History Features

Fiddling with History

David Crockett and the "Devil's Box."

David Crockett and the

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David Crockett wore many hats during his lifetime (1786-1836) beside his trademark coonskin.

He is remembered as a farmer, hunter, volunteer soldier, scout, state legislator, U.S. Congressman, author, father, husband and Alamo hero. Recently, another side of Crockett has been driven home with increasing frequency in books, art, illustrations and movies—that of a musician. A frontier fiddle, also known at the time as a “devil’s box,” now has taken its place alongside the coonskin cap and Kentucky Long Rifle as symbols of the Tennessee hero.

Crockett himself is a symbol within the larger story of the Alamo. Depending upon the predilections of those writing about him, Crockett either can be a paragon of frontier virtue and nobility, or an arrogant spearhead of Manifest Destiny. He can die magnificently at the Alamo, fighting to his last breath, or be executed after humbly waiting for his captors to dispatch him at their will. He can be a leading figure or a sort of “aw-shucks” high private who lingers in the background.

The same dichotomy can be said about representations of his fiddle playing. Crockett can be portrayed as playing a quiet, sentimental tune, lulling the men of the Alamo into a rich nostalgia for home and family, or sawing out a raucous reel or jig causing any number of doomed Alamo defenders to break into spontaneous dance. Of the two, the latter is probably truer—not necessarily to fact. The story of the legendary Alamo almost demands Crockett assume the roll of a merry trickster—playing fiddle tunes, dancing jigs, telling stories and generally laughing in the face of death as the enemy’s noose tightens.

Billy Bob Thornton’s Crockett, in the 2004 Touchstone film The Alamo, is given the opportunity to showcase both sides of the frontiersman’s fiddle persona. He scratches out a lively version of “Listen to the Mockingbird Sing” at a fiesta prior to the Alamo siege. Critics of the film point out that this musical selection is anachronistic, adding to a number of complaints about historically inaccurate details of the production.
Yet the song and its performance (played on-camera by Craig Eastman) effectively capture the mood director John Lee Hancock hoped for—that of a light-hearted Crockett, thumbing his nose at death.

Later, during the Alamo siege, the Mexican army’s band serenades the Alamo defenders with an orchestral rendition of the bugle call “Deguello,” supposedly played at the Alamo and promising no quarter for the besieged. In a beautifully played scene, Thornton’s Crockett mounts the Alamo’s wall with his trusty box, picks up on the melody and sends it back to the Mexican troops as “Deguello de Crockett.”

His soulful piece works on two levels. In mimicking the hymn of no mercy, Crockett proclaims the Texans’ defiance and announces he and his companions intend to give as good as they get. On the other hand, the hymn conveys an anti-war message, showing that the Texans and Mexicans are more alike than not, through the commonality of the music. Both sides are mesmerized into quiet reflection by the tune.

Did Crockett actually play the fiddle? Did he carry one to Texas with him? Did he really entertain the doomed Alamo garrison with it? A number of accounts suggest that he did.

 

Fiddlesticks—or not?

The basis for this growing legend first appeared in James M. Morphis’ The History of Texas from its First Discovery and Settlement in 1875, 39 years after the battle, as a quote attributed to Alamo survivor, Susanna Dickinson. As the wife of Alamo defender Almeron, she endured the 13-day siege, surviving with the couple’s infant daughter, Angelina. Morphis, reported Dickinson as saying, “Col. Crockett was a performer on the violin, and often during the siege took it up and played his favorite tunes.”

Another bit of evidence came to us more circuitously. In the early 1930s, Amelia Williams used Susanna Arabella Sterling (nee Griffith), granddaughter of Dickinson, as a source for her doctoral dissertation, “A Critical Study of the Siege of the Alamo and of the Personnel of its Defenders.”

Sterling, close to 70 years old at the time of the interview, related stories about the Alamo her grandmother had entertained her with while Sterling was a child and young woman. One such story she shared with Williams was that of Alamo defender, John McGregor. “One story that always amused her,” Williams wrote,  “was Mrs. Dickerson’s [sic] account of John McGregor and his bagpipes. She said that when the fighting would lull, and the Texans had time for rest and relaxation, John McGregor and David Crockett would give a sort of musical concert, or rather a musical competition, to see which one could make the best music, or the most noise—David with his fiddle, and John with his bagpipes. She said McGregor always won...

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