A few weeks ago, artist, musician, composer, and all-around creative Kentuckian Dan Dutton was kind enough to speak with me in depth about his early years as student of the ballad tradition. He also related his experiences learning ballads and more from his ‘old-time’ mentors like Jean Ritchie, Chappel Wallin, and others. Along the way, we got to check out some of his ballad paintings and recordings.
Today we’ll focus on Ballads of the Barefoot Mind – a collection of Dan’s sketches and larger paintings based on traditional ballads, and his own performances of those songs. But there was much more in our talks worth sharing. We covered a lot of ground over several days of exchange, including an exploration of the murder ballad. It led us by a different path to some familiar ground, and ultimately to Dan’s broader ballad project. So let’s start with that part of the journey first.
Murder Ballads and Reverie
MBM : In your experience, did the older generation from whom you collected see murder ballads as ‘different’ or were they simply part of a larger package of ‘love songs’, as equally deep and meaningful as any other?
DD: I don’t think that the murder ballads were so much viewed as different from the other story ballads by the generation I learned from. I think that the main difference was the length… There are some short murder ballads, like the relative newcomers “Rose Conalee,” “Banks of the Ohio,” etc, that didn’t take a lot of memorization and were treated more like songs in general. The longer ballads, ones that tell a detailed story and have more than a half dozen verses, take more effort to learn. That extra effort tends to add depth and meaning… The details of the plot and the descriptions of images are worked on more – they tend to have greater characterization, as the singer projects what they know and have seen onto the images – which are often symbols as well…
It is hard for us, these days, not to separate the murder ballads out from the others. When they were sung by singers who mainly sang for themselves, they could be enjoyed as reveries on tragic loss and also as acceptable vehicles for aggression that could not otherwise be easily expressed. One could inhabit both the tragic victim and the violent attacker – privately. Even if they were shared with others, most of the listeners would either know the story or a similar one. They were also understood as cautionary tales – as Jean’s mother told her – “You can sing them, but don’t go and do likewise.” So there was a sense there that someone MIGHT do likewise, and most of the older singers I learned from were quick to insist that the ballads were basically true stories transformed into songs.
Contemporary singers think about the murder ballads first for their effect on others, and I think Jean had already moved into this approach. She certainly knew the impact of the head kicked against the wall in “Lord Thomas & Fair Ellender,” and usually made a joke about it, distancing herself from the passion. It was important to her, and to many contemporary singers, to make the murder ballad like a play in a theater, suspending disbelief on the one hand and doing some Brechtian distance on the other. That’s a bit different than the state of reverie that a solitary singer can go into, where one has entirely entered into the ballad world, speaking the dialogue that the characters speak with complete commitment. To do that, you have to be willing to dream of murder, and that is where the real line is drawn. Scary stories are a tricky game these days.
The challenge for me in learning the murder ballads came in taking a real look at why I was drawn to sing them, and what they are really about. It’s one thing to let your tongue trip through the sequence of poetic rhymes describing a murder, another thing entirely to slow down and dream the images in depth until you feel that you really know them. There came a point in the ballad project… where I had to back away from the work.