Manly Wade Wellman’s John the Balladeer: Speculative Fiction in the Southern Mountains

The Appalachian South has long been noted for its supernatural elements, from “haints” of all kinds; to stealthy, mystical, larger-than-life black panthers; to Sasquatch-style monsters; to root doctors, granny women, and fortune tellers. North Carolina author Manly Wade Wellman (1903-1986), noted by many as a foundational writer of American fantasy and speculative fiction, incorporated his love of and intimate acquaintance with the music and folklore of the Southern mountains into a series of stories he wrote, mainly in the 1960s, featuring a magical, ballad-singing hero who plays a silver-string guitar. Called simply “John” by Wellman, his hero later came to be known as “John the Balladeer,” or “Silver John.” Wellman was a prolific writer in several popular genres, including fantasy, speculative fiction, detective fiction, historical fiction, western fiction, and juvenile fiction. He was associated with the circle of writers around H.P. Lovecraft and his work, and he also wrote for the “pulps” of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, including the famous Weird Tales. Wellman spent his last years in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, as a respected writer and teacher of fiction. Although Wellman did write several novels in the late 1970s and 1980s featuring John the Balladeer, I will focus on Wellman’s original presentation of John in the stories from the 1960s as a bona fide Appalachian exemplar of a fantasy/speculative fiction hero. This presentation would sit well with the Keynote on place in regional writing.