You’ve heard it before. Behave, or some monster’s going to get you! NEVER take candy from random adults on the streets! It’s what our folks tell us to teach us not everyone we meet is friendly. It’s the kind of advice a woman named Beatrice Conners should’ve taken, but–she didn’t.
Beatrice is the main character in a piece by Wynton Marsalis called A Fiddler’s Tale (1998). It’s a retelling of Igor Stravinsky’s L’Historie de soldat (1918). It is also part of an even longer tradition of stories where a person runs into a demon/devil/magic man who offers them something special–if they give up their soul. In some of these stories, like Charlie Daniels’ The Devil Went Down to Georgia; Malindy and Little Devil; and Rumpelstiltskin, the person outwits this demon/devil/magic man and gets something special. But others, like Goethe’s Faust, Stravinsky’s soldier, and Marsalis’s Beatrice, aren’t so lucky.
Marsalis and his longtime friend Stanley Crouch set A Fiddler’s Tale in a Black Southern folk context, with a small ensemble (violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, drum set, cornet, trombone, and narrator). There is just about every musical style you can think of in Marsalis’ A Fiddler’s Tale, slinky blues and jazz combos, dissonant tangos, rags, and waltzes. Marsalis uses classical and American music to build the story’s tension: can you make it big without giving yourself up?
A Fiddler’s Tale starts with Beatrice and her band playing and walking (Fiddler’s March). She’s a phenomenal fiddler, but she isn’t happy. She wants to be a star; she sure is good enough! This desire makes her the perfect target for Bubba Z. Beals, aka B.Z.B., the Devil. He promises her success equal to her talent (Fiddler’s Soul). Beatrice strikes a deal with the devil and becomes a superstar. Bubba Z. renames her “The Beacon” or “The Beacon with the Bow.” He is fully in control, even telling the narrator to step aside!
Five years later, Beatrice isn’t shining so brightly. Her music is stale and hollow (Pastorale) and when she returns home, her band rejects her. At her lowest, she meets her idol, the legendary fiddler Uncle Bud. Uncle Bud gives her a drink that reignites her passion and skill and tells her to see a holy man traveling through the South (Happy March). But Bubba Z. is there to “see” the savior, too. Beatrice and the embarrassed narrator trick Bubba Z. into drinking Uncle Bud’s holy water, leading to a reunion with Beatrice and her band (Concert Piece). Her performance heals the holy man (Tango, Waltz, Ragtime) just as Bubba Z. returns, enraged. He demands Beatrice give him Uncle Bud’s violin, but she refuses: he’s gotta “dance [his] way out of this.” (Devil’s Dance). The holy man embraces Beatrice, “the beacon of the spirit and the beacon of the sound.” (Little Chorale)
But you can’t please this lady. Beatrice feels trapped working with the savior (Big Chorale). It’s keeping her “outside of the big action.” She runs away and finds Uncle Bud, who gives her something to drink. But it’s horrible, nasty stuff — it’s Bubba Z.! In this final act of trickery, the devil comes out on top (The Blues on Top). If there is a lesson in A Fiddler’s Tale, it’s that happiness can be elusive, and you have to give something to get something. But that doesn’t mean a major sacrifice is a right choice–especially if it calls for giving up the thing you loved in the first place.