For the Sake of the Song: Townes Van Zandt and the Ballad Tradition

For the Sake of the Song:  Townes Van Zandt and the Ballad Tradition


Jim Clark


            Critics have often commented upon the “literary” nature of Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt’s songs, from the carefully crafted metrical formality of his ballads to the experimental, high-flown imagery and wordplay of his lyrics.  John Kruth, in “Struck by Lightnin’, Touched by Frost,” the cleverly titled second chapter of his biography To Live’s to Fly:  The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt, explores many of Van Zandt’s early literary and musical influences.  Among the literary influences Kruth discusses are Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, Robert Service, Tennessee Williams, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Van Zandt apparently studied many of these under the guidance of one of his teachers (“Masters,” as they were called) at Shattuck Academy, Frank Below, “a serious, serious old English teacher,” as Van Zandt later described him.  Marshall Froker, Van Zandt’s friend and fellow classmate at Shattuck, recalls their class with Mr. Below:

        Mr. Below, whose first name was Frank, but everyone called him Buzzy –

        but not to his face – was a white-haired Shakespearian scholar who had us

        read the classics and memorize soliloquies.  We spent a lot of time studying

        Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.” 

        Later on when I first heard Townes’ “Silver Ships of Andilar” it reminded me

        of old Buzzy.  It sounded like our senior-year English class, but on acid.

            Indeed, “The Silver Ships of Andilar,” from Van Zandt’s 1972 album The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt, is clearly in the genre of the “literary ballad,” and owes a great deal of its imagery, tone, and setting to Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”  However, it is a later comment Kruth makes that set me on my path for this essay:  “Influenced by old English folk ballads,” Kruth observes, “many of Van Zandt’s first lyrics possessed an underlying formality that few of his peers could match.”  Robert Earl Hardy, in his biography A Deeper Blue:  The Life and Music of Townes Van Zandt, has less to say about Van Zandt’s literary influences, though he does mention Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Nikos Kazantzakis, Tennessee Williams, and “the modern poets that Townes had been reading since his school days.”  He also describes “Our Mother the Mountain” as “a beautiful, dark, minor-key ballad in the style that Townes had been cultivating of songs that seemed as though they could be Elizabethan folk ballads.”  For the remainder of this talk, I will focus on three of Van Zandt’s ballads (I use the term loosely here) – “Our Mother the Mountain,” “The Hole,” and “St. John the Gambler” – which seem to be definitely influenced by a sub genre of the English ballad tradition, that of the “Demon Lover.”

            The “Demon Lover” motif (or in some cases the more benign “fairy lover”) is a fairly prevalent one in the ballad tradition.  Sometimes, particularly with ballads featuring a female temptress, there is a definite supernatural element, and sometimes, more commonly in ballads featuring a male lover, the seducer is merely a mortal villain.  In those ballads with a supernatural element, the character of the “demon lover” seems rooted in ancient notions of the incubus and the succubus – male and female demons, respectively, who come to humans during sleep to have sexual intercourse with them.  Several of Van Zandt’s songs feature such demon lovers, both male and female:  “Our Mother the Mountain,” “The Hole,” and “St. John the Gambler,” most notably.  Van Zandt’s songs are influenced by the ballad tradition in other ways, as well, such as featuring conversations between the protagonist and his or her mother, and an answer and response structure; in some songs, Van Zandt even occasionally adopts a stilted, archaic, “poetical” style as in this line from “St. John the Gambler”:  “So mother, think on me no more.”  Another device Van Zandt occasionally borrows from the ballad tradition is the use of wordless vocalizations, such as the “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Li-O” vocalization repeated in “Our Mother the Mountain.”

