The Unsettling World of Dillard Chandler
“Stark” doesn’t even begin to describe the singing of Appalachian balladeer Dillard Chandler. “Otherworldly” might be a better descriptor. His singing sounds outside of our modern reality, so deeply rooted in the past that it’s almost exotic. Folk revival icon John Cohen certainly felt this when he first met and recorded Chandler in 1963, following in the steps of legendary ballad collector Cecil Sharp, who’d trod through that area of North Carolina (Madison County), as far back as the early 1900s. Chandler spent a lot of time in Asheville, but he called home the small town of Sodom, North Carolina.
This is how Cohen described Chandler in the CD reissue of some of these recordings:
Dillard Chandler (1907-1922), the source of more than half of this recording, was a powerful singer from the Big Laurel, whose voice still resonates, long after his death. Today it is difficult to find anyone who can sing with his style and authenticity. His way of singing grew out of life experiences and views that are vastly different from ours. His passionate voice dispels the notion that ballad singers are detached, unconnected, and unemotional. He was a mysterious character within his own community; he didn’t live in one specific place, but would just show up from time to time; he is remembered as a man who loved to sing.
There’s something unsettling about Chandler’s music, captured again on vinyl in the Tompkins Square re-release of Smithsonian Folkways’ original 1975 LP, The End of an Old Song. There’s something that terrifies the heart of the Northern folk revivalist slumming it in Appalachia. In the original liner notes, you can hear this, in the scared introduction by folklorist Robert Balsam: “I have never met Dillard Chandler,” he writes, “and I sometimes think I should not have written the notes to these songs which are so much a part of his life.”
Cohen likes to relate a story about Chandler, in which he asked Chandler when he was last in love, and Chandler matter-of-factly replied: “Well, I ain’t been in love for 10 or 15 years. There ain’t much to that. When I want a woman, I go to town and fetch one up and bring her out here a couple of nights and send her back and that’s that.”
This cold relation of Chandler hiring prostitutes unsettled Cohen and he debated for a long time about whether to include this in the film he was making of Chandler. He finally did, and then related in this interview the nonchalant reaction of the Appalachian people in Chandler’s home county when they heard him saying those words.
Chandler may have seemed unbearably edgy among the folk revivalists from outside of the region, but to everyone else he was just as he always had been: a bit of a rambler, a bit of a rake, a man raised in the hardscrabble reality of life in the region.
There’s a part in “Black Jack Daisy” where Chandler almost stumbles over the words, tripping in his thoughts and seeming to forget a verse. It’s a split second, but what’s fascinating is that he corrects his course by veering outside the meter of the ballad, inventing a new melody and new poetic meter in order to cram in the words off-tempo and half-remembered. It’s hardly noticeable, though, and in a sense this quick detour points at an even more beautiful, half-imagined ballad that may never have been. It’s a quick look inside the mind of a brilliant singer and tradition-bearer who clearly breathed old ballads as easily as air.
One of the most unsettling parts of this recording is the song “Hicarmichael.” It relates the simple and sensationalist story of a black outlaw gunning down a white sherriff. The oft-repeated refrain of “the n—ger shot him dead” has ensured that this song has been almost completely erased from the folk revival, and even the folklorist writing the liner notes wants to pass the buck on this one, saying “Published versions of this song have been impossible to locate, and that, along with an inspection of the text, leads me to believe the song is completely local.”
The impossibly encyclopedic website for American folk songs, Mudcat.org, has zero entries for “Hicarmichael” – not even any forum posts (of which there are usually about a hundred for any song) have dared to mention it. Though this song has been wiped from all folk databases, there are some strange and powerful lines in the verses. Like:
I’ll tell you boys it will not do a wrecked life to live
It will not do to take a life of any one for their life you can not give
Or the refrain:
It’s money will not pay your fees when you’re called before your god
It’s cost a many of a poor man’s life took and laid him under the sod.
Another harshly upsetting song is “Drunken Driver,” perhaps included in this compilation of field recordings as part of Cohen’s larger point that Chandler’s music was no throwback to ancient Celtic origins, but rather a product of modern struggle in America. The song, or its variants, have been done before, and it operates as a kind of moral tale about a drunken driver running down children. It’s not subtle, and includes verses like:
When he saw those two little kids
He tooted with a drunken sound:
“Get out of the road you two little fools!”
Then the great car brought them down
There’s a deep subversiveness to Cohen’s work with Chandler, or perhaps an appreciation for great art. He refuses to compromise Chandler’s songs and instead finds a way to bring the stark “high, lonesome” sound of Chandler’s vocals, together with Cohen’s own selection of disturbing songs from Chandler’s repertoire, presented without judgment of any kind, either on his or Chandler’s part. In this sense, I think Dillard Chandler: The End of an Old Song is one of the most powerfully artistic vinyl albums of elder Appalachian artists discovered during the folk revival. It’s also an intense, unsettling journey that serves to remind many of us just how far removed we are from the reality of Appalachia that we choose so often to romanticize.
Chandler was supposed to perform at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival, but didn’t make it. Unlike many other elder folk artists re-discovered in the 1960s, he didn’t perform at festivals. The only time he was brought to a festival outside of his home was the University of Chicago Folk Festival in ’67. The story goes that he sang his songs with a terrible shyness, facing away from the audience, looking at a blank wall off to the side.