Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Beat The Devil’s Tattoo

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 3, 2011

When you’re accused of beating the Devil’s tattoo, you’re being told that you are drumming on a hard surface with your fingers.  More often than not, it’s thought of a sign of impatience or ill-humour to be beating the Devil’s tattoo, but it need not be.  The saying, though seldom used these days, is still heard from time to time.

California psych-garage trio Black Rebel Motorcycle Club released their sixth CD last year entitled, “Beat The Devil’s Tattoo.”  This trio of young musicians must have heard or read the expression somewhere along the line to christen their CD with the phrase.  And it appears to work for them as Rolling Stone has referred to the band and their music as “unremittingly grim and undeniably fun.”

Back in the 1960s there was a very famous race horse according to Florida Horse Magazine known as “Devil’s Tattoo.”  If another horse beat the “Devil’s Tattoo” there was definitely some serious drumming going on the racetrack surface! In 1965, Miami resident — and former Chairman of the Florida State Racing Commission — Louie Bandel along with Mrs. Edith Marienhoff, bred and sold Devil’s Tattoo for $70,000.

In O. O. McIntyre‘s column “New York Day By Day” run in the Milwaukee Sentinel on January 8, 1935, the author included a tidbit about the Rainbow Room, a top “swank spot” in the sky high Rockefeller Center. Part of Mr. McIntyre’s review of the Rainbow Room included this bit:

The night I was there a melancholy mood singer was husking to a twanging guitar.  Several couples sat starry eyes, enraptured.  I could only beat a devil’s tattoo on the chair arm and wonder how much the tax on the check.  Sacre tonnere, what a thing to get old!

On June 7, 1907 the Pittsburgh Press ran a story about President  Roosevelt entitled, “Roosevelt Is Very Restless.”  It detailed the woes of a professional photographer who had agreed to do an official portrait of the President but much to his dismay, this proved to be quite a task in itself.  The story related in part:

He did pull his head back a bit then, but he immediately began to drum on the table with the fingers of his right hand.  I requested him to belay that while I was focussing him, and then he began to beat the devil’s tattoo on the armchair with the fingers of his left hand.  He smiled very broadly when I asked him not to do that, and by this time he was huddled all in a bunch in the chair again, and once more I had to take hold of him and unravel some of the knots from his right position. 

Finally I got the snap at him, but the picture wasn’t satisfactory to me, although he seemed to like it.  He was profoundly bored, apparently, by the time I got through pulling him around in the chair, and when Mr. Roosevelt is bored his expression is sardonic.

In Chapter 11 of the book entitled, “No Name” written by Wilkie Collins (1824 – 1889) and published in 1862, one passage in the book recounts the following with regards to Captain Wragge:

He sat unflinchingly at the window with a patience which Mrs. Lecount herself could not have surpassed. The one active proceeding in which he seemed to think it necessary to engage was performed by deputy. He sent the servant to the inn to hire a chaise and a fast horse, and to say that he would call himself before noon that day and tell the hostler when the vehicle would be wanted. Not a sign of impatience escaped him until the time drew near for the departure of the early coach. Then the captain’s curly lips began to twitch with anxiety, and the captain’s restless fingers beat the devil’s tattoo unremittingly on the window-pane.

The New York Times ran a series of short news items on September 27, 1854 with one sub-heading entitled, “Calloa Items.”  The two news items under this sub-heading were each a paragraph in length and read thusly:

The fine clipper ship Kate Hayes was sold at the offices of the American Consul in Calloa on Monday last.  She brought $27,400, Mr. Seville of this city being the purchaser.

The same day, during a drunken brawl, two men were wounded, and a cavalry soldier, in attempting to beat “the devil’s tattoo” on the heads of two countrymen with the ramrod of his pistol, inflicted serious injury.

In Edgar Allen Poe‘s satirical short story entitled, “The Devil In The Belfry” published on May 18, 1839 in the Philadelphia issue of the Saturday Chronicle and Mirror of the Times, the story takes readers to the Dutch borough of Vondervotteimittiss — a quaint, out-of-the-way spot where very little of anything happens.   In this story, fans of Edgar Allen Poe (1809 – 1849) find this paragraph:

But the little chap seized him at once by the nose; gave it a swing and a pull; clapped the big chapeau de-bras upon his head; knocked it down over his eyes and mouth; and then, lifting up the big fiddle, beat him with it so long and so soundly, that what with the belfry-man being so fat, and the fiddle being so hollow, you would have sworn that there was a regiment of double-bass drummers all beating the devil’s tattoo up in the belfry of the steeple of Vondervotteimittiss.

Idiomation was unable to find a published version of the phrase “beat the Devil’s tattoo” prior to Poe’s use however as with other expressions that are found in literature, it is reasonable to believe the phrase was a common expression used often enough to be recognizable to the general public and so it’s very likely that this phrase goes back to at least 1800.

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8 Responses to “Beat The Devil’s Tattoo”

  1. David Spharler said

    Dickens used the phrase in “Bleak House”, published in installments in 1852-3.

  2. Jake said

    Schopenhauer as well, used the phrase.

  3. It was also used by Dr Barnardo when he referred to himself being attacked in a pub after trying to sell the Bible to a bunch of drunk teenagers… who in response to his preaching took him to ground and, “…with the flat part of the table pressing upon me. It’s legs being in the air, whilst several of the biggest lads leapt inside it, dancing a Devil’s Tattoo, to my great discomfort”

  4. Lauren said

    It is used in the novel Vanity Fair by Thackeray as well, which I believe was written in the late 19th century

  5. Charlene Walker said

    A tattoo, a signal sound issued by a horn or drum, was used to alert soldiers and sailors to return to their quarters. A summoning sound, if you will. Is it possible that drumming the Devil’s tattoo was once an allegation of summoning evil or the Devil?

  6. Guilherme said

    I have found it in Trollope’s Doctor Thorne – “There are some things a man cannot bear, doctor,” said he, beating the devil’s tattoo on the floor with one of his feet

    • Thank you for sharing the information you’ve found on the expression, “beat the devil’s tattoo” in Anthony Trollope’s book, “Doctor Thorne” published in 1858. As always, Idiomation appreciates input from its readership as well as from site visitors.

      For those who are unfamiliar with this book and this author, it was the third book published by Anthony Trollope in his “Chronicles of Barsetshire” series.

      In Volume XXIII of the “Monthly Review” edited and published in 1797 by Ralph Griffiths and G.E. Griffiths, it clearly states in the article “A Philosophical and Practical Treatise on Horses and on the Moral Duties of Man Towards the Brute Creation” written by John Lawrence, that beating the devil’s tattoo cannot be done with one’s feet. To do so is to be a toe-jockey otherwise known as a taylor on horseback.

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