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|Cultural origins||England, lowland Scotland, Scandinavia, Iceland, Faroe Islands, Germany, in the middle ages, and Ireland|
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
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. 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."
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.
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). 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.
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.
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". Australian musician Nick Cave published an album named Murder Ballads in 1996, with traditional and modern murder ballads.
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.
List of murder ballads
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.
- "Banks of the Ohio" (American) – Fiona Apple & Sean Watkins, Carter Family, Monroe Brothers, Doc Watson
- "The Bramble Briar", also known as "The Merchant's Daughter" and "In Bruton Town" (English) – Martin Carthy, Sandy Denny, Davy Graham
- "Charles Guiteau" (American) – Norman Blake, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Bascom Lamar Lunsford
- "Child Owlet" (Scottish) – Alistair Hulett & Dave Swarbrick, Ewan MacColl, Steeleye Span
- "The Daemon Lover", also known as "James Harris" and "The House Carpenter" (Scottish) – Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Natalie Merchant, Doc Watson
- "Delia's Gone" (American) – David Bromberg, Johnny Cash, Dave Alvin, Ruth Gerson
- "Down in the Willow Garden", also known as "Rose Connelly" (Irish, American) – The Chieftains & Bon Iver, The Everly Brothers, G. B. Grayson & Henry Whitter
- "Duncan and Brady" (American) – New Riders of the Purple Sage, Dave Van Ronk, Wilmer Watts & The Lonely Eagles
- "Edward" (Scottish) – Sam Amidon, Oysterband, Steeleye Span, James Yorkston
- "Eggs and Marrowbone" (English) – Richard Dyer-Bennet, Seamus Ennis, Jean Ritchie
- "Frankie and Johnny", also known as "Frankie and Albert" (American) – Mississippi John Hurt, Elvis Presley, Jimmie Rodgers
- "In the Pines", also known as "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" or "Ma Negresse", a Cajun French version (American)- Lead Belly, Nirvana, Loretta Lynn, Dock Walsh
- "The Knoxville Girl" (American; derived from the Wexford Girl among others.) – Blue Sky Boys, The Louvin Brothers, The Outlaws, The Wilburn Brothers
- "Lamkin" (English) – Martin Carthy, Steeleye Span, The Wainwright Sisters
- "The Maid and the Palmer", also known as "The Well Below The Valley" (Irish) – Brass Monkey, Planxty, Steeleye Span
- Mammy Redd, based on real life hanging of Wilmot Redd as a witch.
- "Mary Hamilton" (Scottish) – Joan Baez, Cynthia Gooding, Odetta, Jean Ritchie
- "Matty Groves", also known as "Little Musgrave", (English with American variants)- Judy Collins
- "Poor Ellen Smith" (American) – The Country Gentlemen, Molly O'Day, Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper, Henry Whitter
- "Pretty Polly" (American; originally from British broadside "The Gosport Tragedy") – Dock Boggs, The Byrds, Judy Collins, The Dillards, Vandaveer (bluegrass version)
- "Stagger Lee", also known as "Stagolee", "Stackerlee", "Stack O'Lee" and "Stack-a-Lee" (American) –Mississippi John Hurt Sidney Bechet, Woody Guthrie, Lloyd Price, Ma Rainey
- "Tom Dooley" (American) – Lonnie Donegan, Steve Earle, The Kingston Trio, Frank Proffitt, Frank Warner
- "The Twa Sisters", also known as "Cruel Sister", "The Two Sisters", "Minnorie", and "Binnorie" (English and Scottish) – Ewan MacColl, Pentangle, Andrew Rowan Summers, Tom Waits
- "Young Florilla" (American)
- "Young Hunting", also known as "Henry Lee", "Love Henry", "Earl Richard" and "The Proud Girl" (Scottish) – Bob Dylan, Dick Justice, A. L. Lloyd
Modern (since 1920)
- "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" (Richard Thompson) – Red Molly, Sean Rowe, Richard Thompson
- "Ballad of Hollis Brown" (Bob Dylan) – Bob Dylan, Neville Brothers, Nina Simone
- "Delilah" - Tom Jones
- "El Paso" (Marty Robbins) – Old 97's, Marty Robbins
- "Goodbye Earl"- The Dixie Chicks
- "Hazard" (Richard Marx) – Richard Marx
- “Caleb Meyer” (Gillian Welch/David Rawlings) – Gillian Welch & David Rawlings
- "Hey Joe" (Billy Roberts) – The Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, The Leaves, Tim Rose
- "Harris and the Mare" -- Stan Rogers
- "Jack Straw" (Bob Weir/Robert Hunter) – The Grateful Dead, Bruce Hornsby & The Range
- "Janie's Got A Gun"-Aerosmith
- "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." (Sufjan Stevens) – Sufjan Stevens
- "Johnny and the Lantern" — Declan O'Rourke
- "Long Black Veil" (Marijohn Wilkin/Danny Dill) – The Band, Nick Cave, Bill Monroe, Rosanne Cash
- "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" (Bob Dylan) – Paula Cole, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Mason Jennings
- "Mack the Knife" (Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht) – Bobby Darin, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra
- "Man Down" (Shama Joseph/Timothy Thomas/Theron Thomas/Shontelle/Robyn Fenty) – Rihanna
- "Nebraska" (Bruce Springsteen) – Bruce Springsteen
- "Shankill Butchers" (Colin Meloy) – The Decemberists, Sarah Jarosz
- "Two Black Cadillacs" (Carrie Underwood/Hillary Lindsey/Josh Kear) – Carrie Underwood
- "Bohemian Rhapsody" (Freddie Mercury) – Queen
- "Where the Wild Roses Grow (Nick Cave/Kylie Minogue/"Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds"[circular reference]
- "Country Death Song" (Violent Femmes) 
- "Miss Otis Regrets" (Cole Porter) – Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Jose Feliciano, Bette Midler
- "Polly Von" (traditional) – Peter, Paul, and Mary
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- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- Burt, Olive (October 1958). "The Minstrelsy of Murder". Western Folklore. 17 (4): 263–272. doi:10.2307/1496190. JSTOR 1496190.
