Judy Domeny Bowen Keeps Old Ballads, Folk Songs Alive
One ordinary day, nearly 50 years ago, wasn’t expected to result in a record album. Or the preservation of hundreds of Ozarks ballads and folk songs — let alone the sharing of these songs with a world that had nearly forgotten them.
It was simply supposed to be a visit to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home in Mansfield. But on that day, 12-year-old Judy Domeny Bowen picked up a book of folk songs in the gift shop.
“My Dad peered over my shoulder and he said, ‘I know that song.’ It was ‘The Letter Edged in Black,’" she says. "And I thought, ‘Wow, if Dad knows that song, it’s old.’ And then he said, ‘My mom used to sing t?hat.’
The seemingly small moment was set to change her life — and the future of Ozarks music.
“And I thought, ‘If Grandma knows that song, that is the end of the Earth, that song is ancient!' So I went home and learned that song.”
That song led to a repertoire of hundreds, as well as numerous albums, countless performances, workshops and a legacy. Today, she is one of few musicians who still sing the ballads locally, many dating back centuries.
“Singing is something people have always done," she says. "And when people immigrated from France and Germany and England and Ireland and Italy and came over here and settled in the Ozarks, they couldn’t bring a lot with them, but they could bring the songs in their heads.”
As a teenager, Judy learned more about ballads — which are slow, sad, and tell a story — as well as folk songs, which are often more catchy and lighthearted. An example of the latter is "Redwing," which dates from the early 1900s and one of her most-requested songs.
That song and many more are part of the Max Hunter collection. Starting in the 1950s, Max Hunter, a Springfield-based folklorist, spent decades recording hundreds of songs from throughout the Ozarks.
“I found out about his collection, which he wisely had contributed to the Springfield-Greene County Library," says Judy. "It was on cassette tapes by that time; you could check out the tapes.”
Like the early settlers, she ingrained these songs while working in the garden. And today, she still sings on her farm, only around five minutes from where she grew up, and alongside 150 goats.
"People could sing while their hands were busy but their minds were not," says Judy. "If you were hoeing the corn, if you were milking the cows, if you were snapping the beans, it’s a good time to entertain yourself with a song about somebody who gets their head cut off."
Topics like that, which are common in ballads, earned Judy the nickname as the Queen of Death and Dying. I am fortunate, however, to know her by a simpler title: Aunt Judy.
Common themes in ballads are death, bad people and love gone wrong. All the things that make juicy tabloids on the newsstands today, were also fun topics to talk about in the past. An example is "Barbara Allen," an English ballad that’s at least 400 years old.
A lot is different nowadays. Audiences who knew the songs by heart and head from childhood have slowly disappeared with time, replaced by those who are interested but don’t have a personal connection to the music.
“Those people who grew up singing the old folk songs but hadn’t heard them for 60 years — when they hear ‘Redwing,’ or ‘The Letter Edged in Black,’ or ‘Seeing Nellie Home,’ it instantly transports them back to the times when they sang it," says Judy. "Other people like it but it doesn’t have the same meaning to them.”
Does it worry you what the future looks like?
"Not since things were computerized," she says. "That really took away my fear that things would disappear. Because people like me who are interested will seek it out. So that’s really reassuring. I don’t know how many will seek it out. But it’s there if they want to.”