            In the 13th Century Scots ballad “Thomas the Rhymer” (Child Ballad #37) the basic story is that Thomas either kissed or slept with (depending on which of the many versions one follows) the Queen of Elfland and is transported with her to Fairy Land.  In some versions, she turns into a hag immediately after sleeping with him, and then ultimately turns back into a beautiful fairy queen.  Thomas stays for a while at a party at the fairy queen’s castle and then she returns him to the mortal world, whereupon he finds that seven years have passed.  He asks for something to remember her by, and the fairy queen grants him the gift of prophecy.  In the 19th Century, the British Romantic poet John Keats (to whom Van Zandt is sometimes compared) famously employed the Demon Lover or Fairy Lover motif in his ballad “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” in which a “haggard and . . . woe-begone” knight tells the fabulous story of his encounter with a “full beautiful” lady – “a fairy’s child.”  The knight courts her, showering her with gifts, and she sings for him, feeds him “roots of relish sweet, / And honey wild, and manna dew,” and professes her love for him.  She takes him to “her elfin grot” where they apparently make love, and then she lulls him to sleep, whereupon he dreams “Ah! woe betide! / The latest dream I ever dream’d / On the cold hill’s side.”  He dreams of “pale kings and princes too, / Pale warriors, death-pale were they all,” who warn him that “La Belle Dame sans Merci / Hath thee in thrall!”  These “pale kings and princes” appear to be the living dead, whose “starved lips in the gloam, / With horrid warning gaped wide.”  The knight then wakes from this terrible dream, but it appears that he himself has fallen under the spell of the lady, since he remains “on the cold hill’s side,” and tells the unnamed listener “And this is why I sojourn here, / Alone and palely loitering.”

            Townes Van Zandt’s ballad “Our Mother the Mountain,” from his 1969 album of the same name, is clearly in the “Demon Lover” tradition, more so than the “Fairy Lover.”  In it, the speaker is visited by his lover one moonlit night, in a pleasant reverie:

            My lover comes to me with a rose on her bosom

            The moon’s dancin’ purple

            All through her black hair

Her “ladies in waiting” accompany her, standing beneath the window.  The black-haired lover then “silently slips from her throat a medallion” which she “slowly . . . twirls” before the speaker’s eyes.  Thus hypnotized, and apparently under the dark-haired lover’s spell, the speaker tell us, “I watch her, I love her, I long for to touch her.”  As mentioned earlier, Van Zandt here employs the archaic “for to” syntactical construction.  The enchanted speaker forsakes his normal earthly pursuits, as he tells us “My dogs have gone hunting / Their howling is through.”  However, when he reaches for her hand, she metamorphoses into a horrible hag and flings a curse upon him:

                        So I reach for her hand and her eyes turn to poison

                        And her hair turns to splinters,

                        And her flesh turns to brine

                        She leaps ‘cross the room, she stands in the window

                        And screams that my first-born

                        Will surely be blind

With that she flings herself out the window “to the black of the nightfall.”  The frightened speaker rushes down the stairs and out to the garden, but “No trace of my true love / Is there to be found.”  As with so many of these ballads, the speaker ends with a warning:

                        So walk these hills lightly, and watch who you’re lovin’

                        By Our Mother the Mountain

                        I swear that it’s true

                        Love not a woman with hair black as midnight

                        And her dress made of satin

                        All shimmering blue

            “The Hole,” a later song (or perhaps “recitation” would be more accurate) from Van Zandt’s 1995 album No Deeper Blue, features an even more sinister and frightening demon lover, a terrible subterranean hag from beginning to end:

                        The old woman finally caught me

                        Sneakin’ ‘round her cave

                        Her hair looked just like barbed wire, boys

                        And her smile just like the grave

                        She asked me could I stay awhile

                        I said I’d better go

                        She slid her arm around my neck

                        And sweetly whispered no

What follows is a traditional sort of “answer and response” ballad, wherein the speaker brings up various people – friends, mother, father, a girlfriend, his little boy – as reasons why he should leave, but the hag has a chilling answer for each reason.  For his mother, whom he says he “can’t just leave . . . there to mourn,” the hag replies, “You don’t have to think about her / Just forget you were ever born.”  When he fears “I’ll disappoint my father / You know he worked so hard for me,” she cruelly advises, “If you have to pay your father back / Just send him some misery.”  For his girlfriend, whom he says he “can’t just leave . . . there to pine,” the hag tortures him with notions of betrayal and faithlessness:  “She’s still got plenty of men to go / I’m sure she’ll do just fine.”  Finally, and perhaps most chillingly, the hag replies to his question “What about my little boy?” with the stark prediction:  “He’s just like you / Let a few short years roll by / He’ll end up down here too.”

