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The Mountain Whippoorwill
Stephen Vincent Benét


(Or, How Hill-Billy Jim Won the Great Fiddlers' Prize)



Up in the mountains, it's lonesome all the time,
(Sof' win' slewin' thu' the sweet-potato vine.)

Up in the mountains, it's lonesome for a child,
(Whippoorwills a-callin' when the sap runs wild.)

Up in the mountains, mountains in the fog,
Everythin's as lazy as an old houn' dog.

Born in the mountains, never raised a pet,
Don't want nuthin' an' never got it yet.

Born in the mountains, lonesome-born,
Raised runnin' ragged thu' the cockleburrs and corn.

Never knew my pappy, mebbe never should.
Think he was a fiddle made of mountain laurel-wood.

Never had a mammy to teach me pretty-please.
Think she was a whippoorwill, a-skittin' thu' the trees.

Never had a brother ner a whole pair of pants,
But when I start to fiddle, why, yuh got to start to dance!

Listen to my fiddle – Kingdom Come – Kingdom Come!
Hear the frogs a-chunkin' "Jug o' rum, Jug o' rum!"

Hear that mountain whippoorwill be lonesome in the air,
An' I'll tell yuh how I travelled to the Essex County Fair.

Essex County has a mighty pretty fair,
All the smarty fiddlers from the South come there.

Elbows flyin' as they rosin up the bow
For the First Prize Contest in the Georgia Fiddlers' Show.

Old Dan Wheeling, with his whiskers in his ears,
King-pin fiddler for nearly twenty years.

Big Tom Sergeant, with his blue wall-eye,
An' Little Jimmy Weezer that can make a fiddle cry.

All sittin' roun', spittin' high an' struttin' proud,
(Listen, little whippoorwill, yuh better bug yore eyes!)

Tun-a-tun-a-tunin' while the jedges told the crowd
Them that got the mostest claps'd win the bestest prize.

Everybody waitin' for the first tweedle-dee,
When in comes a-stumblin' – hill-billy me!

Bowed right pretty to the jedges an' the rest,
Took a silver dollar from a hole inside my vest,

Plunked it on the table an' said, "There's my callin' card!
An' anyone that licks me – well, he's got to fiddle hard!"

Old Dan Wheeling, he was laughin' fit to holler,
Little Jimmy Weezer said, "There's one dead dollar!"

Big Tom Sergeant had a yaller-toothy grin,
But I tucked my little whippoorwill spang underneath my chin,

An' petted it an' tuned it till the jedges said, "Begin!"

Big Tom Sargent was the first in line;
He could fiddle all the bugs off a sweet-potato vine.

He could fiddle down a possum from a mile-high tree,
He could fiddle up a whale from the bottom of the sea.

Yuh could hear hands spankin' till they spanked each other raw,
When he finished variations on "Turkey in the Straw."

Little Jimmy Weezer was the next to play;
He could fiddle all night, he could fiddle all day.

He could fiddle chills, he could fiddle fever,
He could make a fiddle rustle like a lowland river.

He could make a fiddle croon like a lovin' woman.
An' they clapped like thunder when he'd finished strummin'.

Then came the ruck of the bob-tailed fiddlers,
The let's-go-easies, the fair-to-middlers.

They got their claps an' they lost their bicker,
An' they all settled back for some more corn-licker.

An' the crowd was tired of their no-count squealing,
When out in the center steps Old Dan Wheeling.

He fiddled high and he fiddled low,
(Listen, little whippoorwill, yuh got to spread yore wings!)
He fiddled and fiddled with a cherrywood bow,

(Old Dan Wheeling's got bee-honey in his strings).

He fiddled a wind by the lonesome moon,
He fiddled a most almighty tune.

He started fiddling like a ghost.
He ended fiddling like a host.

He fiddled north an' he fiddled south,
He fiddled the heart right out of yore mouth.

He fiddled here an' he fiddled there.
He fiddled salvation everywhere.

When he was finished, the crowd cut loose,
(Whippoorwill, they's rain on yore breast.)

An' I sat there wonderin' "What's the use?"
(Whippoorwill, fly home to yore nest.)

But I stood up pert an' I took my bow,
An' my fiddle went to my shoulder, so.

An' – they wasn't no crowd to get me fazed –
But I was alone where I was raised.

Up in the mountains, so still it makes yuh skeered.
Where God lies sleepin' in his big white beard.

An' I heard the sound of the squirrel in the pine,
An' I heard the earth a-breathin' thu' the long night-time.

They've fiddled the rose, and they've fiddled the thorn,
But they haven't fiddled the mountain-corn.

