Making the Ballad of Frankie Silver
Remarks on the Making of “The Ballad of Frankie Silver”
By Tom Davenport
Dan Patterson introduced me to Bobby McMillon in the early 1980s. Dan was interested in Bobby's rendition of the Tom Dula tale and we talked about this. Over the years I kept up with Bobby indirectly through Dan. When Davenport Films was finishing the Mutzmag film, I sent Bobby a copy because I wanted to know what he thought of the movie. He liked it a lot and said that it was the first adaptation of an Appalachian folk tale that he thought captured some of the terror of the old stories. I think it was during these contacts that he sent me a carefully handwritten account of the Frankie Silver tale complete with a map of the community where the murder took place.
My assistant at this time was Jonathan Hamilton, a graduate student in the department of motion picture and television at Chapel Hill. We were working on a video project that playwright and storyteller Gary Carden had submitted to the Folklife Program of the North Carolina Arts Council. Jonathan and I wanted to experiment with a project to get ourselves on line with digital, computer-based editing. The Carden project appealed to us because of its simplicity and the potential it had for allowing us to experiment with low-cost video production methods.
In October of 1992 Jonathan and I went to Sylva, North Carolina, to film Gary's stories. We spent five or six days there, with Jonathan doing most of the taping and me doing sound. Jonathan had read the material that Bobby sent me and we had discussed the possibility of making a film from it. Both of us were "high" on making short, inexpensive documentaries quickly using our new hi-8 video camera and computer-editing technology.
I knew that Bobby lived nearby in Lenoir, so when we finished the shooting in Sylva, I called Bobby on an impulse and asked him if he would meet us and tell us the story of Frankie Silver so we could tape it. He agreed to meet us. At that time he was working irregularly as a mason's assistant, mixing mortar and carrying bricks.
Jonathan and I spent the night in a motel in Hickory and met Bobby in the morning. We set up the camera in our motel room and lit Bobby with two lights. The only direction I gave Bobby was to start with the ballad and to deliver the story directly to the camera. We turned the camera on and turned it off about forty-five minutes later, having recorded not only the entire ballad and telling of the tale, but also some of Bobby's growing-up stories and songs. I had asked him a few questions about his background and how he became interested in these old stories and songs. These are the only questions I asked.
Bobby's Frankie Silver story is one continuous take, delivered not to a person but to a camera lens. This is not easy to do. Bobby's performance was confident and relaxed, and this tape became our most important source for the video story line. None of the other renditions of the story that we taped three years later on the steps of the Silver cabin were as good as this one.
One detail I remember about the interview was that Bobby wanted to know if he should keep his cap on during the interview. His beat-up cap is part of Bobby's dramatic persona. He is quite deliberate about projecting a down-home look and uses old-time expressions and pronunciations by choice. This became very clear when I met his grandparents, who talked in much less of an old-time manner than Bobby. I told Bobby that it was better not to wear the hat because it made our lighting more difficult.
That afternoon, Jonathan and I drove back to Chapel Hill. The next day I made an appointment to see staff at The UNC Center for Public Television to show samples of the Gary Carden and Bobby McMillon material to see if they would be interested in helping with the final "on-line" editing of these projects in exchange for broadcast rights in North Carolina. They liked the Gary Carden material but did not like Bobby's story--partly because there was just this one interview and partly because Bobby's delivery was less conventionally professional than Gary's.
WUNC-TV helped us finish the video with Gary--"Blow the Tannery Whistle”--and broadcast that in North Carolina. Gary was able to sell copies at his performances and during the elderhostel class he teaches, and the video became an important source of his modest income. This pleased the North Carolina Arts Council and became one of the factors that allowed us to get a grant of $5,000--the same amount we had for the Gary Carden video--to complete the Bobby McMillon tape when we applied several years later. My first trip down with my son Matthew was aborted because of flooding. We drove to western Carolina but had to return two days later because several bridges were out and Bobby could not get over the mountain roads to meet us. On my second try Jon Nichols, then a graduate student in folklore in Chapel Hill, went with me to do the sound work. I made the following notes in my diary:
Monday. Bad weather. Snow in Asheville area. We decide to meet Bobby in Lenoir and film him with his grandparents. We arrive in the afternoon. Bobby has a room in the house, which is a comfortable brick house in a middle-class suburb. Bobby introduces us to his singing companion Marina, and they performed a version of the Frankie Silver ballad. Bobby plays guitar. We also film him interacting with his grandparents Paw-Paw and Maw-Maw. They are old and don’t speak much. Maw-Maw shows us her quilts and makes biscuits. Mostly they just sit, and Bobby talks.
