Murder ballad

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Murder ballads are a subgenre of the traditional ballad form dealing with a crime or a gruesome death. Their lyrics form a narrative describing the events of a murder, often including the lead-up and/or aftermath. The term refers to the content, and may be applied to traditional ballads, part of oral culture.

Defining the subgenre[edit]

The term ballad, applied to traditional or folk music, means a narrative song. Within ballads, the "event song" is dedicated to narrating a particular event (from a perspective). Then a murder ballad is the form where the event is a murder. This definition can be applied also to songs composed self-consciously within, or with reference to, the traditional generic conventions.[1] Atkinson, referring to traditional English ballads, comments that "there is no shortage of murders in the corpus of ballads [...] and few of them are concealed with any success."[2]

Perspectives are numerous. Some murder ballads tell the story from the point of view of the murderer, or attempt to portray the murderer in a somewhat sympathetic light, such as "Tom Dooley". A recording of that song sold nearly four million copies for The Kingston Trio in 1958. Other murder ballads tell the tale of the crime from the point of view of the victim, such as "Lord Randall", in which the narrator becomes ill and discovers that he has been poisoned. Others tell the story with greater distance, such as "Lamkin", which records the details of the crime and the punishment without any attempt to arouse sympathy for the criminal. Supernatural revenge wrought by the victim upon the murderer sometimes figures in murder ballads such as "The Twa Sisters" (also known as "Binnorie" or "Minnorie" Child Ballad #10).

Daniel A. Cohen comments that the murder ballad should be distinguished from a related genre, of "dying verses", intended for reading rather than singing, a New England tradition from the 18th century. Dying verses related to courtship murders came in with the 19th century.[3]

History[edit]

Murder ballads make up a notable portion of traditional ballads, many of which originated in Scandinavia, England, and lowland Scotland in the premodern era (suggesting an ultimate Germanic cultural origin).[4] In those, while the murder is committed, the murderer usually suffers justice at the hands of the victim's family, even if the victim and murderer are related (see "Edward/Son David", "The Cruel Brother", and "The Two Sisters" for examples). In these ballads murderous women usually burn while males hang—see "Lamkin" and some Scottish versions of "The Two Sisters". Within the context of the British isles, murder ballads are only found in English and Scots-speaking regions (broadly, England, lowland Scotland, and northeastern Ireland), and are not a feature of Gaelic or Welsh-language music.

The details and locales for a particular murder ballad did change over time. For example, "Knoxville Girl" is essentially the same ballad as "The Wexford Girl" with the setting transposed from Ireland to Tennessee—the two of them are based on "The Oxford Girl", a murder ballad set in England. Many American murder ballads are modified versions of Old World ballads with any elements of supernatural retribution removed and the focus transferred to the slaughter of the innocent. For example, the English ballad "The Gosport Tragedy" of the 1750s had both murder and vengeance on the murderer by the ghosts of the murdered woman and her unborn baby, who call up a great storm to prevent his ship sailing before tearing him apart. In contrast, the Kentucky version, "Pretty Polly", is a stark and blood-soaked murder ballad with the victim being betrayed by the man she loves, stabbed in the heart, and buried in a shallow grave. The epilogue describes her killer being hanged by the community and his soul burning in hell and a "debt to the Devil" in a few versions.[5]

African music traditions brought by slaves blended with the conventions. Olive Burt noted that the murder ballad tradition of the American Old West is distinct to some extent from that of ballads rooted in the old broadside tradition, noting that:

Western settlers found murder and bloodshed fascinating, and composed local ballads. But with printing facilities scarce, many of these items were not published at all while others saw fame only briefly in the columns of the local newspapers. As a result, true western ballads of murder—except those about such famous outlaws as Jesse James, Cole Younger, Sam Bass, and their ilk—have been entirely lost, or are known only to the children of those who knew and sang them. These children are now, of course, old men and women. Some of the best examples of western murder ballads will be lost forever when these people die.[6]

Cultural references[edit]

Tom Lehrer's song, "The Irish Ballad", is a parody of the traditional murder ballad. J.H.P. Pafford, in a review of Olive Burt's American Murder Ballads and their Stories, states that the song contains "a running prose commentary on the incidents described in many [such] ballads".[7] Australian musician Nick Cave published an album named Murder Ballads in 1996, with traditional and modern murder ballads.

Patrick Sky included a parody of a murder ballad called "Yonkers Girl" on his parody album Songs That Made America Famous:

I met a little girl from Yonkers,
Just South of New Rochelle,
And ev'ry Sunday evening,
In her house I'd dwell.