            At this point the hag, presumably tired of all the questions and hesitation, makes her move:

                        Then her pale green eyes began to glow

                        She placed her hand on mine

                        She smiled and said don’t worry

                        You’ll get used to me in time

“As her cold tongue flickers” toward him, the speaker desperately makes “a dive for the passageway / But the walls come crashing down.”  He falls “down to [his] knees” and beseeches “the gods of men” but the only reply is silence.  Then, in a moment very similar to the climax of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” when the Mariner finally finds beauty in the slimy sea creatures and blesses them, thus expiating his curse for killing the albatross, Van Zandt’s speaker hears “A whisper deep within” telling him to “Embrace the god of love.”  [Note:  As an aside, Van Zandt’s ballad “The Silver Ships of Andilar,” from his 1972 album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, which I will not discuss here as it is not in the “demon lover” genre, owes a great deal to Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”“I lifted my face and through the tears / I saw light fall from above,” he says, and hurls himself into the wall, ripping and clawing his way “Through the stinkin’, clingin’ loam / Back to the light of day,” where he feels “the wind again” and “The sky upon my face,” as he hears “the earth sigh patiently / As it slid back into place.”  Luckier than Keats’s knight, Van Zandt’s speaker returns “back among the ones I love / I’m loved by them in turn,” the memory of his hellish, subterranean nightmare recurring only occasionally:  “And it’s only on the darkest night / That green-eyed memory burns.”  “The Hole” ends with the speaker’s warning to his listeners:

                        So walk my friends in the light of day

                        Don’t go sneakin’ round no holes

                        There just might be something down there

                        Wants to gobble up your soul

Knowing Van Zandt’s tormented and often unhappy biography, it is easy to read “The Hole” as a metaphor for depression, insanity, and substance abuse.  And with its claustrophobic, subterranean imagery, coupled with the demonic temptress, “The Hole” falls in line with one strand of psychoanalytic theory which posits that stories of incubi and succubi, who are often portrayed as sitting on their sleeping victims’ chests, arise from relatively common episodes of “sleep paralysis,” where a person awakens from REM sleep, in which paralysis is normally present (to keep us from being overly active and possibly harming ourselves while dreaming), and is for a time fully conscious but still completely paralyzed.  It is also reported that vivid hallucinations often accompany sleep paralysis.  The more contemporary manifestation of encounters with incubi and succubi appears to be stories of alien abduction, in which a person is typically abducted by aliens and transported to a space ship where, conscious but immobilized and powerless, he or she is subjected to frightening, inexplicable, and sometimes painful medical procedures, often of a sexual nature.

