When John Allemeier reads a murder mystery, he thinks violence, aggression, agony and cellos. For E.E. Balcos, it’s 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.
“They’re 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.”
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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 pair’s skillful guidance.
In 1894, Smith’s 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, it’s 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. “That’s 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, they’re 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 husband’s head. His body was so viciously ravaged that his bones now rest in three separate graves, because they couldn’t 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 Silver’s 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 I’ve got this book, and he’s got the other book, and we’ll 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 that’s 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.”