Dolan Ellis had been thinking a lot about the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s awful, of course,” said Arizona’s state balladeer, in a phone call from his North Scottsdale home. “But I’m also seeing people pulling together for a change. I’m seeing a bigger awareness that’s there’s more to life than getting ahead. That life has to have quality, emotional stability, and serenity. That’s what folklore is all about: how people do things, how they use their own skills, and the folkie way of being self-sufficient.”
Ellis knows folkies and folklore. The 85-year-old singer-songwriter helped launch the folk music revival of the early 1960s with The New Christy Minstrels, the Grammy-winning group he cofounded and to which he lent his 12-string guitar and baritone skills. He left the group after winning gold records lost its shine.
“I quit because it wasn’t what I wanted,” he remembered of leaving the Minstrels. “I settled in Arizona and continued my writing and exploring and performing at a local club. Governor Sam Goddard used to come see my show and bring his son Terry with him. Terry had braces on his teeth.”
It was Terry Goddard’s dad who dubbed Ellis the official state balladeer of Arizona. “It’s an unsolicited government appointment,” Ellis explained of the designation he’s held for 54 years. “I have held this title at the pleasure of the last 13 governors.”
Born on a Kansas farm, Ellis said he always knew he’d live in Arizona. “I don’t mean to be woo-woo about it, but even as a kid I knew. Maybe it was all the Roy Rogers movies we’d go see on Saturday mornings, those silver screen heroes riding the wild west.”
He hung around Kansas long enough to get a degree in journalism from Baker University, then moved here to work in television. Pretty quickly, he decided he didn’t like TV. “There was more pressure in that industry than I like to live with," he said. "I stayed for a year, then I quit and became a folk singer in a coffee house in Scottsdale.”
Ellis figured he didn’t know anyone in Arizona, so he could do whatever he wanted with his life here. He’d always loved music. His older brother was a jazz trumpet player who played Jellyroll Morton and Jack Teagarden recordings and built Ellis a drum kit with tin cans and pot lids.
“The jazz world was a little too fast for me. It was very dark back then, with a lot of drugs. I didn’t want to live in that element. And if you were gonna make any money playing jazz, it was in places like the Playboy Club. I didn’t want to wear a tuxedo and bow tie to work every night. That sounded awful. I liked comfortable clothing and the desert and camping. So I followed folk rather than jazz.”
In college, Ellis became smitten with folk music. “I’d go hang out at the FM station,” he remembered. “Only weirdoes listened to FM in those days. This station had all these 78 RPM records of Leadbelly and John Jacob Niles and Ed McCurdy, all the old folk singers.”
Once in Arizona, he witnessed a world in transition. It was the late 1950s, and the last days of the Old West (“When people did business by handshake,” he said) were segueing into what Ellis called “the new southwest,” where everyone seemed devoted to something they called “progress,” and where everything was booming.
He began traveling the state, introducing himself to old-timers who’d settled here long ago, cowboys and ranchers and Natives. He went to roundups and pow-wows and reservations and rodeos, photographing everything, then went home and wrote songs about it.
In 1996, Ellis founded the Arizona Folklore Preserve, an archive and performance space in Ramsey Canyon. His photographs of our southwestern olden days are there. So, at least once a month, is a performance by Ellis.
“What happened was I went into the Scottsdale Library one day in about 1986, looking for their archive of Arizona folk music and folklore,” Ellis explained. “And there was nothing there. Oh, I think they had some Burl Ives records and some photographs of Pete Seeger. But I probably knew 100 folk singers at the time who’d spent their lives collecting stuff and writing things about Arizona history, and about our folk music, and none of it was there.”
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Ellis figured Arizona needed a place where folkies could celebrate the folk lifestyle. He found a rundown ranch in Ramsey Canyon that had been vacant for years. “We built a stage in there, and it seated 30 people or so. I did shows for free for about five years, and whatever money we took in, we banked. Then we set up a 501(c)(3) and got a new, bigger building started.”
Folk acts now come from all over the world to perform at the Preserve. But maybe not, in these days of social distancing, for a little while. Ellis said he wasn’t worried about the long-term effect of the Preserve’s hiatus. But he thought it was ironic that the venue will have to temporarily shut down in the face of a pandemic.
“Right now, we all need to be using common sense to get out of this mess, and while we’re having to hunker down,” he believed. “Common sense is really the basis of a folk lifestyle—how to make do with what you have, how to get along, how to work in harmony in the situation you find yourself in.”
He paused to let out a sigh. “These days are just crazy,” he said. “I don’t know where it’s all leading, but I guess we’re about to find out. What the hell.”