Another young man safely strummed
His silver-stringed guitar
He played for people everywhere
Some said he was a star
But he was just a country boy
His simple songs confessed
And the music he had in him
So very few possess…
— Gram Parsons, “In My Hour Of Darkness”
My Texas compadre Keith West has brought some old-time ballads to sing by the Frontier Partisans campfire.
In the parcel post the other day there arrived a Baen paperback containing a complete collection of stories of John the Balladeer by Manly Wade Wellman. Though I was unaware of these tales, Keith rightly assumed that they’d be right in the wheelhouse.
John is a Korean War veteran who roams the backcountry mountains of North Carolina facing down some creepy supernatural evils with his silver-strung guitar. A guy who dresses pretty much like Indiana Jones fighting hoodoos with folk songs? Yeah, I’m gonna like that.
Wellman brought his love and deep knowledge of Southern Appalachian folklore and old-time music to bear in these stories. They’re only about 15 pages apiece, which makes them perfect reading at the moment, when I’m balladeering my own ass off and can only read in brief snatches.
The stories are atmospheric and just plain damn fun. There can’t be many regions that have a richer tradition to draw from for folklore-based fantasy — and the music to go with it. The songs of the region often have a weird, macabre edge to them to begin with, and any place that is wild, isolated and full of dark hollers is bound to produce things beyond the normal ken of men…
Thanks, pard, for introducing me to Silver John. Now I gotta go tune my guitar…
(I my mind’s ear, I hear Doc Watson when I read these tales. So here’s some murder ballads for y’all):