I heard a voice of warning, A message from on high, "Go put your house in order For thou shalt surely die. Tell all your friends a long farewell And get your business right— The little black train is rolling in To call for you tonight."
Given my interest in folklore, and my fondness for weird tales, I’m amazed that it took me this long to stumble upon Balladeer John (or Silver John, as he is sometimes known). John is the creation of Manly Wade Wellman, a science fiction and fantasy writer who was active throughout the 30s and 40s and beyond. He was a regular and popular contributor to the early Weird Tales magazine, especially after the passing of Weird Tales’ star authors, H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.
John is an itinerant musician (and Korean War veteran) who travels the Appalachian highlands of North Carolina, singing old folk songs on his silver-strung guitar and fighting a variety of supernatural creatures on the way. Wellman created John out of his knowledge of Appalachian and Ozark mountain folklore (and a variety of other folklores and mythologies), as well as his interest in the traditional folk music of the Appalachian region.
The stories are fun and engaging, especially if you enjoy looking for the folkloric references and motifs. I was also amused at how hard all the women characters would throw themselves at John, and how good he was at keeping his distance (except for with one woman, Evadare). Would it be snarky of me to suggest that this image of unattainable sexy manliness was wish-fufillment for his audience of readers at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction? Probably.
One of the first things that struck me upon reading my first John story (“O Ugly Bird!” from 1951) was the voice. Wellman had already spent a lot of time traveling in the Ozarks with his friend, folklorist Vance Randolf, learning about folk tradition and mountain magic (Randolf’s specialties, I think). Then, after WWII, Wellman and his family moved to Pine Bluff, North Carolina (population 300), where Wellman continued to pursue his interest in southern mountain folklore. I think he captured the voice of his community quite well, while writing John.
I swear I’m licked before I start, trying to tell you all what Mr. Onselm looked like. Words give out—for instance, you’re frozen to death for fit words to tell the favor of the girl you love. And Mr. Onselm and I pure poison hated each other. That’s how love and hate are alike.
He was what country folks call a low man, more than calling him short or small; a low man is low otherwise than by inches….
Compare this to an earlier story Wellman wrote for Weird Tales (“The Golgotha Dancers” from 1937) when he still lived in New York.
I had come to the Art Museum to see the special show of Goya prints, but that particular gallery was so crowded that I could hardly get in, much less see or savor anything; wherefore I walked out again. I wandered through the other wings with their rows and rows of oils, their Greek and Roman sculptures, their stern ranks of medieval armors, their Oriental porcelains, their Egyptian gods. At length, by chance and not by design, I came to the head of a certain rear stairway. Other habitués of the museum will know the one I mean when I remind them that Arnold Böcklin’s The Isle of the Dead hangs on the wall of the landing.
Quite a difference.
Many (all?) of the beasties that John encounters are creations of Wellman’s (like the gardinel, which I posted about previously). The way he spins them, though, make them feel like they are genuine dwellers of the mountains (folklorically speaking), creatures that terrorized the Native Americans before the white men came. And Wellman tells pretty good stories about the mountain witches (or conjure-folk, as they are called), too. We even get a demonic fiddle, kind of like in The Devil Went Down to Georgia.
The stories are full of references to actual regional (and global) folklore: the real book The Long Lost Friend, which was written by a Pennsylvania Dutch healer in the 1820s, probably based on the folk-magic of German immigrants; various volumes of arcana attributed to Albertus Magnus; witches; sin-eating; planting by the moon (“Above-ground things like corn in the full, and underground things like ‘taters in the dark”), and more. The Hatfields and the McCoys make a guest appearance, in “Old Devlins was A-Waiting”. Sometimes, I can’t tell what’s genuine, and what he made up.
Such as, you can’t win solitaire by cheating just once, you’ve got to keep cheating; some animals are smarter than folks; who were the ancients who dug mine-holes in the Toe River country, and what were they after, and did they find it; nobody knows what makes the lights come and go like giant fireflies every night on Brown Mountain; you’ll never see a man exactly six feet tall, because that was the height of the Lord Jesus.
And the farmer, who next to me was the youngest there, mentioned love and courting, and how when you true-love someone and need your eyes and thoughts clearest, they mist up and maybe make you trouble. That led to how you step down a mullein stalk toward your true love’s house, and if it grows up again she loves you; and how the girls used to have dumb suppers, setting plates and knives and forks on the table at night and each girl standing behind a chair put ready, till at midnight the candles blew out and a girl saw, or she thought she saw, a ghosty-looking somebody in the chair before her, that was the appearance of the somebody she’d marry.
Dumb-suppers are a real thing. I’m not sure if the saying about Jesus being exactly six feet tall is a real thing, but I hope so. The mine-holes around Toe River and the lights on Brown Mountain might be made up — I think he goes on to use them in other stories.
There are a lot of Biblical references woven through the stories — appropriate for the region that Wellman is writing about. There are a lot of science references, too. After all, Wellman was a science-fiction writer. I love the way that, in John’s mouth, even scientific theory sounds like a folktale.
“You’re rightly sure how big soap bubbles get, Mr. Howsen? Once I heard a science doctor say this whole life of ours, the heaven and the earth, the sun and moon and stars, hold a shape like a big soap bubble. He said it stretched and spread like a soap bubble, all the suns and stars and worlds getting farther apart as time passed.”
[…] The science man said our whole life, what he called our universe, was swelling and stretching out, so that suns and moons and stars pull farther apart all the time. He said our world and all the other worlds are inside that stretching skin of suds that makes the bubble. We can’t study out what’s outside the bubble, or either inside, just the suds part. It sounds crazyish, but when he talked it sounded true.”
We even get the citation.
“It’s not a new idea, John. James Jeans wrote a book The Expanding Universe. But where does the soap bubble come from?”
“I reckon Whoever made things must have blown it from a bubble pipe too big for us to figure about.”
The collected John the Balladeer short stories are available freely here, or here, thanks to Baen Books. You can download it in a limited number of ebook formats here. I believe there is an earlier John story (not in this collection), set when John was a soldier in Korea, which Wellman wrote for Weird Tales, and a few John novels from the sixties, as well.
Here’s the Blind Boys of Alabama, with Tom Waits, singing the gospel song “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” which was featured in the Balladeer John Christmas story, “On the Hills and Everywhere.” A bit early for Christmas carols, I know, but it’s a great song, and a terrific rendition of it.