When is a murder ballad high art? Certainly when filmmaker and musician Anthony Ladesich and his creative compatriots get hold of it.
Ladesich was kind enough to speak with me at length about a wonderful film project that he brought to fruition in 2011 with the help of a highly talented group of folks. Simply put, they turned the ancient murder ballad “Two Sisters” into a unique and compelling short film.
There were two sisters…
What sparks the vision to do something like that? It started with curiosity about a murder ballad Ladesich thought he’d heard on an older album.
“I remembered hearing the band Mule’s song, I thought it was “Two Sisters”, I thought it was a murder ballad… turns out it was ‘Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet’ instead!” “But that sent me down the road to trying to figure out what the song was and I came to Gillian Welch’s version …”
|From Fun with the Viola
Welch’s version, powerful and evocative, inspired him to dive in to the history of the ballad. He listened to every version he could find and the idea for the movie took shape. “I wanted to make a narrative film that used that song as a basis… I wanted to play it out in front of people.”
Why? For one thing, Ladesich is no stranger to murder ballads.
“I remember singing “Tom Dooley” in kindergarten… having it be in the Mel Bay book, then later finding out that “Tom Dooley” was a murder ballad… I’m not unique. I came to *understand* murder ballads the way a lot of people in my generation did – through Johnny Cash, songs like “Folsom Prison”, “Delia”… I was always drawn to those songs. Bands I played in always played those kinds of songs.”
But there’s more to it than just musical fascination. Ladesich has been interested in people’s *reactions* to murder ballads since the release of Eminem’s “Kim” in 2000. “I was just baffled by why there was so much outrage, because Country and Western has songs that are much worse.”
The disconnect really affected him, and still does.
“I’ve heard people sing “Folsom Prison Blues” at karaoke nights. Children sing murder ballads… people are such passive consumers of traditional material, and you hear people kind of do these songs, and they don’t realize they’re singing a song about a vicious person!”
Addressing that is part of the motivation for this art. “What if people could actually see what happens in these songs? I wanted a visual representation… not a horror film, but a film that’s horrific… I’m gonna grab you by the scruff of the neck and pin your eyes open and make you watch! I wanted to make something that would kind of burrow in and maybe bother somebody in that way… it’s ended up more poetic than horrific, but still has that grotesque vibe.”
I’ve had the chance to preview it, and I know of nothing else in the world of film that attempts such a feat – to directly and faithfully recreate (not just ‘reproduce’) an Anglo-American murder ballad cinematically – and that alone makes the film a unique experience.
Set in rural 19th century America, this short film is not just novel and creative – it feels timeless. Certainly “poetry” is the right word to describe it. It is indeed a lyric ballad writ large successfully on the screen, and more.
Here’s the official trailer.
Two Sisters – OFFICIAL TRAILER
from Anthony Ladesich
“Two Sisters” is on the festival circuit (where’s it’s already taken top prize at two events, and the next screening is at the Kansas City Urban Film Festival, Sept. 7-9, 2012) but is not yet available for online viewing. Thankfully, Ladesich is willing to let us offer details here – and this film is worth talking about! I’d warn you, but it would be hard to say that the discussion below contains spoilers. As he pointed out to me with a laugh, if you know the ballad, then you know how this movie goes! It’s no murder mystery.
The only tune that fiddle would play…
So, first, let’s be clear on the version of the ancient ballad “Two Sisters” (Child 10 / Roud 8) that beats at the heart of this film. The core version is “Wind and Rain”, an introduction to which you can find in this post, which also covers the origins of the whole ballad group. Another entry, here, provides a more detailed exploration of the roots of “Wind and Rain” in the second half of the post.
If you don’t want to read all that, here’s the skinny (or just skip this and the next paragraph if you’re familiar with the ballad.) “Two Sisters” was in print as an English broadside by 1656, but is likely at least 500 years old, and possibly even twice that age. Its origins are Scandinavian. In full traditional versions of the ballad, or the related fairy tales, one sister (the elder / darker, almost always) drowns the other (the younger / fairer) because of jealously over a man and the gifts he gives her. The body of the youngest floats in a stream and is discovered by a wandering minstrel. He makes an instrument (usually a harp or a fiddle) of her bones and hair, then the instrument “sings” the truth of the eldest’s treachery at her wedding to the stolen bridegroom.
|Binnorie – John D. Batten, illustration for “English Fairy Tales”, 1911
The “Wind and Rain” variant spends less time on the back story before the murder and more on the act itself, and describes in detail the minstrel’s discovery of the body and the making of the instrument from the younger sister’s bones. It implies the revelation of the crime in the last verse, usually with lyrics like “the only tune that fiddle would play was “Oh, the Wind and Rain.” The listener has been hearing the magic tune the whole time and thus knows the truth.
