Speculative Sounds: Sonic Discoveries from “John The Balladeer”

By RL Thornton: One of the great rediscoveries of this year has been the stories of World Fantasy Award-winner Manly Wade Wellman. In particular, his magical stories about the high Appalachian wanderer and silver-stringed guitarist John have been republished by Valancourt Press in an anthology called John The Balladeer and in a larger complete two-volume set by Haffner Press (h/t to Michael Dirda of the Washington Post).

As Wellman’s dialect-laden prose slowly pulled me into his fantastic world of deep magic, my inner music geek started to wonder if all the songs in the stories were real. I knew that “In The Pines” had become notorious due to Nirvana’s live acoustic version, but what about the rest? Well, a little bit of YouTube diving reveals that Wellman knew his stuff!

So if you want to hear some of the songs as you read about John’s adventures, check out what I found below and enjoy. In most cases, each song’s YouTube link is accompanied by the lyrics from the story and the performer’s name.


When John refers to Bascom Lamar Lunsford, it turns out he was a real musician and song collector who actually recorded for the Library Of Congress!


His golden locks, John Dowland

“Beauty, strength, youth are flowers and fading seen—

Duty, faith, love are roots and ever green….”

  • Grace Davidson (soprano); David Miller (Lute)


Song: Hell Broke Loose In Georgia

  • The Skillet Lickers

Song: The Little Black Train

  • The Carter Family

Song: Many Thousands Gone

  • Matthew Sabbatella and the Rambling String Band

Song: Sourwood Mountain

  • Carolina Chocolate Drops
  • Frank Proffitt


Song: In The Pines

  • Leadbelly (aka Where Did You Sleep Last Night?)
  • Nirvana (aka Where Did You Sleep Last Night?)
  • Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys
  • Grateful Dead (Rare from 1966)

“Fare thee well my charming girl

With the golden slippers on….”

Song: Cuckoo Waltz

Song: Pretty Fair Maid In The Garden

Song: Willie From The Western States (variant of Barbara Allen)

Song: I Dreamed Last Night Night Of My True Love, All In My Arms I Had Her


Song: Lonesome River

“By the shore of Lonesome River
Where the waters ebb and flow, 
Where the wild red rose is budding
And the pleasant breezes blow,

It was there I spied the lady 
That forever I adore,
As she was a-lonesome walking 
By the Lonesome River shore. . . .”

(Above version currently unknown)

“Went to the rock to hide my face, 

The rock cried out,

‘No hiding place!….’”

Song: No Hiding Place

  • Bessie Jones
  • Flatt & Scruggs

John Henry

  • Leadbelly
  • Johnny Cash


Go Tell It On The Mountain

  • Bob Marley
  • Mahalia Jackson
  • Dolly Parton

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6 thoughts on “Speculative Sounds: Sonic Discoveries from “John The Balladeer”

  1. Pingback: AMAZING NEWS FROM FANDOM: March 31, 2024 - Amazing Stories

  2. I recently re-read the John stories in the new Valancort edition–uniquely lovely! What a treat to hear performances of music quoted in the stories. Manly’s friend David Drake created a mirror-opposite figure in his excellent Old Nathan stories about a crotchety, maimed old man whose neighbors fear him. Dave was the executor of the Wellman estate and his heirs are committed to keeping Manly’s legacy alive.

  3. I’m not sure if it counts as magic, but those songs can make a Sunday morning go by very quickly.

  4. What a great set of songs.

    The late great Mark Lanagan did a terrific version of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” on his album The Winding Sheet, with Kurt Cobain and Kris Novocelic (plus Mark Pickerel from the Screaming Trees on drums). Apparently at one point Lanagan and Cobain were planning an entire album of Leadbelly covers, but sadly it never materialized.

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