"And they are dancing, the board floor slamming under the jackboots and the fiddlers grinning hideously over their canted pieces. Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his great skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and takes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling at once."
Death playing a bone fiddle in Alfred Rethel's painting Death as the Avenger (c. 1847-48)
Public DomainDeath playing a bone fiddle in Alfred Rethel's painting Death as the Avenger (c. 1847-48) - Credit: Alfred Rethel 16 Zeichnungen und Entwürfe

The closing scene in the Fort Griffin saloon, with the fiddling Holden surrounded by dancers, completes the characterisation of the Judge as some Satanic Lord of Misrule, for the fiddle or violin has long held a folkloric association with the Devil.

 

While the Devil plays all instruments equally well, he seems to prefer the violin. He was said in the Middle Ages to own a violin with which he could set whole cities, grandparents and grandchildren, men and women, girls and boys, to dancing, dancing until they fell dead from sheer exhaustion.

(Maximilian Rudwin, The Devil in Legend and Literature)

 

This folk belief can be seen in traditional Norweigan weddings, where the fiddler accompaning the wedding procession was denied access to the church. The association between the violin or fiddle with the Devil also informs the legend of Giuseppe Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata (1713), inspired by a dream in which the Devil granted the composer the song in exchange for his soul.

McCarthy's and Rudwin's dancers also bring to mind the legend of the Danse Macabre, the dance-with-death allegory which emerged in Medieval Europe around the time of the Black Death:

 

Death, the devil’s first cousin, if not his alter ego, has the souls, in the Dance of Death, march off to hell to a merry tune on his violin.

(Maximilian Rudwin, Devil Stories)

 

'A Mormon and his wives dancing to the devil's tune' (1850), by McGee Van Dusen
Public Domain'A Mormon and his wives dancing to the devil's tune' (1850), by McGee Van Dusen - Credit: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Tartini's Dream (1824), by Louis-Léopold Boilly
Public DomainTartini's Dream (1824), by Louis-Léopold Boilly - Credit: Bibliothèque Nationale de France