This is Part Two of Murder Ballad Monday’s interview with Dom Flemons. Read Part One here.
MBM: I’d be interested to find out about current projects. Prospect Hill came out last year, 2014. What’s coming up next for you. Will you be going into any of this territory [murder ballads] in upcoming projects?
DF: I’ve thought about it a little bit. One of the ballads I was thinking about recently was another Bad Man Ballad, “Duncan and Brady.” When you get into the black tradition of Bad Man Ballads, it’s a different story than the white and Appalachian one. It’s not a warning. It’s a rite of passage in which to say, “Step up and be counted.” A lot of those ballads, like even “Frankie and Johnny,” which has a strong woman protagonist, those ballads are based around the idea that someone was treated badly, or people were treated badly, and there’s somebody that stands up and just says, “I’m not taking this shit anymore.” They go and take it into their own hands to right the wrongs that they see are there.
“Stack-o-lee” is a political drama. Lee Shelton, who was Stack-o-lee, was a black Democrat and Billy Lyons was a black Republican in St. Louis, maybe about 10 years after Reconstruction fails, and you have a black community that’s saying “OK, the Republicans freed us 40 years ago, and we’re still not seeing anything. So, what do we do now?” You start having blacks going to the Dixie Democrats to try to get more civil liberties and civil rights. This is 10 or 20 years before you start having real protests in the black community. So, the way to work that is that you have to find these other ways of speaking, so “Stack-o-lee” is a character that really embodied the strong black man and how he has to be a warrior to go out there to be an example for himself as well as the people around him.
“Duncan and Brady” is the same sort of thing. “Duncan and Brady” is more relevant now that there’s all this social upheaval with the black community and the cops. It’s the same sort of thing. Duncan is a black bartender in St. Louis, and Brady is a white cop that’s been abusing his power because he’s “been on the job too long.” Brady says you’re under arrest, and Duncan shot a whole in Brady’s breast. That’s the sort of thing that you find in those ballads.
I’ve been trying to composite the best story that I can find within all the different versions of “Duncan and Brady,” and trying to find something along the lines of the way Wilmer Watts plays it, as well as the way Dave Van Ronk plays it. I’m trying to composite something that’s going to be nice for my own personal style.
Another murder ballad I was thinking about as I was preparing for this interview was this one Jelly Roll Morton recorded for the Library of Congress. Have you ever heard it?
It’s funny that you mention that. Our post that’s going up today [May 11] is about a dance performance in Los Angeles that’s based on that Jelly Roll Morton recording with Alan Lomax.
It’s by the Poor Dog Group out in LA. Becky Poole, who is one of our bloggers, went to a production of it, so she’s writing that up. It will be out later today.
Man, I’m going to have to look up that studio. That might be some people I know. That’s a really intense ballad.
No kidding [laughter– Listen to the recording here. (NSFW)]
It’s 30 minutes long. It has a female protagonist. There’s the swearing, of course, and then there’s a lot of, you know, there’s lesbian sex in there. There’s the thought process of this woman making her way through all of this stuff. What an intense piece of history to have been placed on record.
When I went to the Library of Congress the first time, they complained that Lomax just fed Jelly Roll too much whiskey, but I’m like, “Man! If he hadn’t have fed him that whiskey, there’s a couple of things that just wouldn’t exist without it.”
I hope you like what you see, and that you catch up with that dance performance. That song has gotten onto our radar, too. That’s cool. It will be interesting to hear how you pull that off, because it’s definitely Not Safe For Work.
[Laughter] Yeah. That’s the thing, too, with murder ballads. It’s very tricky bringing them in there. You know, children don’t mind murder ballads, funnily enough. That’s something that I learned from Peggy Seeger, that kids really love murder ballads, in the way that, you know, they don’t know any better, so when there’s more gore and guts and stuff, they really get into it. ‘Cause kids just love that sort of stuff.
It’s once they become adults and they do know better that they start really having objections.
Absolutely, absolutely. We did this post a few weeks ago called “My First Murder Ballad.” I’m wondering if you remember what your first murder ballad was. Which ones first grabbed your attention and had influence over you.
I have two answers for that. The first murder ballad that I heard that was an American murder ballad was “Frankie and Johnny.” I learned that in kids’ choir. We had “the gun went ‘rooty-toot-too.’” We had all those lines like that in there. That was the first time I had ever heard that. Just that last verse, you know, “this story has no moral, this story has no end. It only goes to show that there ain’t no good in men.” That’s pretty a heavy statement to have at the end of the song where you have a woman that tries to treat her man as best as she can, and for whatever reason this man has to go off and sow his wild oats, and then she takes it into her hands to let him know that she’s not satisfied. That’s a pretty heavy moral to have in there. That’s a ballad that’s always stuck with me–between that and “Stack-o-lee.” Those are the first two that I ever heard.
The other one is not an American one. I wrote an adaptation of “Der Erlkönig,” by Franz Schubert. I wrote an Appalachian-type ballad called “Earl King.” It’s not a murder ballad in the straightforward sense.
There’s a father that’s riding down the road, and his son has this very bad fever. The son is suffering so badly, he starts seeing images of the Earl King, who is a mythological figure in German folklore. The Earl King will bring his daughter to tempt you into the afterlife. As the father’s riding along, the son is saying, “I’m seeing the Earl King, the Earl King!” The Earl King say’s “Here’s my daughter. Come with me.” So, the son is telling the father what he’s hearing. The father says, “Oh, you’re just hearing the rustling of the leaves. You’re hearing just the wind.” When he finally gets home, he looks to his son and his son’s dead. The Earl King murders him.
I remember hearing that when I was, geez, maybe 8 or 9 years old. Just the whole image with the ghost, and the ghost stealing life away and everything like that, it totally messed me up. So, when I was in college later, I wrote this song “Earl King,” taking the basic story arc and putting it into the framework like Dock Boggs or Clarence Ashley.
Thanks, Dom, for talking with us today. I hope you’ll stay in touch with us, and I look forward to hearing what you’ll be doing next. Please send let us know when you’ve worked up “Duncan and Brady” and Morton’s “Murder Ballad” to your liking.