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  • Dark CornersThe Appalachian Murder Ballad
  • Julyan Davis (bio)

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Cold Fall the Drops of Rain, by Julyan Davis, 2016. Oil on canvas, 46 x 38 in.

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I grew up listening to the folk songs of my ancestors along the Scottish Borders. When I left London for America, I discovered the songs again, preserved intact in the Appalachian South. Even as a child, I was drawn to the pathos and melancholy of these old ballads. They are weighted with what the historian David Hackett Fisher described as "nescient fatalism." Such a fatalism—a kind of stoic acceptance existing without specific foreknowledge—is common among societies with a history of violence. So also is the culture of honor that I found similarly transported to parts of America from its traumatic birthplace in the now-gentle Scottish Borders.1

Finding evidence of such a culture (and such a fatalism) inspired me to set my paintings of these ancient songs in the contemporary South. I was not illustrating the ballad but rather the mood the ballad provoked in me. Many of the paintings are murder ballads, and most of the subjects are women; women trapped in a world where they are a commodity. Even if the women are prized, as several ballads tell, being attributed such power in a culture of honor often proves fatal.

This painting was inspired by the seventeenth-century ballad "The Dowie Dens of Yarrow," in which a young woman loses her suitor when he is ambushed and killed by nine others. Here she waits and watches from an abandoned farmhouse I discovered in Madison County, North Carolina, the same part of the world that keeps the old songs intact and continues to inspire my art. [End Page 77]

Julyan Davis

julyan davis is a British-American painter and novelist who has made the American South his subject since 1988. His art focuses on documenting both the vanishing landscape and the lost histories and folklore of the region. His traveling museum exhibits include collaborations with poets, musicians, historians, and actors.


1. David Hackett Fisher, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 697.