Arizona’s official state balladeer, Dolan Ellis, celebrated his 50th anniversary with that title in mid-February. He was first appointed by Governor Samuel Pearson Goddard Jr. in 1966, and the designation has been renewed by every governor who has followed. Today, Ellis is 81 and continues to espouse his love and passion for the state. We talked with Ellis to learn more about how he became Arizona's balladeer, his upbringing and what else he enjoys doing.
How did you come to have this title?
I had just returned to Arizona after quitting a very famous national group [The New Christy Minstrels], so I was pretty visible. Before Governor [Samuel Pearson] Goddard Jr. became governor, he and his family would come to my shows. I came home to write and photograph Arizona and continue my work as a performing artist. All of my work was about Arizona, and Governor Goddard recognized my passion and gave me that honor. It was totally unsolicited.
How does it feel to be celebrating your 50th anniversary?
Well, it’s been so long that the title is absolutely a part of me. I can’t imagine my name being spoke, or introduced, without that title following it. Fifty years is a long time. I’ve been doing this line of work for a lot longer than 50 years, too; I’m 81 now. But it was through recognition of my work that I was appointed that title. Thirteen governors have renewed my title, and it feels wonderful because it gives me a vote of confidence about my work.
I don’t have a degree or documentation that says who I am or what I do — you just say what you are until people accept it. It takes a long time to do that, and the help that my title has given me in immeasurable. I used to get a lot of giggles because people thought it was a corny sort of thing. But after a few years, people began to see that I was dead serious about my work, and I have a special love for this state that I express through my songs and my photography. Even as a little kid, I was fascinated with Arizona. When I go out into the desert, I feel I have returned to my connection. I’ve been very lucky, and I probably would have done this for better or for worse.
What do you enjoy about being the state’s balladeer?
I am able to do, every day of my life, what I love to do. I’ve always encouraged younger people to pursue their passion. I don't care what it is. If you have a passion for drinking beer, then become a brewmaster or open up a microbrewery. Do something to be successful for your passion. That way, your work is never work. I am able to do what I deeply love to do, every day of my life, even at 81. I write and sing every day.
You grew up in Kansas. What was that like?
I lived on a farm southeast of Lawrence. Life was much different for kids then. We had 640 acres of land and were allowed to go anywhere. We had woods, orchards, wheat fields, pig pens, barns, silos, wells, ponds and animals of all kinds — chickens, cows, cats and dogs. I was living that country life.
When I was 6, I’d go over to the north pasture and I’d be gone all day. Some parents might view mine as irresponsible, but that was just what life was like back then. I learned how to take care of myself and learned survival very fast. I think that those years that I spent alone in the woods, and down at the creek catching turtles, gave me a bonding to the Earth that has never left me.
What brought you to Arizona?
My passion for Arizona came from National Geographic magazine. For those of us that lived in remote areas, National Geographic was our window to the world. We’d flip through that magazine and see the Amazon River, Africa, Europe, the Eiffel Tower — all kinds of stories. They would put quite a bit of material about Arizona and the Sonoran Desert, and I fell in love with saguaros, the great horned owls, tarantulas, scorpions and rattlesnakes. It all got my attention.
I was also inspired by Berry Goldwater. We’ve done shows together, and the way he incorporated his love for Arizona into his value systems of life was a great inspiration to me. Also, Ettore "Ted" DeGrazia was an inspiration. I remember one time I expressed to him that I was frustrated because I was writing and writing and not getting the recognition I wanted. I asked him how he broke through the ceiling and got "onto the highway," and he said, "Well, I’ve heard your stuff and you’re doing really well. But you should know that I didn’t receive anything until I had gray in my hair. Relax, kid. You haven’t earned it yet."
Aside from performing, writing, and singing, is there anything else you like to do in your free time?
I love to camp and explore the state. All of that is still a part of my work, though. My work is surrounded by what I love and somehow I’ve been able to make a living out of it. I feel very fortunate because I’ve never had what my mother considered “a real job,” and not many people are fortunate enough to do that. Success comes through people, and you need to live your life right in order to have people help you along the way.
What else are you doing these days?
I established a nonprofit called the Arizona Folklore Preserve in Southern Arizona, in the Huachuca Mountains. I had a 20-acre ranch down there and used 4 acres of it to convert this 1929 cabin into a concert home that sat 30 to 35 people. I got a board of directors and made it legitimate. I started doing shows there and put all of the money into the nonprofit bank account. After five years, we got a pretty decent amount of money and decided to build a significant building for the center, rather than a cabin. I still do shows there one weekend every month. It’s been a very important project in my life, and I’m hoping it will be well cared for when I’m gone.
I am also in the archiving stage of my career. I am making sure my important photography has been digitalized and filed, and making sure things are put together, organized and recorded so that it can be of use further down the road. I have interviews, music and photographs of pioneers in the late '50s and lived during a time in Arizona that is now gone. I kind of have my own musical museum.
— Brianna Cossavella
To learn more about Dolan Ellis, visit his website.