“The Legend of the Hanged Fiddler”


from “Fiddler’s Farewell: The Legend of the Hanged Fiddler,” by D. K. Wilgus

One of the fullest “Callahan” legends accompanying the tune was given to Alan Lomax by Oscar Parks Deuchars, Indiana, 1938. Parks, who was orginally from Livingston, Kentucky, reported that he learned the tune from an old man by the name of Bob Lehr, in Jackson Co., Kentucky. A John Callahan, as Parks told Lomax, was being hanged for the killing of a man during a feud. While on the gallows, Callahan offered the fiddle to anyone who would mount the scaffold and play the tune. No one would comply, for fear of being shot, and in his last moments Callahan “busted that fiddle all to pieces over that coffin”.  Parks also recounted Callahan’s marriage, while in prison, to a girl named Betsy Larkin [Betty Likens?] who then lived with him in the jail, from four to six months, in Manchester, Clay Co., Kentucky. Parks dated the event between 1898 and 1908.

… the fiddlers in Arkansas and Oklahoma couple [“The Last of Callahan”] with the demise of a cattle rustler. Sometimes he becomes a horse thief. The story goes that he had been caught by the posse and was unwillingly standing up in a wagon under a tree. A rope had already been passed around his neck and thrown over a limb. When he was asked if he had any “last words” he said he wanted to play the fiddle one last time. In his standing position he played an unnamed tune and then handed the fiddle to one of the bystanders … and the likeness of his tune became “The Last of Callahan.”

from http://www.ceolas.org, by Andrew Kuntz

Another version of the tale was supplied by a Mrs. Herman R. Staten of Paris, Kentucky, who wrote to the Archive of American Folksong soon after World War II to say that she was a Callahan descendent and that her fiddler-father and an elderly relative told her that the Callahan of the tale was an Isaac Callahan who died in the middle of the 19th century, and “knowing he was to hang, he built his coffin, and taking his fiddle he played while his sister danced upon his coffin.”


5 Responses to ““The Legend of the Hanged Fiddler””

  1. Harry William Callahan Says:

    how can I obtain a music sheet or recorded music of someone playing the fiddle – ” Last Callahan”
    I’m a Callahan in the long line of decendants Of Darby

  2. William Henry Young Says:

    I, too, am a Callahan descent. The legend of the hanged fiddler has become a folk tale He was Isaac Callahan, my 4th great uncle. At the moment, I am writing an article based on the Callahn family research. I hope to have it printed in The Kentucky Explorer. You can hear the tune played on YouTube by two fiddlers:. Bruce Molsky and another fiddler who breaks it down into its three parts. Also, I think the sheet music is available.

  3. Kurozuki08 Says:

    I am related to the Callahans through my grandmother. She is a Callahan, born and raised. I researched our history and went all the way back to Issac, Whom I am still searching more information on. I’m so amazed with the history of Isaac and I thank you for the information and the little bit of musical history you uploaded. I am attempting to create a family tree, and this helps a lot with my findings.

  4. Lisa Says:

    The Fiddler was actually Issac Callahan not John. His wife was not Betsy her name was Mahala Wilson.I know this because sheis an ancestor.

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