We went out for a little walk,
To a dark and lonely place,
I drew a rail from off the fence,
And smashed it 'crost her face

which continues with more gruesome details of the murder and the disposal of the body.

Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games Trilogy of books, and the films based upon them, make much of Katniss Everdeen's ability to sing. "The Hanging Tree" was written specifically for the second film; it follows Appalachian murder ballad style.[8]

In the film Raising Arizona, Holly Hunter's character sings Charlie Monroe's murder ballad "Down in the Willow Garden" to the baby she and her husband have kidnapped.[9]

List of murder ballads[edit]

The following listing includes a representative sample of notable murder ballads, both traditional and modern, and is not intended to be complete. For a more extensive tabulation, refer to the list noted above.

Traditional[edit]

Modern (since 1920)[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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  2. ^ Atkinson, David (2017). The English Traditional Ballad: Theory, Method, and Practice. Routledge. p. 185. ISBN 978-1-351-54481-8.
  3. ^ Daniel A. Cohen, The Beautiful Female Murder Victim: Literary Genres and Courtship Practices in the Origins of a Cultural Motif, 1590–1850, Journal of Social History Vol. 31, No. 2 (Winter, 1997), pp. 277–306, at p. 298 note 16. Published by: Oxford University Press JSTOR 3789940
  4. ^ Child, Francis James; Sargent, Helen Child; Kittredge, George Lyman (1904). English and Scottish popular ballads. Houghton, Mifflin and company. p. xiv. Retrieved 1 September 2011.
  5. ^ Wilentz, Sean; Marcus, Greil (2005). The rose & the briar: death, love and liberty in the American ballad. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-393-05954-0. Retrieved 31 August 2011.
  6. ^ Burt, Olive (October 1958). "The Minstrelsy of Murder". Western Folklore. 17 (4): 263–272. doi:10.2307/1496190. JSTOR 1496190.
  7. ^ Pafford, J.H.P. (April 1961). "Review: American Murder Ballads and Their Stories by Olive Woolley Burt". The Modern Language Review. 56 (2): 260. doi:10.2307/3721933. JSTOR 3721933.
  8. ^ Mason, Amelia (December 10, 2014). "The Hidden Roots Of 'Hunger Games' Hit Song? Murder Ballads, Civil Rights Hymns". WBUR.org. Retrieved December 1, 2019.
  9. ^ "Raising Arizona Soundtracks". IMDb.com. IMDb.com, Inc. December 1, 2019. Retrieved December 1, 2019.
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  11. ^ Belden, H.M. (1918), "Boccaccio, Hans Sachs, and the Bramble Briar", PMLA, Modern Language Association, 33 (3): 327–395, doi:10.2307/456930, JSTOR 456930
  12. ^ Smith, Thomas Ruys (2016). Hair, Ross; Smith, Thomas Ruys (eds.). Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music: America Changed Through Music (Illustrated ed.). Taylor & Francis. pp. 182–192. ISBN 9781317123583. Retrieved April 20, 2019.
  13. ^ Chilton, Martin (2015-02-27). "Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, Tomorrow Will Follow Today, album review". telegraph.co.uk. The Telegraph. Retrieved April 20, 2019.
  14. ^ Bigger, Ken (November 9, 2015). "Unprepared to Die: An Interview with Paul Slade". singout.org. Sing Out!. Archived from the original on April 20, 2019. Retrieved April 20, 2019.
  15. ^ Powers, Ann (May 17, 2011). "The Allure Of The Murder Ballad: Ruth Gerson Does Delia's Gone". npr.org. NPR. Retrieved April 20, 2019.
  16. ^ Langer, Andy (February 26, 2012). "The Return of the Murder Ballad - Song of the Week: The Chieftains with Bon Iver, Down in the Willow Garden, Voice of Ages". esquire.com. Esquire. Retrieved April 20, 2019.
  17. ^ Margotin, Philippe; Guesdon, Jean-Michel (2015). Bob Dylan All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track. Running Press. ISBN 9780316353533. Retrieved April 20, 2019.
  18. ^ Waltz, Robert B.; Engle, David G. (2012). "Edward". Folklore The Traditional Ballad Index: An Annotated Bibliography of the Folk Songs of the English-Speaking World. California State University, Fresno. Retrieved April 20, 2019.
