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.
Photo: Nina Zumel
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.
O proud left foot, that ventures quick within
Then soon upon a backward journey lithe.
Anon, once more the gesture, then begin:
Command sinistral pedestal to writhe.
Commence thou then the fervid Hokey-Poke,
A mad gyration, hips in wanton swirl.
To spin! A wilde release from Heavens yoke.
Blessed dervish! Surely canst go, girl.
The Hoke, the poke -- banish now thy doubt
Verily, I say, 'tis what it's all about.
Possible history of the term “hokey-pokey”. Apparently, it was a term for ice cream sold by Italian street vendors in the UK: “Gelati! O che poco!” — or something like that. Except in the UK, they call it the Hokey Cokey. Hmmmm…
Oh well. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m heading out for some ice cream, and then I’m gonna dance a jig…
A Texas cowboy lay down on a barroom floor,
Having drunk so much he could drink no more;
So he fell asleep with a troubled brain,
To dream that he rode on a hell-bound train.
The engine with murderous blood was damp,
And was brilliantly lit with a brimstone lamp;
An imp for fuel was shoveling bones,
While the furnace rang with a thousand groans.
The boiler was filled with lager beer,
And the Devil himself was the engineer;
The passengers were a most motley crew
Church member, atheist, Gentile and Jew.
“The Hell-Bound Train”; traditional, from Songs of the Cowboys, 1921, collected by Jack Thorp
Cowboys worry a lot about hell, don’t they?
“The Hell-Bound Train” is a traditional cowboy song, basically on the same theme as “Riders in the Sky”. A drunk old cowboy dreams of a train to hell. Its demonic engineer taunts his terrified passengers about the sinful lives they’ve led — “You’ve bullied the weak, you’ve robbed the poor, The starving brother you’ve turned from the door” — and how it’s time for them to have their due. The whole experience frightens the poor cowboy so much that he turns from his drunken ways: “he never rode the hell-bound train.”
Chuck Berry did a nice version of the song in 1955 (it was the B-Side to “No Money Down”). His version is called “Downbound Train”, and the Devil talks about the train approaching “home”, instead of that other H-place. Other than that, the lyrics are close to Jack Thorp’s version.
Today, rather than the “folk-like” songs from my last two posts, let’s talk about an actual folk song, one of my favorites: The House of the Rising Sun; or as it was originally known, The Rising Sun Blues.
There is a house in New Orleans
they call the Rising Sun.
It's been the ruin of many a poor girl
and me, O God, for one.
Opening lyrics, as sung by Georgia Turner to Alan Lomax in 1937
The best known version of the song is the 1964 version, by The Animals:
In the Animals’ version, the singer is a male, the son of a gambler who has abandoned his wife and child for “The House of the Rising Sun” — either a gambling house or a bar. At least, that’s how I understand the story. One of the attractive aspects of this song is how ambiguous it is, both in its story line and in its origins. For one thing, who’s singing the song — a woman, or a man? And what’s happening?
Whoosh! It’s been a minute since my last post, hasn’t it?
For some reason, I’ve been listening to what you might call “folkloric music” lately. That is, music that tells a folktale or a tall tale — or at least, a “folktale-like” story. Today’s example: Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”.
The song tells the story of a fiddle player named Johnny, who is challenged to a fiddle contest by the devil. If Johnny wins, he gets a solid gold fiddle —
But if you lose, the Devil gets your soul…
Here’s the Primus version, which I admit I like better than the Charlie Daniels’ version. It comes with a cool Claymation video: