US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Listen: Oh, Willie, Please...

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Vandaveer (Quack Media, 2013)

Don’t mess around with guys named Willie. That’s the message in these Appalachian death ballads. Over and over in these songs, a young man named Willie kills an innocent young woman, either because she’s become inconvenient or, occasionally, because she resists his advances.

Vandaveer is an ad hoc band convened by singer-guitarist Mark Charles Heidinger. And on Oh, Willie, Please . . . Heidinger sets out to update the murder ballads not by giving them contemporary backing tracks or rewritten lyrics, but by playing them straight, thus demonstrating how timeless and universal the songs really are. Death—from illness, murder, or suicide—haunts the ballads. For instance, on this album’s opening track, “Banks of the Ohio,” we meet a Willie who off-handedly tells how he “throwed” his lover “in to drown” and “watched her as she floated down.”

And that’s the way it goes through the rest of the collection. The settings here are mostly traditional banjo, acoustic guitar, Dobro, and bass, although “Pretty Polly” does get a deep groove from its handclap rhythm track. Heidinger and female vocalist Rose Guerin sometimes trade lines to reproduce the male-female dialogue in the ballads. And while most of the tunes follow the boy-murders-girl story line, the final track, “Henry Lee,” seeks to even the score with a young woman killing the man who rejected her.

These songs have survived for centuries because they touch something deep in our nature. Just as African American spirituals capture grace breathing through the hardest of hard times, the death ballads capture the reality of sin and death, always waiting in the shadows of our everyday lives. Both are true; both are real, and both are profoundly mysterious. On Oh, Willie, Please… Vandaveer proves that mystery is still there, still valid, and still true.

This article appeared in the September 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 9, page 42).