Somerset is in the Knobs of Kentucky, and if you live among those hills you know that the red clay you can find thereabouts is perfect for spurring a child’s imagination. One of Somerset’s native sons, who grew up making things from that earth, is artist and musician Dan Dutton.
I recently contacted Dan to get his permission to use some of his visual art in a post about the ballad “The Farmer’s Curst Wife.” In the exchange that followed, I discovered quickly that the ballad tradition is deeply important to Dan and his art. The perspectives he shared with me, and the images of his work I found online, convinced me to share all that with you.
We found much to talk about, so I’m going to lay this on you all this over two different posts. Today we’ll focus on Dan’s personal connections to the ballad tradition and his mentors – among the most revered by folked up people like us. Later this month in the second part of this interlude, we’ll look at the intersection of traditional balladry, including murder ballads, and Dan’s visual and performing arts. Throughout, you will see him comfortable with – indeed inspired by – walking that line between worlds both old and new.
“The Sweet Music of the Chase”
My first questions to Dan centered on home and family, and in his answers he described the powerful influences of both on his life and work.
“I live on the remnants of a lovely old family farm a couple of miles from the border of the smallish town of Somerset … the only remnant of the Dutton family still living here … The hills of the farm have outcrops of limestone, packed with fossils, and scatterings of geodes coming up through the earth, which tends toward red clay … There are a few decent springs that we got our water from when I was a child. The woods are mature, with a lot of beeches, oaks, hickories and maples. Because this farm is a bit of an oasis in a now more developed area, it is thick with birds and wildlife in general … I have a big garden, a bunch of chickens, some guineas and lately two ducks. That’s about what’s left of farming – I love the farming life, but I’m an artist and you can only do so much!
Nature, in the sense of the plants and creatures and their life cycles … the births, deaths, joys, and struggles of farming, were the things that surrounded me, interwoven with my family life … that was the material of my imagination, and the continual subjects of my art. I began painting when I was three, started making up songs and tunes when I was about five or six, and I’ve never stopped for any length of time … I was allowed time to make art and I made the most of it. I’m happier when I can spend a lot of time outdoors and I spent much of my childhood alone in the woods, deep in my imagination, in communication, I was sure, with the forces of nature that surrounded me.”
The sort of farming that Dan grew up with was labor intensive, but it instilled a respect for tradition that still informs his art, even as he pursues it with an experimental eye. As well, music was a core part of his family’s daily life.
“My parents were farmers to the core and they loved pretty much everything about it, to the extent that they favored older ways of farming than were typical around here during the ’60s and ’70s when I was growing up. My Dad had a pair of salt and pepper workhorses – he had a small tractor, and used it a lot, but he just liked fooling with horses. He showed me some of the old ways of doing things – how to build haystacks that will repel rain, how to plow with horses, etc. He was a fox hunter and kept a large pack of hounds that he called with a horn. This was the so-called “night hunting” type of fox hunting where the fox is never killed, almost never seen. My Dad would never have killed a fox – probably not even if it got in the chickens – well, maybe then. He hunted for what he called “the sweet music of the chase” – it was a listening sport, and a tale telling one.
My Mom was a card – a prankster and one of the busiest and funniest people I’ve ever known, as well as an amazing cook and gardener. Both of my parents were good singers, and we sang all the time when we were working. They knew some ballads and old traditional songs, hymns, some things from the ’30s and ’40s – my Mom even sang a Kurt Weill song on occasion. This was never performance, strictly speaking, we sang for our own enjoyment … My Mom claimed that on my first Christmas … my sister Sarah would take me into the bedroom, teach me a Christmas song, bring me out and I would sing for everyone, then she’d take me back and teach me another ~ so according to her I was singing pretty well at 11 months of age. I believe her, because I can’t remember a pre-singing period in my life.”