- 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.
- Mason, Amelia (December 10, 2014). "The Hidden Roots Of 'Hunger Games' Hit Song? Murder Ballads, Civil Rights Hymns". WBUR.org. Retrieved December 1, 2019.
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- 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
- 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.
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- Margotin, Philippe; Guesdon, Jean-Michel (2015). Bob Dylan All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Track. Running Press. ISBN 9780316353533. Retrieved April 20, 2019.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- "The Haunting Power of "In The Pines"". slate. Retrieved 1 July 2019.
- 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.
- 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.
- (PDF). Smithsonian https://folkways-media.si.edu/liner_notes/folkways/FW05211.pdf. Retrieved 1 July 2019. Missing or empty
- Underwood, Richard; Parris, Carol J. (2004), Crimesong: Some Murder Ballads and Poems Revisited, University of Kentucky: UKnowledge, retrieved April 20, 2019
- "10 of the most disturbing folk songs in history". BBC. Retrieved 1 July 2019.
- 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)
- Jones, Caroline. "One Track Mind: Vandaveer, Pretty Polly". Retrieved 1 July 2019.
- "Hanover, "Young Florilla" - Maine Folklife Center - University of Maine".
- Burt, Olive W. (1958). American Murder Ballads and their Stories. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Nash, Juliana (November 21, 2012), "A Murder Ballad Playlist", The New York Times, retrieved April 20, 2019
- 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.
- 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)
- "The Allure Of The Murder Ballad: Ruth Gerson Does 'Delia's Gone'". NPR. May 17, 2011. Retrieved 7 May 2019.
- "#1s: Richard Marx - Hazard". 90% Hits. 24 June 2013. Retrieved 29 July 2020.
- "Harris and the Mare". Sing Out!. 2012-04-09. Retrieved 2020-08-02.
- "Janie's Got a Gun". Sing Out!. 7 May 2019. Archived from the original on 8 May 2019.
- McNally, Dave (29 November 2017). "DECLAN O'ROURKE: CHRONICLES OF THE GREAT IRISH FAMINE". Folk Radio. Retrieved 22 June 2019.
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- Brown, August (November 16, 2010). "Critics' Choice: New CDs". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 30, 2015.
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- Where the Wild Roses Grow
- Langer. https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/music/g1089/best-murder-songs-022712/?slide=6. Missing or empty
- Burt, Olive W. American Murder Ballads and their Stories, Oxford University Press, New York, 1958.
- Burt, Olive W. "Murder Ballads of Mormondom", Western Folklore, 18:2, April 1959, pp. 141–156.
- Bush, Michael E. "Murder Ballads in Appalachia", (thesis) Marshal University, Huntington, West Virginia, 1977.
- Cohen, Daniel A. "The Beautiful Female Murder Victim: Literary Genres and Courtship Practices in the Origins of a Cultural Motif, 1590-1850", Journal of Social History, 31:2, Winter 1997, pp. 277–306.
- O'Brien, Ellen L. "The Most Beautiful Murder: The Transgressive Aesthetics of Murder in Victorian Street Ballads", Victorian Literature and Culture, 28, 2000, pp. 15–37.
- Tunnel, Kenneth D. "99 Years is Almost for Life: Punishment for Violent Crime in Bluegrass Music", The Journal of Popular Culture, 26:3, Winter 1992, pp. 165–181.
- Jones, Miriam. "Why do we love to sing murder ballads? Tradition, feminism and bluegrass", The Overland, Spring 2017.
Further listening (recorded compilations)
- 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).