few more days that I can stay. And if you’ll be kind to the old man and let him keep his friend, I know your pillows will be softer and your dreams will be sweeter when you lay your head down some day for the last time.
“My fiddle is as dear to me as David’s harp was to him in his lonely hours. And I know the good Lord who loved David and the music of his harp won’t turn down and aged man and his old-time friend, nor will He forsake those who gave him aid in trouble. But He’ll have a smile and a kind word for them who made the road smoother for the old pilgrim, who traveled footsore and alone with his violin, with no one to care for him except the Father who loves music everywhere—the music of the waters, the music of the woods, the music of the winds, and the music of an old man’s violin.”
Louis Alexander Southworth died on 23 Jun 1917 in Corvallis, Benton County, Oregon.
He’s buried in Crystal Lake Cemetery.
The Afro-American Fiddler
by Theresa Jenoure
Hampshire College, 2008
Days and Deeds in the Oregon Country
by John B. Horner
The J.K.Gill Company, Portland Oregon, 1929
Marshall Wyatt, archive