Tuesday. Good weather. We drove to Morgantown--the site of the trial and hanging. Because Bobby has not been to any of these sites, the film trip becomes a kind of search. We film Bobby at the Chamber of Commerce where he finds out about Frankie’s grave site and the location of the hill where she was hanged. We film his description of the trial and her escape in front of the old courthouse. The old courthouse is now the Morgantown historical society and we get copies of the court records and a petition that a dozen prominent women sent to the governor asking for a pardon. The petition suggested the Frankie was acting in self defense and that Charlie was known to be abusive. Frankie was hanged on a hill near the courthouse. The houses there are upper middle class and we meet an elderly doctor who is walking his dog. He tells Bobby that when he was small the black maids would push baby carriages along that street and tell their charges that if they misbehaved that a bugger or bad spirit who lived on that hill would get them. Bobby immediately incorporates that story into his. A young attractive and well-dressed professional woman lives in the house on the site of the hanging. She is curious about what we were filming and comes out and takes Bobby to an old oak tree in her back year which she thinks was the hanging tree. Next we drive to the site of Frankie’s grave which was about nine miles from town in a godforsaken place at the end of a dirt road. There is an eroded ditch path which we follow through dense second growth pines and vines to the grave which has been marked with granite "Here lies Frankie Silver the first woman hanged in NC July 12, 1830"
Wednesday. A beautiful sunny day. Bobby stays with ballad singer Sheila Adams in Mars Hill, and John and I spent the night at the NuWray Inn. We are the only guests. After a big breakfast we set off for Kona. We film at the following places: --Bobby’s grandparents house on a steep hill side above the Toe river. --On the railroad tracks next to the river where Frankie, wearing Charlie’s boots, was supposed to have poked holes into the ice to make people think that he drowned. --At the overhanging rock where Frankie hid his remains. --Along the Toe river where Bobby tells the story of his grandfather who discovered a giant snake that had been cut in two by a train. --At the Church and cemetery in the nearby community of Kona where the Silver family still lives. The Church is no longer used and is a kind of museum now. There was a beautiful handwritten Silver family tree inside, and we filmed Bobby in the Church. We also had a interesting encounter with Bobby’s cousin Wayne Silver who is the local historian. The encounter was an interesting contrast in styles. Wayne believes that Frankie acted in self defense. Bobby tells him the Silver family version which implicates Frankie’s father. They talk about their mutual relatives. Bobby got very tired and we stopped about 3pm.
Thursday, Cloudy with light rain. Bobby tells the entire story sitting on the front porch steps of the original Silver home where Charlie was raised. The story was done in two long takes. Bobby introduces the story with two verses from the ballad. In the first and most complete take Bobby is influenced by what he has heard from Wayne and at the historical society in Morgantown and he omits the parts that implicate Frankie father. In the second telling Bobby puts that part back in at my request. This version is very similar to the one that we filmed in the motel room in Hickory two years earlier. We meet Homer Silver. He is the great-great-great-grandson of Jacob Silver, Charlie’s father. He owns the cabin, and takes us for a tour. Bobby and Homer visit. We also film in the cemetery at the supposed site of Charlie’s grave and next to the cemetery overlooking the hollow where Frankie and Charlie lived. I got back to Delaplane late on Thursday. I left Bobby and Jon in Burnsville. Jon was going to visit a friend in Asheville, and Bobby was going to check on his recording. Bobby drove off in the rain in his Buick LaSabre without his windshield wipers working. Jon Nichols caught on very quickly and was very interested in the project. I think we will have a very interesting and unusual movie. Bobby talked very well.
As is usually the case in documentaries, we had some lucky accidents. The meeting with Wayne Silver at the church was unplanned. Wayne just happened to be there. Also the meeting with Dr. McGimpsey, who talks about the black women pushing baby carriages past the hanging site, was accidental.
Bobby has diabetes and was weaker than he had been during that first interview in the motel room. He tired easily and his mouth became dry. He was constantly sipping soft drinks during the trip. I remember being amazed at the depth of his knowledge of kinship relations. I suppose he has this in common with most people who are interested in genealogy, but it amazed me in a person as young as Bobby. He could trace the lineage of his family and pepper it with anecdotes about people long dead. He told us over dinner that he wished he could have gone to college and gotten a degree in folklore so he could have become a teacher instead of having to work in a furniture factory.
The discovery of other people who shared an interest in Frankie Silver added more complexity to the film. In addition to Wayne Silver and Dr. McGimpsy, the women who staffed the Visitor's Center in Morganton offered a glimpse of a larger community that continued to talk about Frankie. Different people gave different accounts about what had prompted that 1831 murder, and the problem of how to treat the various perspectives became an issue for the filmmakers.
