While the excellent 2018 album Unsung Passage settled in, The Dead Tongues, the smoldering folk-rock project of Durham’s Ryan Gustafson, has been trickling out new songs toward a big 2020. The band began the year with new single “Strangers” and a co-headlining tour of the East Coast with Daughter of Swords.

Now Gustafson is dropping another single that we’re premiering today. “Little Sadie” is as easygoing and buoyant as “Strangers” was sweeping and implacable—at least in its tuneful float and bounce, which was performed by local regulars including Joe Westerlund, James Wallace, and Molly Sarlé.

Its subject is a different matter, though. The early-twentieth-century American murder ballad known as “Little Sadie” has drawn generations of singers to record it, from Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson to Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia. Perhaps this is because its odd moral neutrality creates a broad range of interpretive play.

In its narrative, a man shoots a woman—implied to be either his wife or a prostitute, depending on the version—and flees town. When recognized, he promptly confesses and goes to jail for 41 years. That’s basically all there is to it—a schematic tale of crime and punishment or a disinterested parable of remorse. 

Gustafson, as is his wont, downplays the intelligibility of the lyrics to draw out the feel and texture of the song; his casual calls and murmurs blend into the day-bright rays of banjo that streak the song, and there is something uniquely American about that: the dark heartbeat hiding under all that optimistic luster.    

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Contact arts and culture editor Brian Howe at bhowe@indyweek.com. 

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