Remarkably, while the film is faithful to the broad narrative in traditional versions of “Wind and Rain”, what Ladesich and his cast and crew achieved is not simply a retelling of that ballad on the screen. Ladesich even composed a new version of Child 10, though you’d never know it because the new lyrics fit the traditional structure so well.
“I wanted to change the story slightly. I looked at all of the versions of the song starting with Gillian Welch, and I took lines from older versions… then I wrote new lyrics. I wanted to add to the oral tradition. It feels really pretentious when I say it, but I just wanted to add to the song.”
Folks, there’s nothing pretentious about it. Ladesich’s version of the ballad is fine handiwork, both craft and art; the seams don’t show at all. The new lyrics, to my mind, open up an entirely new chapter on this ancient story and, particularly when integrated with the film, become that addition to the oral tradition he was hoping for.
As well, the wandering minstrel’s delivery of the ballad on screen is powerfully haunting, in no small part because of an outstanding arrangement and performance. Betse Ellis plays a mournful fiddle while Mark Smeltzer sings the tragic tale with such power and authenticity that I got shivers.
Luckily, Ladesich agreed to allow Murder Ballad Monday to post this wonderful track. Enjoy! (Though you can’t download the track or share the widget, you should be able to comment on it in Soundcloud, or feel free to do so down below!)
Ladesich has the highest praise for Ellis and Smeltzer. “I surround myself with people that are very exacting. When we were talking about arranging the song, Betse said, “No one’s going to believe this unless we do it right…” I knew she had to be the fiddle player – the fiddle is the *soul* of that woman. Mark, the travelling minstrel, is an incredible musician in his own right – builds his own instruments… even out of trash! I knew he had to be the minstrel because he’s that guy! In many ways, he’s that character. He’s not an actor, he’s a musician. He made that fiddle. He studied the fiddle, the history of the fiddle, and Gray’s Anatomy for the film, like “If I was going to make a fiddle out of bones, what would it look like?”. He made that fiddle the night before we started filming. He made it in one night. That’s what he wanted to do.”
|simulated bone fiddle by Mark Smeltzer
photograph by Phil Peterson
Indeed, the effect of the simulated bone fiddle is strong – and like so much else in this film, it works just under the surface.
All along the road came a minstrel fair…
So anyway, how did Ladesich change the story? For one thing, the younger sister’s husband wants to be with the dark sister, and has *something* to do with the way things play out, though we’re left to wonder how much. But the critical change is more subtle, and makes all the difference.
Ladesich explains; “In some ways the song is about two sisters, but the film is about the travelling minstrel. In the song, he’s in their story. In the film, they’re in *his* story.”
It didn’t start that way exactly. Ladesich first cut the movie chronologically, as one hears it in any version of the traditional ballad. This is critical in the way the viewer understands the narrative because the script has little sustained dialogue. Ladesich noted in fact, “There was a version of the script where there was no dialogue at all… As we added dialogue the film got richer.”
Still, when filming was done, things weren’t falling in to place for Ladesich – not at all.
“When I first cut the film I had a dark night of the soul… I cut the film the way the script was written, but it didn’t work because it wasn’t sympathetic… I just couldn’t handle the fact that it wasn’t working emotionally. I felt like I’d wasted everyone’s time…”
Ladesich called many of his friends involved in the project to share what he was going through, but for the most part they just didn’t seem as upset; they trusted that he’d find the way to make it work.
