From a folktale collected in Virginia in 1974 that is included in The Annotated African American Folktales, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Maria Tatar. The anthology was published this month by Liveright.
It was said that this large plantation owner had many slaves, and for one reason or another the Devil appeared to him one day and said that he was going to take the man’s slave whose name was John.
And the plantation owner said, “Why John?”
He said, “Well, it’s just John’s time.”
He said, “Please don’t take John.”
And the Devil said, “Well, what’s so special about John?”
He said, “Well, John is my record keeper.” Says, “I don’t keep any records. I keep no books whatsoever. John has a memory that’s fantastic, and he just doesn’t forget anything. I can ask him about my crops and what I made last year, and all I have to do is tell him and I call him back and ask him what I made and how many bushels of corn and what have you, and John has the answer just like that.”
So the Devil said, “That’s unbelievable. Are you sure about that?”
He said, “I’m positive.”
So the Devil said, “Well, will you call John up here? I want to talk to John — I want to test him out now. If he doesn’t prove you’re right, I’m going to have to take John.”
So the master called John up, and he said, “Now, Mr. Devil, you can ask him anything you want.”
So the Devil said to John, say, “John, do you like eggs?”
And John said, “Yes, sir,” and immediately the Devil disappeared.
Well, it was two years to the day and John was in the cornfield plowing the corn, lying beside the corn, and it was a hot day. John had stopped the mule and sat under a tree. He had his old straw hat just fanning himself, you know. The Devil pops out of the ground, and he says one word to John; he says, “How?”
John says, “Scrambled.”