            Probably the best known example of a male Demon Lover is Child Ballad #243, “James Harris (The Daemon Lover),” the American version of which is usually called “The House Carpenter.”  It also goes by “The Gosport Tragedy,” and is most likely the source of the bluegrass ballad “Pretty Polly.”  In it a man (usually the Devil in disguise) returns to a former lover after some years, during which time the lover believes him to be dead.  She remarries, usually a carpenter, and has a baby.  The demon lover, a sailor with a magnificent ship, persuades her to leave her husband and child by making her feel guilty:  “I might have had a King’s daughter, / And she would have married me” he tells her, “But I forsook her golden crown / All for the love of thee.”  She is also impressed with his ship, with its “sails of the finest silk / And the mast of shining gold.”  They sail away (in some versions she is surprised to find that the ship has no crew) and she soon begins to regret her decision to leave her husband and her baby.  But then she is heartened by the sight of a beautiful bright hill in the distance, which she hopes is their destination.  However, the demon lover tells her that this is the “hill of heaven,” where they are not bound; she then sees “a black, dark hill,” and the demon lover tells her, “O it is the hill of hell . . . where you and I shall be.”  Then he breaks the ship apart with his hands and feet and it sinks.  In other versions, the ship springs a leak and sinks or is wrecked by a storm.  Other similar, less supernatural, ballads would include “Pretty Polly,” “The Knoxville Girl,” “The Ballad of Omie Wise,” “Banks of the Ohio,” and the old campfire standard “Tom Dooley.”  In the world of contemporary literature, Joyce Carol Oates’ often anthologized short story “Where Are You Going?  Where Have You Been?” is a notable treatment of the Demon Lover theme, and the original title of Shirley Jackson’s short story collection, The Lottery and Other Stories, which included several stories featuring sinister men, was The Adventures of James Harris.

            Though Van Zandt’s “St. John the Gambler,” also from his 1969 album Our Mother the Mountain, is not explicitly supernatural, it does have a supernatural aura about it:  the young female speaker tells her mother “I’ve given my soul to St. John the Gambler,” and as we all know the Devil often purchases or otherwise acquires people’s souls; there is something innately mysterious and mythical and alluring about a professional gambler; and at the end of the song, when the speaker falls down the mountain to her death, she mysteriously hears “his laughter right down from the mountains.”  The song begins with the twenty-year-old speaker telling her mother “I’ve given my soul to St. John the Gambler / Tomorrow comes time to leave.”  Adding to the song’s mysterious undercurrent is her reason for taking up with St. John:  “For the hills cannot hold back my sorrow forever / And dead men lay deep ‘round the door.”  What are her sorrows?  And who are those “dead men” and are they literal or figurative?  At any rate, St. John the Gambler seems to afford “The only salvation that’s mine for the asking,” and so she resignedly counsels her mother to “think on me no more.”

            In the second verse, the young woman sets out to find St. John in the dead of a winter snowstorm – “Winter howled high ‘round the mountain’s breast / And the cold of a thousand snows” – dressed only in fancy calico – “But she dressed in calico / For a gambler likes his women fancy / Fancy she would be.”  Though she is cold, we find that “the fire of her longing would keep ‘way the cold.”  The mountain road is treacherous, however, and “long beneath her feet” as “She followed her frozen breath / In search of a certain St. John the Gambler / Stumbling to her death.”  As she stumbles and falls, “She heard his laughter right down from the mountains / And danced with her mother’s tears / To a funeral drone of calico / ‘Neath the cross of twenty years.”  It’s hard to know what to make of the line “To a funeral drone of calico,” but repeated listening and other research confirm it as correct.  However, it would not be Van Zandt’s only use of synesthesia.  Finally back to Van Zandt’s biography, he was himself an obsessive and reckless gambler, and quite fond of any number of young girls who came under his spell.  Perhaps “St. John the Gambler” is a cautionary tale wherein Van Zandt himself plays the role of the demon lover.

            Although the songs discussed in this essay hew fairly closely to their traditional ballad roots, Van Zandt also wrote other, more modern and more divergent, types of ballads.  There is the heartbreaking conventional narrative “Tecumseh Valley”; the raucous, inventive, logorrheic poker ballad “Mr. Gold and Mr. Mudd; the somewhat affected, overly literate “The Silver Ships of Andilar,” mentioned previously; and of course what is probably his best known song, the immortal, oblique, and oft-covered tale of friendship and betrayal “Pancho and Lefty.”  Van Zandt was by any reckoning a maverick and a sport.  Though one can trace the strands of his influences, their sum is significantly greater than the parts.  My purpose here has been to shine a light on only one small aspect of Van Zandt’s impressive body of work – the handful of his songs most clearly influenced by the “demon lover” genre of the ballad tradition.