“Ultimately, everyone gave me enough rope to hang myself – they let me sit with it… cutting it in a non-linear fashion, that’s when that happened. And ultimately I cut it up and I could tell immediately that it was working…”
The film opens and closes at the key event, the minstrel’s performance at the harvest ball, the forum for the revelation of the crime. But as he begins to play the murder ballad, the story behind it all unfolds in a series of flashbacks that do not follow a strict chronology. The scraps of dialogue build on each other emotionally, not simply logically. And, most importantly, the non-linear approach creates space for Ladesich’s key contribution to the development of Child 10 – it allows the minstrel to become the core of the narrative.
|Mark Smeltzer as the Travelling Minstrel
photograph by Phil Peterson
“The way the film is now – the way it jumps back and forth in time – we get clues and evidence to what’s happening and why, and by the end hopefully you see him not as some psychopathic person but as the deliverer of justice, which is what I think he is… Mark’s a lovely, glorious, creative human being who I’m lucky to know. He’s very trusting and I’m lucky he trusted me so much. By allowing the film to be about him, it allows everything he did emotionally to breathe and to make sense.”
He sang before her family all…
The lack of chronologic linearity does not detract from a key feature of the film – it is paced and otherwise structured precisely as a traditional Anglo-American murder ballad should be. I asked Ladesich about how hard this was to accomplish.
“Because I’m a musician *and* a filmmaker, it’s become second nature. Really, scenes are just verses – there’s verses, chorus, and bridges… You really can orchestrate a film like it’s a musical composition.”
And, as it turns out, Ladesich and Smeltzer weren’t the only musicians on the set. The rest of the main cast were as well! (Erin McGrane plays the elder sister, Kasey Rausch the younger, and Richard Alwyn Fisher her husband.) Ladesich credits this as one of the crucial elements in the success of the film.
“It wasn’t just *me* making the film. *Everyone* bought in, and everyone was thinking about it in musical terms… I directed the actors using terms like ‘tone’, and ‘tempo’, and ‘rhythm’ – down to phrases like “wait a beat” and things like that.”
|“It wasn’t just *me* making the film.”
photograph by Phil Peterson
What we’ve got here then is singular and compelling. Most of you haven’t yet seen the film, so I hesitate to say too much about my interpretation. I love the traditional versions of Child 10. But bringing the wandering minstrel’s part to the center and redefining the husband/lover’s role to include ambiguous blame in the crime to my mind make this film a remarkably evocative and fresh take on the traditional narrative.
So, it’s more than an ancient murder ballad made in to a movie. Ladesich has added another link to a chain that stretches back perhaps a millennium to barbarian hearths in Northern Europe, glowing in warm light as the storyteller unfolds a tale about singing bones dealing out magical retribution – to a place and time where even stories of Christ had just begun to be heard. He and his team did not simply retell the story of “Two Sisters”, they recreated it. It is *exactly* what a ballad must go through to survive – a true rebirth.
Ladesich puts it more humbly. “Seriously, it was one of the most gratifying, humbling, and coolest experiences in my twelve years of this work. ‘Cool’ doesn’t quite sum it up; profound is a better word.”
Coda – Oh, the dreadful wind and rain…
Somehow seeing this film, with this ballad at its core, during this most murderous of summers, means a great deal to me that I doubt Ladesich or anyone else involved with the film could have predicted when they completed it last year. It comes down to that old “make your own meaning” theme we hit often when we parse ballads in this blog.
There’s just something deeply moving about the minstrel in this film to me – about the way he takes in the murder, ‘processes’ it, and then shows it back to the community. The movie may be set in 19th century America, but in my heart something about him represents the artist or, perhaps more precisely, the *creative human being* in our violent society *right now.*
|the younger sister and the travelling minstrel – photograph by Phil Peterson
No, what’s happening these days isn’t like the treachery of the dark sister. It’s much more impersonal, more random and passionless. So, how can one use this ballad and film to make meaning of the tragedy which seems to be closing in around us today?
Here’s what I feel. Be like the minstrel – take it in compassionately and turn the energy that arises in you into art. Don’t hide – face it, plunge your knife in – make a fiddle from horror’s breastbone and tuning pegs of its fingers. String your bow with death’s golden hair.
Write. Paint. Make photographs. Act. Sketch. Dance. Garden. Make jokes. Play and sing – murder ballads or whatever other kind of authentic music lights your fire.
Make wonderful, awesome movies like Anthony Ladesich and his pals.
Create – do what ever it is that makes you come alive, and in that experience stare down meaninglessness – your example will let folks know that anyone can do the same.
Sorry… I don’t mean to preach – because I don’t know for sure. But in the end, besides truly loving each other, have we ever been able to do much more?