John the Balladeer, also referred to as Silver John, was the creation of author Manly Wade Wellman. John travels the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina singing songs and dealing with all varieties of supernatural threats over the course of several novels and short stories. The atmosphere of these tales is properly evoked through mimicry of the speaking style of those populating these remote places, and the supernatural elements are always fantastic. John carries a guitar strung with silver strings and tremendous knowledge of the area’s legends and folklore with him. Most of these stories are somehow tied-in with the lyrics of old folk songs at their core. They’re great fun to read and have been collected multiple times, most famously in WHO FEARS THE DEVIL? (1963). Here’s a brief look at some of the stories:
1. “O Ugly Bird” (1851) – John The Balladeer encounters a man named Mr. Onselm who makes people give him whatever he wants or he places a terrible curse on them in a small town. The man also has a giant, ugly bird which does his bidding. John soon discovers this bizarre, hideous bird’s supernatural origin as he faces off against the powerful Mr. Onselm.
2. “Vandy, Vandy” (1953) – While searching for the secrets behind an old song called “Vandy, Vandy”, John finds a family located in a remote Appalachian valley with a young daughter named Vandy. He quickly wins over their trust by joining in with their music playing. When a caller comes by named Mr. Loden, it becomes immediately clear the family fears him, despite his polite words and gift offerings. This creepy man has come to court the young Vandy. John has his hands full trying to stop the evil caller.
3. “The Little Black Train” (1954) – During his travels, John is asked to play his guitar for a party that has lost its band due to some unexplained fear. He agrees. It turns out the party is being held to celebrate the end of a curse placed on them by an attractive but sinful woman. He discovers the curse is tied to a song he’s heard before about a little black train said to bring about her death.
4. “Shiver In The Pines” (1954) – While assisting a friend putting up a fence, John, the man he’s helping, his son and another man follow a stranger who approaches them with a plan to retrieve gold hidden by ancients in a mine within a nearby creepy forest. To find it, they must attain a magic candle which has the power to lead someone to whatever they seek, but something deadly awaits them inside the mine.
5. “On The Hills and Everywhere” (1955) – John tells some children a story on Christmas Eve about a traveling carpenter who’s hired by a man to build a fence between his land and that of his neighbor, who was once his best friend but with whom he is now in a bitter dispute.
6. “Old Devlins Was A-Waiting (1956) – John the Balladeer meets a huge man with psychic dreams nicknamed Moon-Eye Newlands, whose friends are trying to coax into helping them with an experiment to bring back one of his deceased ancestors. The infamous Hatfield and McCoy rivalry is a part of this story.
7. “Owls Hoot in the Daytime” (1980) – John travels to a secluded spot where owls hoot by daylight. A small man stays there with his pet possum to warn people away from a structure on the rocks. It has the façade of a dilapidated house but actually hides the entrance to a cave where a demon lives.
8. “Can These Bones Live” (1981) – John helps a group of men carry a casket full of bones from a recently discovered giant skeleton to a church to preform burial rights upon it. When he and another man linger around the new grave afterward, the bones start pulling themselves back together and the resulting enormous skeleton uproots a tree to use as a club against them.
9. “Nobody Ever Goes There”(1981) – This fantastic tale involves a small town where none of the inhabitants will talk about, or cross the river over to the abandon mill and old house that once housed its workers before they all disappeared. Music can sometimes be heard from the derelict area. A man is forced to follow the woman he loves across the bridge one night when she goes to find out its secret. This is one of my favorite Wellman stories.
10. “Where Did She Wander?” (1987) – John comes across an odd tombstone as he travels into a new town. He finds it belongs to a beautiful young woman who was lynched by the townspeople many years ago after she was believed to have used witchcraft to kill a suitor. John learns of a song written about her and performs it before a crowd of locals. They don’t receive it well, as they believed it portends bad luck. Soon afterwards, John decides to investigate deeper into the legend and comes up against a very creepy adversary. This is a wonderfully weird and eerie tale.
Article by Matt Cowan
4 thoughts on “TALES OF JOHN THE BALLADEER”
I only vaguely know this character. I need to read some more Wellman.
Wellman was a really excellent and imaginative writer. I particularly enjoyed “Nobody Ever Goes There” and “Where Did She Wander?” were my favorite of these stories.
I like “Vandy, Vandy” best of all. “Atmospheric” is a pretentious, reviewer kind of word, but that story just immerses you in a sense of place — someplace so close to the roots of our country that it feels strange and familiar at the same time. Wellman wastes no time involving us in a centuries-old fight between good and evil, and the surprise ally at the end really seals the deal. But I think most of them are terrific stories.
I’ve really enjoyed all the ones I’ve read so far and need to make some time to go back for more soon. Not part of the Silver John stories, but another favorite Wellman story for me is “The Frogfather”.