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American Folk Tales and Songs
AND OTHER EXAMPLES OF ENGLISH-AMERICAN TRADITION AS PRESERVED IN THE APPALACHIAN MOUNTAINS AND ELSEWHERE IN THE UNITED STATES
By Richard Chase
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1956 Richard Chase
All rights reserved.
Wicked John and the Devil
According to William Butler Yeats, a similar story, about a man named Will Dawson, is told in Ireland as "The Three Wishes." Someone told me once that, in another version, Will stuck his wisp of a beard through the bars at Hell Gate and the Devil set it on fire—and that is how the swamp light got its name. Uncle Remus has two versions: "Jacky-MyLantern" and "Impty Umpty." Dr. Stith Thompson, the great authority on folk tales, reports this tale from Germany, Estonia, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Flanders, Lapland, Russia, and Latvia. And in A Treasury of French Tales, published early in 1954, this same tale— without the will-o'-the-wisp ending—is given as told in France.
As printed here it is based on the way I heard it from Mrs. Jenning L. Yowell of Charlottesville, Virginia. Her name for the blacksmith was "Wicked Jack." I changed it to "John" to avoid confusion with the boy "Jack" of The Jack Tales, who appears also in other Irish, English, and Scotch folk tales.
My first knowledge of the Devil's "curtain line" ("... and start you a Hell of your own!") came from Mules and Men, a collection of Negro folklore from Florida, by Zora Neal Hurston. From Peck Daniel of Bristol, Virginia, I learned of a radio broadcast of this tale, in which it was Saint Patrick who granted the three wishes, and the old man wound up haunting the waterfront under Brooklyn Bridge. Another variation of the "mean"-mortal-being-denied-entrance-to-Hell was told on Hitler here in the mountains: "And the Devil wouldn't let him in. He was too mean for Hell, having people mommicked and gaumed up the way he did." A dramatization of this story proves great fun. I saw junior high school students do it once in Evanston, Illinois. Appalachian State Teachers College in Boone, North Carolina, did it in the fall of 1953. And in the spring of 1954 a mountain high school performed it several times. In my own dramatization I retained John's wife, and had her raise the Devil against John because he "pulled a rusty on her" by putting salt in her skin when she left it behind in changing into a black cat hide "to go do her witchin'."
One time there was an old blacksmith named John. He was so mean they called him Wicked John. Mean? Aa-aa Lord! He didn't wait till Saturday night for his dram. He'd just as soon start in drinkin' of a Sunday ... Monday ... Tuesday. It didn't differ. He stayed lit-up all week anyhow. Talked mean. Acted mean. Independent minded. He wasn't afraid of nothin' nor nobody.
One thing about him though: he always did treat a stranger right. And one mornin' Wicked John was workin' there in his shop when an old beggar came to the door: crippled-up with rheumatism, all bent over and walkin' on two sticks. Looked right tired and hungry-like. Stood there till fin'lly Old John hollered at him, says, "Well come in! Confound! Come on in and sit down! Rest yourself."
The old beggar he heaved over the sill, stumbled to where there was a nail-keg turned up, sat down. John kept right on workin', talkin' big; but seemed like the old man was so give-out he couldn't talk much. So directly old John throwed his hammer down and headed for the house. "You wait now. Just sit right there."
Came back with a plate full of vittles: boiled sweet tater, big chunk of ham-meat, beans, greens, slice of cake—and he'd even gone to the spring-house and fetched a pitcher of sweet milk. "Here, old man! Try these rations. I hope you can find something here you can eat."
"Thank ye. Thank ye."
"Oh hit ain't much. If I can eat it three times a day every day, you can stomach it once I reckon."
Wicked John he went on back to work a-hammerin' and a-poundin'. Watched the old beggar out the corner of his eye: saw him lay the plate and glass to one side directly and start to get up. He let his two walkin' sticks fall to the ground. Commenced straightenin' up, straightenin' up, all the kinks comin' out of him. There was a flash of light all at once. And the next thing old John knew—there, r'ared up in the door, was a fine stout-like old man: had a white beard and white hair, long white robe right down to his feet, and a big gold key swingin' in his hand.
