Home to Jesse is a murder ballad. The murder ballad is an old tradition that is well past it’s prime. Now we get plenty of juicy murder and mayhem on TV, in movies and the daily news. Supply is exceeding demand. Most folks already have their fill of this stuff. They don’t need it in the form of a song.
But because I have a taste for tradition, I thought I’d take a stab at this lost art (pun intended.) I was inspired by Gillian Welch’s song Caleb Meyer. One of the things I love about her take on the murder ballad is the blood. “I pulled that glass across his neck as fine as any blade, and I felt his blood run fast and hot around me where I laid. “ Oh man, that’s entertainment!
One of the things Jesse has in common with Caleb Meyer is that they both had it comin’. I had to figure out who I wanted to kill before I made him up. In old murder ballads it’s interesting to note that this is often not the case. They’re more true to life that way, with senseless murder existing without rhyme or reason or any sense of apology. But writing about a senseless murder indeed seems senseless in these modern times. It amounts to beating a dead horse.
Here's a quick story about the first time I played this song. When it was new, I didn’t realize that an audience would react to the subject matter as a “downer.” And to add insult to injury, that downer would be delivered by banjo. Not a recipe for a “crowd pleaser.”
The first time I played Jesse for an audience was on the Wildflower Stage at Songschool. (I previously wrote about the Wildflower here.) The audience at the Wildflower is about as supportive and enthusiastic as they come. So I felt a little bummed when I finished the song to less the usual enthusiasm.
As I was walking away after performing, feeling a bit funky about it (looking for a hole to crawl into) I was stopped by one of our beloved instructors at the Song School. I think he could tell how I was feeling. He took my face in his hands and looked me right in the eye. He told me that the audience didn’t know what hit them; that he appreciated what that song was aiming for, and that it was very much like a Childe Ballad.
I don’t share this to toot the song’s horn. But it was a powerful moment for me and it taught me something about the nature of a compliment. As a schoolteacher, I had misgivings about giving students compliments. I was afraid that they would make students dependent upon validation outside themselves. But that compliment at that particular time was a real gift that came when I needed it. I’ve carried it with me ever since. I doubt that the instructor would even remember it, but it’s something I’ll never forget. It reminds me to be generous with encouragement. I aspire to give to others what that teacher gave to me. That’s something even a banjo can’t kill.