Matthew Jones replaced Jonathan Hamilton as my assistant in 1995. Like Jonathan, Matthew is a good writer and has confidence with computers. He is a Duke graduate in anthropology and has experience editing films. He took immediately to the idea of making a film out of the interview material and was responsible for most of the editing. In early 1996 Matthew and I began work in earnest on "The Ballad of Frankie Silver."
It had become apparent even during the original taping that Bobby's account of the story was from the perspective of the murdered man's family. Bobby was a distant relative of Charlie Silver, and his version placed much of the blame on Frankie's father. There is little sympathy for Frankie and no indication that she might have been a battered wife. It is interesting that Bobby's story changed slightly (compared to his first account in the motel) and expressed more sympathy toward Frankie during our trip to Kona. I am sure that Bobby was influenced by the questions that Wayne Silver brought up on the church steps and that I and Jon Nichols raised during our days together taping.
As Matthew Jones and I edited the video, it became even more clear that there was something missing in the story and that there might have been some terrible injustice committed when Frankie was hanged. It was hard for me to accept the motive Bobby presents--that Frankie's father wanted to move west and that they killed Charlie because he disagreed with their plans. Wayne Silver challenges Bobby on this issue, but he is the only one to question Bobby's account and to raise the issue of domestic abuse. We went ahead and cut a version of the story with Bobby as our sole informant, and I sent this rough cut to WUNC-TV with a letter suggesting that the film raises some unanswered questions about the possibilities of abuse. The staff responded that these issues were not apparent and that the video portrayed violent elements that made it unacceptable at this stage for broadcast. Because there is no violence shown in the video, that reaction is actually a confirmation of the power of Bobby's storytelling. This rejection was a blow to the project because we had counted on WUNC-TV support to finish the film and believed that its broadcast would benefit Bobby and viewers interested in the traditional culture of western North Carolina.
However, we began to rethink the film. While searching the state archives for newspaper accounts of the murder, Dan Patterson had met Jeff Gray, an Assistant Attorney General, who had been asked by the staff of North Carolina Governor James Hunt to investigate the Frankie Silver case because of a petition for pardon submitted by school children in Burke County. Jeff had become very interested in the case and was preparing an article on his research for publication.
Jeff Gray is from Sylva, Gary Carden’s home town in western North Carolina, where Jeff’s family publishes the weekly paper. In the video his style (dress shirt, tie, background of law books) functions to either support Bobby's account, add details, or suggest contradictions and raise questions that illuminate some of the tragic and (from the modern perspective) unfair aspects of Frankie's trial and punishment. We photographed Jeff in a library or chamber just off the court room in the Department of Justice building in Raleigh. Dan and I interviewed Jeff for about three hours with help from Michael Oniffrey of WUNC-TV on camera and Matt Jones on sound.
Matt and I then integrated Jeff's material into the film. Matt gave an innovative frame to the beginning and end of the video with our casual comments ("When you’re ready, Bobby" and "How much more time do we have?--I’m not sure how far to go"). Otherwise the cutting is very straight forward. It is interesting to point out that the story in the video is mostly told by men--Bobby McMillon, Wayne Silver, and Jeff Gray. There are few women in the video. One is the owner of the house on the hill where Frankie was hanged. She and Bobby look at the oak tree which supposedly was the gallows in 1832, and she functions to link the tragic and terrible event of the hanging to the commonplace look of the modern world. The scene shows that none of us can be sure what our everyday ground has witnessed.
The other woman has a more significant role. Bobby's singing partner Marina Trivette tells us what Frankie might have been feeling on the day she was hanged by telling us how she herself would feel knowing that she was about to die, leaving a little child behind. She is the one true voice of compassion in the video, and her voice is powerful because sympathy for Frankie is so late in coming--absent as it mostly is from Bobby's and Jeff's accounts. Matthew Jones and I thought that there was a kind of irony in the way that Frankie's guilt or innocence in the video is debated and decided by men just as her fate was discussed and decided by men more than 165 years ago.
After taping Jeff Gray, we did discuss the pros and cons of opening the video to the voices of other women. Jeff had defended the State's views on self defense (that the defendant must prove that her life was in immanent danger when the homicide was committed) against ideas that, in certain cases, a woman would be able to claim self defense if she could prove that she was battered and afraid of her husband. We also discussed the possibility of interviewing ballad singer Sheila Adams who we thought would have known the ballad and stories of Frankie Silver. But in the end, we felt that such a debate would dilute the storytelling artistry of Bobby McMillon.