  19. ^ Blackman, Patrick (October 10, 2016). "Murder Ballad Comedy, Part 5: Marrow Bones". singout.org. Sing Out!. Archived from the original on April 21, 2019. Retrieved April 20, 2019.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g Slade, Paul (2015). Unprepared to Die: America's Greatest Murder Ballads and the True Crimes That Inspired Them (Illustrated ed.). Soundcheck Books. ISBN 9780992948078. Retrieved April 20, 2019.
  21. ^ "The Haunting Power of "In The Pines"". slate. Retrieved 1 July 2019.
  22. ^ Bigger, Ken (November 14, 2016). "Lamkin – A most brutal bloody ballad". singout.org. Sing Out!. Archived from the original on April 21, 2019. Retrieved April 20, 2019.
  23. ^ Atkinson, David (1999). "Magical Corpses: Ballads, Intertextuality, and the Discovery of Murder". Journal of Folklore Research. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. 36 (1): 1–29. JSTOR 3814811.
  24. ^ (PDF). Smithsonian https://folkways-media.si.edu/liner_notes/folkways/FW05211.pdf. Retrieved 1 July 2019. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  25. ^ a b Underwood, Richard; Parris, Carol J. (2004), Crimesong: Some Murder Ballads and Poems Revisited, University of Kentucky: UKnowledge, retrieved April 20, 2019
  26. ^ "10 of the most disturbing folk songs in history". BBC. Retrieved 1 July 2019.
  27. ^ Blackman, Patrick. "Archived copy". Sing Out. Sing Out!. Archived from the original on 28 February 2019. Retrieved 1 July 2019.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  28. ^ Jones, Caroline. "One Track Mind: Vandaveer, Pretty Polly". Retrieved 1 July 2019.
  29. ^ "Hanover, "Young Florilla" - Maine Folklife Center - University of Maine".
  30. ^ Burt, Olive W. (1958). American Murder Ballads and their Stories. New York: Oxford University Press.
  31. ^ a b c Nash, Juliana (November 21, 2012), "A Murder Ballad Playlist", The New York Times, retrieved April 20, 2019
  32. ^ a b c d e Blackman, Patrick (November 4, 2013). "Pat's Essential Eleven Non-Traditional Murder Ballads". singout.org. Sing Out!. Archived from the original on April 21, 2019. Retrieved April 20, 2019.
  33. ^ Heylin, Clinton (2009). Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, Volume One: 1957–73. Constable. pp. 98–99. ISBN 978-1-55652-843-9. Retrieved April 22, 2019.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  34. ^ "The Allure Of The Murder Ballad: Ruth Gerson Does 'Delia's Gone'". NPR. May 17, 2011. Retrieved 7 May 2019.
  35. ^ "#1s: Richard Marx - Hazard". 90% Hits. 24 June 2013. Retrieved 29 July 2020.
  36. ^ "Harris and the Mare". Sing Out!. 2012-04-09. Retrieved 2020-08-02.
  37. ^ "Janie's Got a Gun". Sing Out!. 7 May 2019. Archived from the original on 8 May 2019.
  38. ^ McNally, Dave (29 November 2017). "DECLAN O'ROURKE: CHRONICLES OF THE GREAT IRISH FAMINE". Folk Radio. Retrieved 22 June 2019.
  39. ^ Beviglia, Jim (February 26, 2013). "Behind The Song: 'Long Black Veil'". americansongwriter.com. American Songwriter. Retrieved April 22, 2019.[permanent dead link]
  40. ^ Bigger, Ken (August 21, 2012). "Murder Ballad Monday: Mack the Knife". singout.org. SingOut!. Archived from the original on April 23, 2019. Retrieved April 22, 2019.
  41. ^ Brown, August (November 16, 2010). "Critics' Choice: New CDs". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 30, 2015.
  42. ^ Marcus, Greil (2015). Real Life Rock: The Complete Top Ten Columns, 1986-2014 (Illustrated ed.). New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. p. 457. ISBN 9780300196641. Retrieved April 22, 2019.
  43. ^ Coyne, Kevin John (November 18, 2012). "Single Review: Carrie Underwood, 'Two Black Cadillacs'". Country Universe. Retrieved April 22, 2019.
  44. ^ https://genius.com/Queen-bohemian-rhapsody-lyrics
  45. ^ Where the Wild Roses Grow
  46. ^ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xBq_PSg3vHc
  47. ^ Langer. https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/music/g1089/best-murder-songs-022712/?slide=6. Missing or empty |title= (help)

Further reading[edit]

Further listening (recorded compilations)[edit]

  • Blood Booze 'n Bones, Sung by Ed McCurdy, banjo accompaniment by Erik Darling, Elektra Records, 1956 (includes 12 page booklet).
  • Bloody Ballads: Classic British and American Murder Ballads, Sung by Paul Clayton, Ed. by Kenneth S. Goldstein, Riverside Records, New York, 1956 (includes cover notes).