Old John stood there with his jaw hangin', and his eyes popped open.
"Well John, I don't reckon you know me, do ye?"
"Why—now, what happened to that old beggar? And where-in-the-nation did you come from—where folks dress like that?"
"I don't see you've got any way of knowin' me, John, since you never have been inside a church-house your whole life. I'm Saint Peter."
"Aw-w-w, now! You expect me to believe that?"
"It don't differ whether you believe it or not. I'll just tell you how-come I'm down here. Once a year I walk the earth to see can I find any decent folks left on it. And the first man I run across that treats me right I always give him three wishes. So you go ahead, John. Wish for anything you've a mind to, and hit'll be that-a-way. Take your three wishes, and be careful now."
Well, Old John he was grinnin' at Saint Peter like he didn't believe none of it. He was already pretty high that mornin', so he looked around: started wishin' on the first thing would pop into his head.
"Three wishes, huh? Well now—see that old high-back rockin chair yonder? I keep it there so I can sit and rest everwhen I get done with ar' job-of-work. But—don't you know!— these dad-blame loafers that hang around in here of an evenin'! Nearly every time I go to sit down, there sits one of them lazy no-'count fellers a-wearin' out the seat of his britches in my rocker. Hit makes me mad! And I just wish that anybody sits there will stick to the chair-bottom and that old rocker rock 'em till they holler! Hold 'em stuck fast—till I let 'em go."
Saint Peter was writin' it down with a gold pencil in a little gold notebook. "That's one, John."
"Aa-aa Lord! Lemme see now. Well, take my big sledge hammer there. Every day after school these blame school kids come by here and get to messin' with my tools: slip that sledge out and take it across the road. Play pitch-hammer, or see how big a rock they can bust. And—confound!—every time I need it I have to go and hunt the dad-blame thing where them feisty boys have dropped it in the grass. Blame take it! I wish: that anybody teches that hammer will stick to the handle and hit pound right on—shake 'em! Shake the daylights out of 'em, till I let 'em go."
Saint Peter was scowlin' and shakin' his head like he thought old John was wastin' his wishes pretty bad.
But John was mean, like I said. He didn't care! Looked at Saint Peter mischievous-like, grinned sort of devilish, says, "One more wish, huh, Peter? All right. Now: There's that big firebush just outside the door. Gets full of all them red blooms real early in the spring-of-the-year. I like my old thornbush but hit's been mommicked up right bad here lately: folks backin' their wagons over it, horses tromplin' it—and these here highfalutin' folks comin' over the mountain a-fox-huntin'. Humph! Go gallopin' all around these pasture-fields fox-huntin' on horseback—their little red coats flappin' out behind. Looks like they got to stop and break ridin' switches off that bush every time they pass here. I wish that anybody teches that firebush, it will grab 'em and pull 'em headforemost right down in the middle where them stickers are the thickest—hold 'em there till I let 'em out."
Saint Peter quit writin', shut his little book, put hit and the gold pencil back inside his white robe, says, "Mighty sorry wishes, John. Looks like you might have made one wish for the good of your soul. You've sure wastedyour chance. But that's what you've wished for and hit'll be that-a-way just like I said. Well, I got to go now."
"Oh, just stay the night, Peter."
And Saint Peter stepped over the doorsill and he was gone from there, and Wicked John couldn't tell which-a-way he went nor nothin'.
Well you'd a-thought old John might have done a little better one way or another after havin' a saint right there in his shop, but it didn't have no effect on him. Aa-aa Lord! He got meaner than ever. Somebody 'uld come and John would tell 'em, "Sit down." He'd trick a man into helpin' him hammer somethin' with that big sledge—and let it shake 'em a while 'fore he'd make it turn loose. And if anybody happened to brush against that firebush hit would grab 'em and they'd get scratched up right pityful, but old John he 'uld just laugh and let 'em stay stuck till he got ready to let 'em go.
