Songs of peril and danger have always had a prominent place in bluegrass music. An inextricable part of nearly every folk culture, this sort of song would be passed down over generations to warn listeners about bad men, unfaithful women, strangers bearing ill will, and other sundry concerns.
What has come to be called the murder ballad occupies a major part of the culture of the southern United States, as it was in the English and Scots/Irish traditions that informed it. These mountain folk songs have made their way into bluegrass and old time music, and new ones continue to be written and recorded to this day. Prime examples include Pretty Polly, Banks of the Ohio, and Knoxville Girl all of a similar kind. An innocent young girls trusts a man with evil intent, and she ends up floating downriver. Contemporary female songwriters, having noticed the one-sided nature of these ballads, have begun to compose new stories where the lady is the killer, turning the tables on the tradition.
But by and large, the history of the murder ballad is of cautionary tales for young women, typically poor, rural folk without far to fall. These are the traditions that have inspired painter Julyan Davis to dedicate his art to creating visual interpretations of these familiar songs.
Originally from England, Davis has lived in the American south much of his adult life. He came here after graduating from the Byam Shaw School of Art in London in 1988. Already fascinated by southern culture and folklore, his initial output featured landscapes and interior still life scenes, but over time an early passion for these mournful songs won over his imagination, leading to his current oeuvre, Murder Ballad Paintings.
While the stories contained in the ballads captured his artistic ear, Julyan told us that it was the music that pulled the hardest.
“I grew up listening to a great variety of traditional music from the start – Scottish, Irish, Sea shanties, Appalachian ballads, bluegrass, blues, and country. My father played guitar and I still have the little binder he put together- closely typed lyrics, abbreviated to fit the often wine-stained pages, of songs he had learned from everyone from Johnny Cash to Josh White. The music of the South, even more than the literature or the history, was what first drew me here.”
And before long, Davis was painting images that his mind contrived based on the characters of the old muster ballads, reset into modern times.
“I heard that Charlie Parker was once asked by a band member why he liked country music so much. ‘I love the stories,’ he replied. That certainly applies to my early love for these ballads. They are romantic, with a simple, plaintive poetry, but they also have a fatalistic tone running through them that cuts the sentimentality. The protagonists in these songs act upon their emotions, but are resigned to the often unhappy results.
From the start it appeared I was going to be a painter. I just interpret my experience through that medium, rather than another. At art school I began illustrating this music of my childhood. I came to the South twenty five years ago and focused on painting the landscape. I now realize all the empty streets and abandoned buildings I’ve painted, even the hidden coves of North Carolina’s mountains – they were all haunted by the ghosts of this music. One day I just decided it was time to put those ghosts into such settings.
There’s some very interesting writing on the South’s ‘culture of honor.’ This is traced to the Scots-Irish immigration to this country – a code of conduct that stemmed from the hard, herding life of the Scottish borders, where people had to be fiercely self-sufficient in protecting their lives and property. It occurred to me that these old Appalachian ballads had kept this flame alive, providing the fuel for many cultural forces today – from country music to the Western. So, to me, the content of these very old ballads was still relevant, and here in the mountains there are still certainly people that act in a way reminiscent of the 17th century Scottish borders. A friend a mine rejuvenated a local dive bar after it had been closed due to a double homicide. A man had killed another with a hunting knife. The dead man’s brother chased the murderer down the street with a hunting knife of his own, and avenged his sibling against the side of a city bus. This stuff didn’t happen in the rather genteel town of Bath where I grew up!
I set the old music in the contemporary South. The crime reports seem to show it still has a bearing on this society. That’s not a judgement on my part. I’m an artist – I’m just drawn to what can make art compelling. I have a sympathy for people trapped in lives they did not expect – that sets the mood for these paintings. In the same way Shakespeare set Hamlet’s existential crisis in the middle of the then-popular revenge tragedy, or Tony Soprano’s mid-life depression is set in the world of the mob, I try to set a tone of modern resignation in the drama of an updated murder ballad. A gripping tale provides good bones for portraying a more universal complaint.”
The first question that came to mind in discussing these painting with the artist was, how can you capture the essence of these complex emotional tales in a single image? Unsurprisingly, Davis had an answer.
“When I set out to do these paintings – narrative paintings – I thought ‘how can I even start when cinema can do this so much better?’ That was my challenge. And I took a lot from cinema. Some paintings are close ups on a single figure. Whereas in the painting ‘Where the sun refuse to shine’ (based on Dark Hollow, which is more recent and not a murder ballad) it’s more like a panning shot – from the roar of the train next to you, out across the trestle bridge and the river, finally down to two tiny figures arguing by the riverside. The paintings got bigger and bigger, so that the viewer’s eye has to travel around the canvas to find things. Certain film directors; Kubrick, Lean, Ford, took great care in choosing locations. I think twenty years of painting ‘un-tenanted’ scenes have helped in me choosing places to set these songs. I find a place and imagine an event taking place, then find a song to match.
As I mentioned, I’m pulled by the overall mood a song creates in me. Then I pick a line that seems particularly evocative. I try to steer clear of illustration. I really want the image to be parallel to the song – a separate vision that works beside the music.”
For the past three years, a show of Davis’ work, Dark Corners: The Appalachian Murder Ballads, has been touring art museums in the southern US. He would speak briefly about each painting, followed by a performance of the song that inspired it by Greg and Lucretia Speas.
“Recently, I flipped the approach. I had found in the woods a young tree split in half by the fall of a great old oak. It seemed very symbolic. In the triptych ‘To grow in the sick tree’s path’ I put together an evocative series of images, then asked the musicians who perform with the ballad show, Greg and Lucretia, to interpret the painting and the title. I was delighted with the result.”
Now Julyan has an exhibit running until Spring in South Carolina.
“The Spartanburg Art Museum show runs from Feb 13th until April 19th. I’m happy to be showing alongside the work of Eugene Thomason, an Ashcan school painter who made the Appalachians his subject through the thirties and forties.”
Julyan Davis lives and paints in Asheville, North Carolina. Many of his paintings can be viewed online, where he can be contacted about his work.