When John Allemeier reads a murder mystery, he thinks violence, aggression, agony and cellos. For E.E. Balcos, its anger, tension, struggle and pliés.For the past two years the UNC Charlotte professors Allemeier of composition, Balcos of dance have collaborated to create performances based on North Carolina murder ballads.Murder ballads are folk songs that tell the stories of actual homicides that occurred in the state.Theyre descendants of gallows songs from Elizabethan England, said Allemeier. If there was a notorious murder, musicians would write songs about them and sing them at the actual hanging of that person.In North Carolina, four such ballads exist.The most popular, Tom Dooley, was recorded in 1958 by The Kingston Trio, who sold nearly 4 million copies of their version and won a Grammy for the song.The ballad was based on Tom Dula, a Confederate soldier who murdered his pregnant fiancée in Wilkes County. Dula was executed in Statesville for the crime.We shied away from Tom Dooley, said Allemeier. That one is so well known.Instead, the professors have focused on the other three.Last year, Poor Ellen, the story of Ellen Smith, a peasant girl from Winston-Salem, was put to music and dance under the pairs skillful guidance.In 1894, Smiths lover, Peter DeGraff, shot her through the heart shortly after their baby died.Allemeier and Balcos collaborated in September to create Deep Water, a performance based on the murder ballad of Omie Wise. The pregnant Wise was murdered by her lover, John Lewis, in Randolph County 204 years ago.If they sound familiar, its because murder ballads frequently follow the same formula.The typical murder ballad is man meets woman, man takes advantage of woman, man kills woman to save reputation, said Allemeier. Thats just how the majority of them work.To wring a performance from a long-ago murder takes time. Allemeier and Balcos first research the historical facts around the cases, often discussing them like members of a jury.We look at published articles and discover different historical interpretations on what may have actually happened, said Balcos. All of this information influences what happens in our work.Right now, theyre poring through the accounts of their third and last murder ballad, which surrounds the death of Charles Silver.Frankie Silver was only 18 when she took an ax to her husbands head. His body was so viciously ravaged that his bones now rest in three separate graves, because they couldnt find all of his pieces at once.This one has the richest history by far, said Allemeier.For the past few months, Allemeier and Balcos have grappled with Frankie Silvers gruesome decision. Was she a victim of domestic violence, as she and a recent author have claimed, or did she simply come unhinged?The family line of Charles Silver has worked very, very hard to maintain that she was as bad as everyone had portrayed, said Allemeier.Allemeier and Balcos are currently reading two books that take opposing views.Right now Ive got this book, and hes got the other book, and well argue a little bit about what happens, then switch books and eventually come to some kind of consensus, said Allemeier.The audience will have to wait and see which side they take in the coming months. And thats the way both like it.A successful murder ballad performance is one that the viewer is engaged and surprised at the outcome, sequence, beauty, poignancy, horror, all through our artistry as established artists.
Friday, Nov. 09, 2012
UNCC professors' create performances based on N.C. gallows songs
Collaborations are based on songs that tell stories of actual homicides
E.E. Balcos performs as murderer Jonathan Lewis in "Deep Water," a piece based on the true story of a murder that took place in Randolph County, about an hour's drive north of Charlotte on N.C. 49. DANIEL COSTON
The performance of the murder ballad "Deep Water" begins as Omie Wise's lifeless body floats downriver. DANIEL COSTON
Writing musical arrangements for murder has its quirks. "How do I write music that is violent enough, yet at times tender?" asked John Allemeier, professor of composition at UNC Charlotte. Together with E.E. Balcos, Allemeier has created performance pieces based on notorious North Carolina murders from more than 100 years ago. UNC CHARLOTTE
Want to go? John Allemeier and E.E. Balcos’ murder ballad pieces are currently touring North Carolina. To find out where, visit www.danceproject.org/festival/calendar.html. For information about the creators of the performances, visit www.eemotion.org and www.johnallemeier.com. Another performance along these lines may be of interest: At 7 p.m. Nov. 17, John Allemeier’s “Three Candles” will debut during the university’s Fresh Ink series, in UNC Charlotte’s Center City Building. “Three Candles” is based on the corrido “Jesucristo de la Luz.” Similar to N.C. murder ballads, corridos are Mexican songs that tell the story of a death or crime. The performance is free to the public. For information about the performance or the Fresh Ink series, visit www.freshinkmusic.org.
Lisa Thornton is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Lisa? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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