Silver John and My Own Musical Past
Living with Folk Music

I come from a very musical family. 

Everyone plays or played something at some time or other.  When I was a kid we had aunts and uncles that would visit bringing loads of guitars and amps.  They'd set up in the living room and play while mom would sing old folk tunes or gospels.  Certain ones got sung over and over and are ingrained in my mind to this day:

I'm building a bridge across the divide
I'm building it strong, I'm building it wide
God gave me the Plan, I'm following through
I'm building a bridge, now how about you?

As anything might be that you grow up with, I wound up not appreciating what I was witnessing:  a holdover of traditional folk or “old time” music that had been kept alive purely through family tradition.  I enjoyed what I heard and saw but I needed to rebel as all healthy teenagers are want to do. I diverged into punk rock where I played electric violin and guitar in several bands.

Night Chills, Avon Books, 1975. Edited by Kirby McCauley

I was reading Wellman even back when I was blasting eardrums out with electric riffs of  punk rock horror anthems such asThere's Something in the Basement. But at that point I was still unable to appreciate what he was writing about when he talked of Silver Johns fascination of wandering the back woods searching out old and obscure ballads and tales of American folklore.  The music was too close to what I already knew growing up and even seemed a bit silly that a good horror tale would have these ballads stuck in them.

Time went by and I grew up and away from my home and my roots, my heritage of traditional music faded into a mere glimmer of the past.  A decade later I had forgotten about Wellman, Silver John and the music.  But then I picked up a book called NIGHT CHILLS  

which happened to have the Wellman short “Goodman’s Place” in it and after 10 years away, I saw for the first time what Wellman was writing about from a different view.  It was the view of a person long displaced from his roots, that as an adult was missing his family and the sense of home and familiarity.

The sense of place and familiarity that Wellman is so good atsaturating his stories with re-ignited an interest in his work. It reminded me of home and along with it, that recognition of the old-time music as something special.  It was now art instead of kitsch to me and led to seeking out collections of songs that are luckily quite available these days with the revival of interest in old time music that seems to be occurring here at the turn of the century.

Music Resources

Though I grew up with it, there's not much I could tell you about old time music that can't be said a lot better by those with much more expert knowledge than myself.  Mark Wilson, General Editor at Rounder Records, has put together an excellent series of articles and autobiographies called the North American Traditions Series ”.  I highly suggest visiting their site and especially taking a look at Mark's Interview  on the rationale behind putting this series together.  He explains the difference between what we term as “folk music” these days and what it used to (and really still should) stand for. 

Another great place to research the roots of American music is at the Smithsonian Institution's web site, where CDs of musicians who are actually mentioned by Wellman in certain stories and were obviously an inspiration to him, such as Bascom Lamar Lunsford, can be

Bascom Lamar Lunsford

bought.  I would speculate that certain aspects of the character of Silver John are based on an amalgam of people such as Lunsford, who wandered the countryside finding and  r esearching obscure folk music and Vance Randolph  who

wandered the land researching folk magic and traditions.

Joe Bethancourt's
CD is now available at his website

Yazoo has come up with one of my favorite series of compilations, “Times Ain't Like They Used To Be” and at their web site you can find a truly impressive and extensive list of compilations  ranging in subject from early American blues, wartime, political, gospel, ballads and so on.  Their CDs are a great wealth of information, each coming with a booklet listing brief biographical information on each artist, photos and the genus of each recording used on the CDs.

For music directly from the web I would suggest Spud Mountain RFDSpud Mountain is an old-time music revival band based out of the Washington/Oregon region. Spud Mountain RFD is their 1/2 hour pre-recorded weekly streaming audio program that showcases traditional music of rural North America, including some music from Mexico and Canada.  Their site also includes many excellent links to other resources for old-time music on the web.

Wellman Music

And of course no aficionado of both Old Time music and Wellman's mythical North American landscape should go without Joe Bethancourt's tape and soon to be CD of WHO FEARS THE DEVIL. This is a collection of original songs(Silver John / Vandy,Vandy / Old Devlins, etc.) written by Wellman for his stories and inclues several traditional tunes (I'll Fly Away / Mole in the Ground / Pretty Polly, etc.) mentioned in the stories, all composed and sung by Joe.

Also you may want to check out Michael Futreal's THE DEVIL'S STOMPING GROUND which is music inspired by the ambience of Wellman's writings. Really great stuff!

If through Wellman you have become interested in music from the era he was writing about or you are just looking for some places to find early American music, I hope these links will have helped lead you to some great treasures.


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