Deep in the west
You don’t want to go down that old dirt road. That hundred yards of 45-degree incline pocked and puddled by yesterday’s monsoon wants something more agile than a nine-year-old Ford. A mule maybe.
At the foot of it, though, is the beckoning charm of old Moffatt Cottage, the likes of which Hansel & Gretel would’ve wanted to call home after learning the hard lessons of lusting after sweets. All that’s missing is inviting curls of smoke rising from the chimney. But it’s August, and even in enchanted Ramsey Canyon, the punishing Arizona summer makes a heated hearth unthinkable.
The last hundred yards, it turns out, are easier than they look, and well worth the 80-mile drive from Tucson. There in the cottage, which serves as the visitors center for the Arizona Folklore Preserve, Dolan Ellis holds forth in his 35th year as the state’s Official Balladeer. His bittersweet ballads of its everyday heroes are cozy and colorful as a handmade quilt.
Ellis came to renown in the revolving cast of the ’60s folk-pop ensemble New Christy Minstrels, whose upbeat entertainment earned them negative cred in the era of activist folk but made them wildly popular with the escapist majority. The Minstrels launched careers for Kenny Rogers, Kim Carnes and actress Karen Black; Ellis’ own departure in 1963 opened the slot eventually filled by Gene Clark, who departed later to work with Jim McGuinn and David Crosby in the band that became the Byrds.
Now, every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, Ellis weaves homespun yarns over engaging, soundtrack-like arrangements on his 12-string guitar. His unique gift is for spellbinding visitors with the heritage of his adopted home state, as parsed from the simple histories of its more colorful inhabitants. He illustrates their fleeting time with stunning slides he’s taken far off the beaten path on countless camping trips with his wife Rose.
Moffatt Cottage was for sale nine years before Ellis bought it; he thinks it was waiting for him. For one inclined to lore of any kind, it’s ideal. It’s nestled in a sycamore-and-pine-filled canyon, the domain of peculiar creatures with fanciful names such as coati mundi, javelina, ring-tailed cat and elegant trogon, as well as fifteen, count ’em, varieties of hummingbirds, more than make their home anywhere else in the country.
Surrounding Cochise County, which borders on both Mexico and New Mexico, made its name via varmints of a different sort — Jesse James, Billy the Kid and the bawdy mining town of Bisbee. Until it was overtaken by San Francisco, Bisbee the largest settlement west of St. Louis. The feared and respected native American leaders Geronimo and, of course, Cochise encamped there; twenty minutes up the road is Tombstone, scene of the notorious gunfight at OK Corral.
Then, too, Cochise County topography is a symphony in geologic trauma beyond even Wagnerian proportions: spent volcanoes; entire mountains made of a single fault thrust; sweeping grasslands; implacable, parched deserts and rock formations like toys from God’s own Play-Doh. Over all is a tireless sky-show, whose shifting shapes and colors, with no apparent beginning or end, lend their own import to the infinite dramas taking place beneath them. The smallest human endeavor seems to fly in the face of what would be a natural inclination to ponder, “What difference could it possibly make?”
Stan Jones must have struggled against just such fatalism on his Cochise County ranch when, in the wind advancing a monsoon rain, he clambered to the top of a windmill to tie it down before the storm. Years before making his fortune writing songs for John Ford and Walt Disney movies, Jones faced down the ghost riders storming the sky with a monsoon apocalypse hard on their heels, and made music history with the song the event inspired.
Ellis loves the story and the song itself, imbuing “Ghost Riders In The Sky” with meaning and passion the audience can’t escape. Although each performance is different, built around its own theme, he seems always to include “Ghost Riders”, often illustrating it with slides of improbable cloud formations menacing darkening mountains with monsoon downpours.
Weather is frequently a factor in Ellis’ ballads, but no more so than humor. A crowd favorite revolves around a hailstorm in July, which, while it smacks of a tall tale, is actually a not uncommon occurrence. In the upshot of the song, an old mining commune in what’s now a ghost town gets to have ice cream at its July Fourth picnic, even after a daylong horse-and-wagon trek to Bisbee for ice yields only news that the ice plant had closed.
Another popular tale relates to the nearby Mexican border town of Naco, which Ellis claims was the site of the only bombing ever perpetrated on U.S. soil. Like the tale of the July Fourth picnic, you have the sense Ellis may be one of only a handful of people who knows this story, and you’re glad he does. It involves a barnstormer pilot and prodigious drunk who took it upon himself to fly his biplane and some homemade bombs above a 1929 border skirmish between a band of Pancho Villa’s raiders and the army of the Mexican government. Whatever he was aiming for, it probably wasn’t what he hit: a U.S. office of the Phelps Dodge mining company. The Federales eventually shot him down.
A ballad to the vanishing breed that gave Mustang Mountain its name features a chorus noting that the wild horses live on in a “Detroit street machine.” The irony in that must derive from the listener’s own cynicism; the Folklore Preserve is an irony-free zone. Starving pioneers, legends of lost gold, rodeo champion Alice Grennough, the battle for the soul of Lake Powell — all find charm and kindred in Ellis’ repertoire, which restores the fifteen minutes of local notoriety that might otherwise be lost to them, and to us.
Ellis performs on a small stage rendered tinier by a set overcrowded with likenesses (an Old West railway tunnel, a miner’s shack, a hitching post) and actualities (a saddle and blanket, a lantern, a Hereford’s skull, a mounted javelina head and antlers of a white-tailed deer, a serape, and enough rusty clutter to fill an old woodshed). The audience, exactly 30, has made reservations weeks in advance for wooden chairs crowded around circular tables just large enough to accommodate cookies and juice, fetched for a song from the vintage kitchen. On this day in August, each table also holds a tiny vase of the season’s flower harvest from a neighbor’s garden.
In the front row are several young members from the cast of Up With People, who clearly feel they are at the feet of the master. The audience includes visitors from as far away as Germany and Puerto Rico, notwithstanding that August is hardly tourist season. Many others present are up in years (how did they muster the grit for that hill?); some of them are on a birding excursion.
Charming as the cottage is, its capacity is clearly strained. With support from the University of Arizona, Ellis has almost finished a new home next door for the Folklore Preserve. The new facility, expected to be open early this year, will provide more room for fans of Ellis, and the frequent guest appearances by cowboy poets, storytellers, folk singers and others whose calling is to keep Western folk traditions alive. It will also offer plays, films, crafts, dance, a larger book and record store and, as is every Arizonan’s birthright, air conditioning and free parking spaces for all.
Meanwhile, though, the cottage, packed for every performance, has been a more than sufficient place for the growing up of Ellis’ dream — to capture and immortalize the heroic, human-scale sagas that arise from this epic landscape.