So, one way or another, Wicked John turned so cussed he got to be the meanest man in the world. And The Devil—he keeps pretty good track of what's goin' on up here, you know—he got worried. Decided that wouldn't do: havin' anybody out-do him in meanness. So he sent for old John. Wouldn't wait for him to die. Sent one of the little devils to fetch him right now.
Old John looked up one mornin' and there, standin' in the door, was a little horn-ed devil— about a fifth-grade-size devil—little horns just startin' to bump up on his forehead.
"Come on, old man. Daddy sent me to get ye. Said for me to bring ye right on back."
Old John had his hammer raised up, starin' at that little devil—started in hammerin' again. Says, "All right, son. I'll be ready to go with ye in just a few more licks. Got to finish this one horseshoe. Come on in. Hit won't take me but a minute."
"No. Daddy said not to wait."
"All right! All right! Come on in. I'll be as quick as I can."
The little devil he came on inside, frettin'. Watched old John pound a few licks. Looked around the shop—and made for that old rockin' chair. Eased down in it, r'ared back and started rockin'. Says, "You hurry up now. Daddy'll sure get mad if we take too long."
John finished that shoe, soused it in the coolin' tub, throwed it on the ground. The little devil started to get up. Heaved a time or two. And directly the poor little devil's head was goin' whammity-bang! against the chairback.
"Oh, mister, I'm stuck!"
"Now! Hain't that too bad!"
"Ow! Please mister! Let me up!"
"I'll let you go if you get out of here and not bother me no more."
"Yes, sir! I'll leave right now! And I'll not never come back."
"All right. Away with ye!"
And the rockin' chair throwed him out on the ground and—rippity-tuck!—out the door, and down the road!
John went on with his work, and in a few minutes there was another'n—a little devil about high-school-size, little horns spike-in' up. Stood there in the door actin' biggity. Says, "You come on here, old man."
"Why hello, son. Come on in." John kept right on workin'.
"You stop that poundin' and come on with me. Ye hear?"
"Why I can't stop now. This thing's red-hot and I'm bound to finish it 'fore we leave."
"No now! You quit right where you're at. Daddy said if I didn't fetch you back in five minutes he'd roast me good."
John kept right on—bam! bam! bam!
"Huh? Can't hear ye. I can't talk till I get done with this wagon tire."
Well that little devil saw old John was havin' it kind of awkward the way he had to hold up that big iron wagon tire and beat it one-handed. So he lumbered right on inside the shop.
"Stand back then, old man. You hold that thing and let me pound it. We got to hurry."
Leaned over and picked up the big sledge hammer, started swingin' it. Wicked John, he held the tire up and turned it this-a-way and that-a-way. Pulled it out from under the hammer directly, cooled it in the big tub, and leaned it against the wall.
"Much obliged. Hit's finished. What ye poundin' so hard for?" And old John went to laughin'.
Well, the way that hammer was swingin' that little devil around, jerkin' him up and down with his legs a-flyin' ever' which-a-way—hit was a sight-in-this-world !
"Ow! My hands is stuck! O please mister! Make this thing turn me loose!"
"You promise to leave here?"
"Shore I promise!"
"And not come back?"
"Yes, sir! No, sir! You won't never catch me here again!" "Then away with ye!"
When the hammer let go, it slung that little devil up in the rafters. He hit the ground, and when he got his legs untangled he streaked out the door and went dustin' down the road.
Then it wasn't hardly no time at all till Wicked John looked up and there standin' in the door—with his old goat horns roached back over his head, and his forked tail a-swishin', and that big cow's foot of his'n propped up on the sill—was The Old Boy. His eyes were just a-blazin'. Old John kept right on with his work. "Howdy do! Come on in."
"YOU COME ON HERE, OLD MAN! AND I AIN'T GOIN' TO TAKE NO FOOLISHNESS OFF YE NEITHER!"
