Jersey Devil music, like the legendary creature itself, doesn’t seem to exist until it suddenly appears — sometimes seemingly from nowhere.
That’s the case with a song that starts with the Jersey Devil declaring, “Hear me now! I was born 13th child, ’neath the 13th moon/Spit out hungry and born anew.”
The song is Bruce Springsteen’s “A Night with the Jersey Devil.”
The New Jersey rock ‘n’ roll legend released it on Halloween 2008 as a free download-only single.
Springsteen accompanied it with the following note: “Dear Friends and Fans, if you grew up in central or south Jersey, you grew up with the ‘Jersey Devil.’ Here’s a little musical Halloween treat. Have fun!”
With a driving blues rhythm and a revivalist’s fiery phrasing, Springsteen pulls from Southern Gospel Blues and hometown folklore to create a piece that breathes contemporary fire into the Jersey Devil theme and contributes to the storytelling on both a CD and in a video.
The latter features Springsteen as various characters — devil and pastor appearing in moments evoking haunted Colonial landscapes and sinister American Gothic moods and raging country ministers.
“Ram’s head, forked tail, clove hoof, loves my trail,” he proclaims menacingly. It’s followed up with the lines, “I sup on your body, sip on your blood like wine,” soon moves to “So kiss me baby till it hurts/Gods lost in heaven, we lost on earth,” and ends by making rock ‘n’ roll’s roots very clear by evoking Gene Vincent’s “Baby Blue.”
A nod to American and New Jersey traditions, “A Night With the Jersey Devil” can be seen at brucespringsteen.net/news/2012/a-night-with-the-jersey-devil.
The song at the top of the article, “The Devil From Leeds” is part and parcel of the Pinelands tradition of Jersey Devil storytelling and music — although its composer is a Texan conservationist who had moved to New Jersey.
In a recent telephone discussion, Russell Juelg, now a senior land steward at the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, says he was volunteering at the Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge in Medford when he got involved with education programs.
One of the events involved the musicians Carol Ann and Jim Sweet. “Jim and Carol were wonderful musicians,” he says, “I was trying to teach myself the five string banjo. Little by little we got better acquainted and played music together. They were teaching me. There were a couple of other guys who joined us, and we formed the Sugar Sand Ramblers. And we put together enough songs to play at Albert Music Hall.”
Juelg says he learned about the Jersey Devil from the daughter of the refuge’s founder and thought the “bizarre piece of folklore” could be used for ecological programs and Pinelands conservation efforts “because the Jersey Devil symbolizes the wildness of the Pine Barrens and the distinctiveness of the region.”
But he says the main thing about writing the song “was that I was fascinated with the Jersey Devil. Some line and chord progression in a minor key occurred to me, and I put the song together. We played that at Albert Hall for at least several years until I dropped out of the band. I don’t know if anyone continues the song or not.
“It’s a fun song. I try to have a mixture of drama and humor. It’s one of those songs that had a very distinct sound.”
After saying he doesn’t really know how to explain the Sugar Sand Ramblers, he says it was music played by most of their friends and other Pinelands musicians — “Mostly folk, old style country, and some elements of old blue grass, but not the newer bluegrass and country stuff. It’s the ‘Albert Hall’ kind of genre — old folk, old bluegrass, and old country. There is a nostalgic element to it and not much innovation. It is mostly celebrating those old sounds.”
Juelg eventually worked for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance (PPA), where the staff and a group of artists from Monmouth University created a life size papier mache and wood figure of the Jersey Devil that keeps watch over a room used for meetings and for brides who hold their weddings at the PPA barn in Vincentown.
Juelg says one activity he conducted for the PPA was the regular Jersey Devil Hunts — designed as outreach and community events.
“I had a specific dramatic version of the story and found what worked dramatically and what worked from a comedy standpoint. I always tied to make it funny,” he says.
Asked if the hunts yielded any catches, Juelg says, “The only thing I can say is that there were times we were out there and heard and saw things we couldn’t account for. But we never had the classic Jersey Devil encounter where you actually see it and say, ‘That had to be the Jersey Devil,’ or heard something that was so frightening you’d have to conclude that it was the Jersey Devil.”
Thinking about the hunts and the stories, Juelg says, “That’s what makes folklore so interesting. You really do have a lot of stories too hard to explain in one consistent way. People say they heard mountain lions or saw some large birds ahead. And there are a lot of different kinds of experience, so there isn’t one explanation for all these encounters that people have reported.
“I don’t want to disturb the mystique of the Jersey Devil, but I’ll tell you what I think. If you look around the world you see the depictions of strange creatures that are remarkably consistent although they’re from different places of the world — totem pole figures, Hindu images of demonic creatures. I think we carry this imagery around in our subconscious.
“We used to be the prey at one time, and I think there are some images that are still with us. My hypothesis is that at certain moments, in scary situations we encounter, that imagery can come forward in the consciousness. So someone can ‘see’ one of these bizarre-looking creatures. It’s dark and it’s spooky and suddenly we see something up close, and we see some imagery tucked deep in our brains.”
Hear the Sugar Sand Ramblers sing on Youtube.