‘Dark Corners: The Appalachian Murder Ballads’ is an exhibit of large-scale narrative paintings touring US museums, with accompanying lectures and musical performances. The work explores America’s cultural mythologies. In particular, how folkways from the Scottish borders, traveling to the Appalachians in the 18th century, flourished in the wilderness, and expanded the frontier West. This fierce and proud folklore (remaking itself into such forms as the Western) still affects us today, with its stereotyping of male and female roles, and its ready acceptance of violence as a form of retribution.
‘One is occasionally tempted to abandon the role of historian and to frame what social scientists call a theory. Whenever a culture exists for many generations in chronic insecurity, it develops an ethic that exalts war above work, force above reason, and men above women. This pattern developed on the borders of North Britain, and was carried to the American backcountry, where it was reinforced by a hostile environment and tempered by evangelical Christianity. The result was a distinctive system of gender roles that continues to flourish even in our own times.’
From ‘Albion’s Seed’ by David Hackett Fischer
- Spartanburg Museum of Art, SC Feb-Apr 2015
- Mecklenburg County Bar, Charlotte NC Jan 2015
- (In association with Charlotte Metropolitan Human Trafficking Task Force)
- Myrtle Beach Museum of Art, SC 2014
- Morris Museum of Art, Augusta, GA 2013
- Greenville Museum of Art, Greenville, SC 2012
- Ballads performed by Greg and Lucretia Speas
“It was our great pleasure to exhibit the “murder ballad” paintings of Julyan Davis at the Morris Museum of Art. Beautifully painted, they are thoughtful and provocative, and engaged the audience here on several levels. We find that it is a rare exhibition that generates repeat visitation. This was one of them. I’m glad to say that the exhibition also brought Julyan Davis with it, and he proved to be every bit as engaging as his work.”
Kevin Grogan Director, Morris Museum of Art
The traditional folksong of the Appalachians is close to my heart. I inherited an enthusiasm for such music from my father. With its Celtic origins, it has provided my connection to the Southern landscape since my arrival here twenty three years ago.
The songs of this region have given me an old, familiar narrative and a human history that connects to my own background. Some artists are happy to record every alien vista and strange culture travel can provide, but I have found this old tie important in placing me in this new land.
For many years I painted scenes; landscapes and urban views, old buildings and interiors, with not a figure in sight. Despite this, they were often described as being haunted by a human presence, and as places that somehow told a story. In these new works the figure has entered the scene.
The stories in these ballads are old, but one only has to pick up a newspaper to see they remain fully contemporary. Lovers still fall prey to despair and suicide, or end up in the crime report. These are paintings are set very much in the present, but nothing taking place in them is new.
The South maintains a ‘culture of honor’ that is a gift to any artist, writer or musician. Below are some links to books that deal with the history of the ballads and the cultural legacy of that music behind much of America today.
- ‘Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America’ by David Hackett Fisher
- ‘Crimesong: True Crime Stories from Southern Murder Ballads’ by Richard H. Underwood
- ‘Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia’ by Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr
- ‘Outliers’ Harlan, Kentucky (Excerpt) by Malcolm Gladwell
- ‘American Nations’ by Colin Woodard
- ‘Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South’ by Richard E. Nisbett and Dov Cohen
Excerpt from Bluegrass Today interview:
What led you to convert these often tragic songs to canvas?
“I heard that Charlie Parker was once asked by a band member why he liked country music so much. “I love the stories,” he replied. That certainly applies to my early love for these ballads. They are romantic, with a simple, plaintive poetry, but they also have a fatalistic tone running through them that cuts the sentimentality. The protaganists in these songs act upon their emotions, but are resigned to the often unhappy results.
From the start it appeared I was going to be a painter. I just interpret my experience through that medium, rather than another. At art school I began illustrating this music of my childhood. I came to the South twenty five years ago and focused on painting the landscape. I now realize all the empty streets and abandoned buildings I’ve painted, even the hidden coves of North Carolina’s mountains- they were all haunted by the ghosts of this music. One day I just decided it was time to put those ghosts into such settings.
There’s some very interesting writing on the South’s ‘culture of honor’. This is traced to the Scots-Irish immigration to this country- a code of conduct that stemmed from the hard, herding life of the Scottish borders, where people had to be fiercely self-sufficient in protecting their lives and property. It occurred to me that these old Appalachian ballads had kept this flame alive, providing the fuel for many cultural forces today- from country music to the Western. So, to me, the content of these very old ballads was still relevant, and here in the mountains there are still certainly people that act in a way reminiscent of the 17th century Scottish borders. A friend a mine renovated a local dive bar after it had been closed due to a double homicide. A man had killed another with a hunting knife. The dead man’s brother chased the murderer down the street with a hunting knife of his own, and avenged his sibling against the side of a city bus. This stuff didn’t happen in the rather genteel town of Bath where I grew up!
I set the old music in the contemporary South. The crime reports seem to show it still has a bearing on this society. That’s not a judgement on my part. I’m an artist- I’m just drawn to what can make art compelling. I have a sympathy for people trapped in lives they did not expect- that sets the mood for these paintings. In the same way Shakespeare set Hamlet’s existential crisis in the middle of the then-popular revenge tragedy, or Tony Soprano’s mid-life depression is set in the world of the mob, I try to set a tone of modern resignation in the drama of an updated murder ballad. A gripping tale provides good bones for portraying a more universal complaint.“