"All right sir. Just as soon as I get done. Promised a man I'd sharpen this mattick head 'fore twelve. Hit won't take but a few more licks. Come on in, confound it, and sit down!"
"NO! I'LL NOT SIT IN NO CHAIR OF YOUR'N!"
"Suit yourself. But we'll be ready to go quicker'n you can waste time argue-in', if you'll hit this mattick a lick or two while I hold it with the tongs here. Just grab the big sledge leanin' there on the door jam and ..."
"NO! I AIN'T GOIN' TO TECH NO SLEDGE HAMMER NEITHER! YOU DONE MADE ME MAD ENOUGH ALREADY, OLD MAN, THE WAY YOU DONE MY BOYS. AND I'M TAKIN' YOU OFF FROM HERE RIGHT NOW!"
Old John r'ared up, says, "You and who else? Jest tech me! I dare ye!"
The Devil made for him and old John let him have it. And such a punchin', knockin', beatin', you never did see! Poundin', scratchin', kickin', buttin', like two horses fightin'. Wicked John was mean, like I said. He wasn't goin' to take nothin' off nobody, not even the Devil himself. They had a round or two there by the door and fin'lly The Devil grabbed old John by the seat of his britches and heaved him outside. John twisted around some way or other and got hold of The Devil's tail—kinked it up, you know, like tryin' to make an unruly cow go in the barn—yanked right hard. Well that really made The Devil mad.
"BLAST YE, OLD MAN! I'M GOIN' TO LICK THE HIDE OFF YOU RIGHT NOW. JUST SEE IF I DON'T. WHERE'LL I GET ME A SWITCH?"
And the Devil reached to break him a switch off that firebush. Time he touched it, hit wropped all around him and jerked him headforemost right down in the middle of all them long stickers. The old Devil he tried to get loose but the more he thrashed around in there the more he got scratched, till fin'lly he had to give up: his legs hangin' limp out the top of the bush and his head 'way down in there.
Old John was laughin' so hard he had to lean against the shop. "What ye want now?" "Please sir. Let me out."
"Who was that you was goin' to whip? Huh?"
"Nobody.—Now will you let me out of here?"
"I'll let you out of there on one condition: you, nor none of your boys, don't ye never—none of ye—ever come back up here botherin' me no more. You promise me that and I might let ye go."
"Hell yes, I promise.—Now please will you make this bush turn loose of me?" The bush let go, and when the old Devil crawled out he had leaves and trash caught on his horns, and his old long black coat torn to rags. He turned around and when he got his legs to workin', such a kickin' up dust you never did see! They tell me that when The Old Boy left there he wasn't moseyin'.
So Wicked John he never was bothered by any more devils after that. Just kept on blacksmithin' there in his shop. Lived on till he was an old old man. Stayed mean, too— just as mean as ever right to the day he died. And when fin'lly he did die, he didn't do a thing but go right straight to The Pearly Gates. Bam! Bam! Bam!
Saint Peter cracked the door, and when he saw who it was, he backed off a little, says, "Uh—oh!" Looked out. "Er—Hello, John. Just what did you want?"
"Well Peter—seein' as you knowed me, I thought that maybe ..."
"Why John, you can't come in here."
"Oh I know I can't stay, Peter. But I'd sort of like to take me one look around: see them golden streets, hear me a little harp music, and then I'll go."
"Can't do it, John. Can't do it. You wait a minute. I'm just goin' to show you your accounts here on the record. Hand out the book, one of ye."
Saint Peter reached and took the big book, licked his thumb and turned the pages.
"Here you are.—Now here's your two pages in the ledger, John. Look there on the good-deed side. All the ninety-two years you've lived, three entries, 'way up at the top of the page. But over here on the other side—Why!—hit's black, clean to the bottom line. And all the meanness you've done the past twelve years, you can see for yourself, it had to be writ in sideways."
Excerpted from American Folk Tales and Songs by Richard Chase. Copyright © 1956 Richard Chase. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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