They've fiddled sinful an' fiddled moral,
But they haven't fiddled the breshwood-laurel.

They've fiddled loud, and they've fiddled still,
But they haven't fiddled the whippoorwill.

I started off with a dump-diddle-dump,
(Oh, hell's broke loose in Georgia!)

Skunk-cabbage growin' by the bee-gum stump.
(Whippoorwill, yo're singin' now!)

My mother was a whippoorwill pert,
My father, he was lazy,

But I'm hell broke loose in a new store shirt
To fiddle all Georgia crazy.

Swing yore partners – up an' down the middle!
Sashay now – oh, listen to that fiddle!
Flapjacks flippin' on a red-hot griddle,

An' hell's broke loose,
Hell's broke loose,
Fire on the mountains – snakes in the grass.
Satan's here a-bilin' – oh, Lordy, let him pass!
Go down Moses, set my people free;

Pop goes the weasel thu' the old Red Sea!
Jonah sittin' on a hickory-bough,
Up jumps a whale – an' where's yore prophet now?
Rabbit in the pea-patch, possum in the pot,

Try an' stop my fiddle, now my fiddle's gettin' hot!
Whippoorwill, singin' thu' the mountain hush,
Whippoorwill, shoutin' from the burnin' bush,
Whippoorwill, cryin' in the stable-door,
Sing tonight as yuh never sang before!
Hell's broke loose like a stompin' mountain-shoat,
Sing till yuh bust the gold in yore throat!
Hell's broke loose for forty miles aroun'
Bound to stop yore music if yuh don['t sing it down.
Sing on the mountains, little whippoorwill,
Sing to the valleys, an' slap 'em with a hill,
For I'm struttin' high as an eagle's quill,
An' hell's broke loose,
Hell's broke loose,
Hell's broke loose in Georgia!

They wasn't a sound when I stopped bowin',
(Whippoorwill, yuh can sing no more.)
But, somewhere or other, the dawn was growin',
(Oh, mountain whippoorwill!)

An' I thought, "I've fiddled all night an' lost,
Yo're a good hill-billy, but yuh've been bossed."

So I went to congratulate old man Dan,
– But he put his fiddle into my han' –

An' then the noise of the crowd began!


Copyright © 1925 Stephen Vincent Benet
Copyright renewed © 1953 Rosemary Carr Benet.
Used here by arrangement with Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents, Inc.
All rights reserved.









Stephen Vincent Benét (1898 - 1943) was born into a military family for whom poetry was a particular pleasure. Afflicted with scarlet fever as a toddler, his eyesight was permanently damaged, but Steven loved to read and began writing poetry and winning prizes for it while still a child. At seventeen, he published his first book and entered Yale University. During his brief life, Stephen created work in almost every genre of literature, earning two Pulitzer Prizes, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an O. Henry Short Story Award along the way. His story, "The Sobbin' Women," based on the Roman legend of the abduction of the Sabine women, was the basis for the hit movie "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."


Post New Comment:
Went looking for this after reading that it was the basis for Charlie Daniels' "Devil Went Down to Georgia." It was more than I had hoped for. And after reading S.V.B.'s mini-bio, I find it absolutely remarkable that a man from a military family with no personal experience could capture the soul of Appalachian Americana.
Posted 05/05/2024 09:12 PM
PaulBernard Bits of "the Ballad of William Sycamore" surfaced in the back of my brain yesterday, from high school back in the 60's. I'm pretty sure it's not great poetry (who reads it anymore?) but it's great something...
Posted 05/06/2022 01:38 PM
I remember this poem from high school, nearly 60 years ago. Last night I shared it with my granddaughter; I believe it will have as lasting an effect on her.
Posted 03/20/2020 08:23 AM
Here in Devon this is the most 'American' poem I've ever read and I loved it! Here's hoping dialects never fade out. This is a beauty!
Posted 08/18/2015 01:26 AM
What fun to read Stephen Vincent Benet again. Great use of language, dialect. When I was in high school forensics, a great many years ago, I did a piece by him one year. Enjoyed, and had some success with it.
Posted 08/17/2015 03:52 PM
Posted 08/17/2015 03:00 PM
my toe's a tapping!
Posted 08/17/2015 01:43 PM
This poem has jump-started my morning.
Posted 08/17/2015 09:10 AM
I agree with Larry. What a wonderful poem.
Posted 08/17/2015 08:32 AM
Larry Schug:
I'd never put the poet's face or background with this poem! Just goes to show ya. An open mind is full of surprises. Thanks, Jayne.
Posted 08/17/2015 08:07 AM
Oh, my! Feet and head are dancing. Thanks for this.
Posted 08/17/2015 07:43 AM

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