Feb. 06, 2013 - Issue #903: Moment by moment
The death ballad has been a staple in folk music since people began picking up guitars and singing songs, with the greats combining just the right mix of intrigue and tragedy with a moral twist.
"I wonder if it's the same as gruesome fairy tales with a moral that disturb and excite children," says Ben Sures of the intrigue that continues around the songwriting style, ahead of a stop in Edmonton for the Death Ballad Love Tellers tour with Bubba Uno and David P Smith. "It's like stories being handed down; I think it fits the same bill."
Now in its third year, the Death Ballad Love Tellers tour will première new songs penned by each member of the trio—death ballads, of course—written specifically with the tour in mind, with plans to record an album together when it wraps up. The in-the-round performance brings each performer's unique flair to the songwriting style, with Sures on guitar, accompanied by Smith on ukulele and Uno on accordion, switching off performing songs from each of their solo repertoires.
Preparing his own death ballads has been a tricky process for Sures, who explains that there's a delicate balance a songwriter needs to be cognizant of during the writing process.
"It's a very fine line to be gruesome and glib, and in a way you can almost be tacky just singing a brutal song," he says, adding a death ballad has to bring much more to the table than simply listing off a series of macabre events and leaving it as is. "The challenge is that moral twist or painting a picture of the character that's doing it ... for me, the goal is to pull it off in a way that it accurately conveys a balance to the story, walks the fine line of making you uncomfortable, but not being superficial."
While there's no hard and fast evidence as to when exactly death ballads began, Sures notes they're probably "as old as the hills," used as a way for people to pass stories down between generations.
"Whenever troubadours were invented, I'm sure some version of the death ballad was invented," says Sures, who was introduced to death ballads through the likes of Johnny Cash, Pretty Polly, Hollis Brown and Bob Dylan.
Whether it's death ballads or love confessionals, the tour is the opposite of esoteric. Each story is told in the most literal sense, steering away from the abstract in favour of entertaining, with each performer bringing their own style to the mix. Sures dubs Smith as a master of confessional storytelling—a songwriter who made him want to go back and start at zero the first time he heard him—while Uno is a six-foot-plus force to be reckoned with on ukulele, spinning tales of zombies.
"Usually in the folk circles, I'm the most kind of different songwriter because I touch on so many subjects and the way I perform, but with these two I'm so middle of the road," Sures chuckles. "It's great for me. It totally expands me and gets me thinking."
Wed, Feb 13 (10 pm)
Black Dog, free
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