Christopher Bahn

Christopher Bahn is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, and a former student of Ellen's.

Revisiting “The Jealous Lover”

While Ellen and I are working on a new collection of her unreleased music from across several decades of her career, which should be done very soon, we thought it might be nice to revisit “The Jealous Lover”, one of Ellen’s favorites from her 1958 album Songs From a New York Lumberjack.

As the title of the album tells you, these songs were in fact collected from a woodsman from upper New York state—Ezra “Fuzzy” Barhight, a folksinger who was one of the primary subjects of Ellen’s Ph.D. dissertation in 1965. Ellen visited Fuzzy many times over a period of years in the 1950s and 1960s, collecting stories and recording songs that would become a cornerstone of her work as a scholar, and also a large part of her repertoire as a musician. The multiple visits were part of her process of “depth collecting,” enabling her to record multiple versions of the same song in different contexts.

For years, Ellen didn’t enjoy listening to the album, feeling that her producer had encouraged her to sing too harshly, in emulation of Fuzzy’s original vocal style rather than Ellen’s own melodic strengths as a singer. But more recently, she’s softened her views: “I approve of myself, for a change,” she says with a laugh.

Fuzzy lived in a shed in the rural town of Avoca, New York, where he had worked not only as a lumberjack but farm laborer in the potato fields and other similar jobs. He was also an accomplished singer and banjo player who had learned dozens of folk songs over the decades. He came to Ellen’s attention via her professor at Cornell, who sent her to meet him for her first serious work as a folklore collector. “I was terrified. We ended up being good friends. He once told me, “You’ve got to listen to me when I talk to you—it’s your grandfather talking.”

Ellen’s original liner notes about “The Jealous Lover” from the Smithsonian Folkways album:

    Fuzzy's version of this song is similar, both textually and melodically, to variants found all over the United States. The song often takes its title from the name of the murdered girl, whose identity may change from one locale to another, though most of then names given are similar-sounding, e.g.,
Florella, Floretta, Flo Ella, Lorella, Louella, Ella, Ellen, etc. The name of the young man is more constant, usually being either Edward or the favorite ballad name, William or Willie.
    H.M. Belden believed it to be quite unique among 'murdered girl' ballads. In most other ballads of this nature, the man kills the girl simply to get rid of her—in this ballad the motive is jealousy.
The ballad appears to be an indigenous American product, for no Old World variants have been reported.
    But unlike most native creations, extensive research into the origin of the ballad has uncovered no information capable of tying the ballad to a specific and actual murder. The ballad is also quite remarkable in that it has been circulated completely by oral means, for no broadside or songster printings of it have been so far reported.

Songs From a New York Lumberjack is available for purchase through Smithsonian Folkways’ website. You can read the original liner notes by Ellen and producer Kenneth S. Goldstein here.

Welcome to Ellen’s new website!

Hello. Welcome to ellenstekert.com, the online home of Ellen Stekert, professor emerita of English at the University of Minnesota, singer and guitarist, former president of the American Folklore Society and Minnesota state folklorist. Ellen has had a long, varied, and interesting career and we look forward to sharing it with you here, including music, writing, and photography from her archives that has not yet been seen by the public.

Ellen herself will be here soon, both blogging and writing essays on her life and career. For now, we’re just getting started in building the site itself. Watch this space!