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. Broadsheet printed ballads do not use the same formulas or structures, and are rooted in a literate society.

Description of the genre[edit]

Murder ballads are a tradition that go far back into history, and predate the printing press and standard music notation. The oldest traditional ballads ever found date back to the Middle Ages and were passed down orally, a tradition itself that has never died. A broadsheet murder ballad, first appearing in the Renaissance and Baroque periods of Europe, typically recounts the written details of a mythic or true crime—who the victim is, why the murderer decides to kill him or her, how the victim is lured to the murder site, and the act itself—followed by the escape and/or capture of the murderer. Often the ballad ends with the murderer in jail or on the way to execution, occasionally with a plea for the listeners not to copy the evils committed by the murderer as recounted by the singer. The third and still developing category is one that forms the basis of contemporary music as many of the older traditions from past centuries have bequeathed this type of song to direct modern descendants, including rock and roll, blues, country, and even a few rap songs. These do not require written broadsheets and have been spread by modern recording practices, streaming services, YouTube, and sheet music.

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 takes 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).

The murder ballad has its roots in traditional folk music, but the subtype itself never totally has gone away and appears from time to time in descendant musical genres like rock and gospel and other styles that became popular in the 20th century. “Mack the Knife”, “Delilah”, “Smooth Criminal”, “Maxwell's Silver Hammer”, and “Stan” were all written long after the earliest known murder ballads by many, many centuries. But they are all examples of the phenomenon of continuing the ancient tradition as evidenced by their lyrics and often grisly subject matter dealing with "blood stains on the carpet,"[1] or a serial killer getting away from a "body oozin' life,"[2] as are some songs authored by Bob Dylan or Neil Young during the social revolutions of the 1960s which revived interest in much older traditional music in English speaking nations.


By the mid-17th century in Europe, ballads of all kinds were being printed and sold on broadsheets.[3] Mentions of the sale of such broadsheets exist in the diary of Samuel Pepys, who mentions "the bonny Scotch song of Barbara Allen" in a January 1666 entry. 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.

From the 17th century, huge numbers of people began to leave Britain and Ireland for North America. Murder ballads were a popular form of entertainment, though often the details and locales for a particular murder ballad had to change over time, to keep the song relevant to its audience and to please the tastes of the performer. 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", the original 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; some are intentionally more bloody than the original. 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]

Over time, and most especially in the South, the addition of African music traditions brought by slaves blended with these much older conventions. This blend distinctly and forever altered the sound of the originals from the British Isles : the banjo evolved from instruments from West Africa but gave a syncopated rhythm to the tune and a completely different methodology of rapid fire pizzicato plucking rather than just a plainer strum. The precursor to the modern acoustic guitar was present in the British Isles and was occasionally used for upper-class performance music in England in the 18th century, but it became wildly popular in 19th century America as alterations to its design gave it a louder, brighter tone that proved suitable for private use and for soldiers during the Civil War who needed something portable; this was in strong contrast to its more traditional use as a chamber instrument or as a minor player in an orchestra in Europe in classical circles. Bluegrass mandolins came into being by radically altering the traditional mandolin from Europe to have no bowl shaped bulge at the back and become fretted at the neck. Mandolins provided the soprano melody and guitars the alto and tenor; this development began late in the 19th century and amplified by the 1920s. The fiddle remained intact, but woodwinds were replaced by the dulcimer, an instrument most likely German in origin.[6] The collections of Cecil Sharp and later John and Alan Lomax provide evidence that by at least the end of the 19th century this musical pattern was set, and cross pollination into genres away from Appalachia like rhythm and blues soon followed, as evidenced by the works of Lead Belly. A. P. Carter and his family were both eager collectors of the very oldest traditions as well as composers and innovators of the newer and more blended styles. Other black artists adapted the ballad to fit the needs of the blues, like Jelly Roll Morton and Mississippi John Hurt.

Olive Burt notes 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.[7]

Cultural references[edit]

Tom Lehrer's song, "The Irish Ballad", is famously 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".[8] Australian musician Nick Cave published an album named Murder Ballads in 1996, with traditional and modern murder ballads.

Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games Trilogy of books, and the four films based upon them,[9] make much of Katniss Everdeen's ability to sing and her living in District 12; this relatively correlates in real life to Appalachia, which has been a very important center of both country music and traditional murder ballads. One, called "The Hanging Tree," was written and composed specifically for the second film; it is a very good example of the style of murder ballad native to the area in terms of its melody and subject matter.[citation needed](When she acted out the role of Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence was required to sing "The Hanging Tree" in character, and it became a rallying anthem for the resistance.)

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.


Modern (since 1920)[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Michael Jackson – Smooth Criminal, retrieved 2019-02-06
  2. ^ Bobby Darin – Mack the Knife, retrieved 2019-02-06
  3. ^ Schechter, Harold (15 February 2005). Savage pastimes: a cultural history of violent entertainment. Macmillan. p. 50. ISBN 978-0-312-28276-9. Retrieved 1 September 2011.
  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. ^ "German Scheitholt · Appalachian Dulcimer Archive". Retrieved 6 July 2018.
  7. ^ Burt, Olive (October 1958). "The Minstrelsy of Murder". Western Folklore. 17 (4): 263–272. doi:10.2307/1496190. JSTOR 1496190.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ The third book in the trilogy, Mockingjay, was shot as two films.
  10. ^ Leahey, Andrew (February 17, 2015). "Hear Sean Watkins and Fiona Apple Team Up for Bluegrass Standard". Rolling Stone. Retrieved April 20, 2019.
  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". The Telegraph. Retrieved April 20, 2019.
  14. ^ Bigger, Ken (November 9, 2015). "Unprepared to Die: An Interview with Paul Slade". Sing Out!. Retrieved April 20, 2019.
  15. ^ Powers, Ann (May 17, 2011). "The Allure Of The Murder Ballad: Ruth Gerson Does Delia's Gone". 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. 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". Sing Out!. 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". Sing Out!. 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 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. Sing Out. Sing Out! Retrieved 1 July 2019. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  28. ^ Jones, Caroline. "One Track Mind: Vandaveer, Pretty Polly". Retrieved 1 July 2019.
  29. ^ Missing or empty |title= (help)
  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". Sing Out!. 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.
  34. ^ "The Allure Of The Murder Ballad: Ruth Gerson Does 'Delia's Gone'". NPR. May 17, 2011. Retrieved 7 May 2019.
  35. ^ "Murder Ballad". TV Trope. 7 May 2019.
  36. ^ "Janie's Got a Gun". Sing Out!. 7 May 2019.
  37. ^ McNally, Dave (29 November 2017). "DECLAN O'ROURKE: CHRONICLES OF THE GREAT IRISH FAMINE". Folk Radio. Retrieved 22 June 2019.
  38. ^ Beviglia, Jim (February 26, 2013). "Behind The Song: 'Long Black Veil'". American Songwriter. Retrieved April 22, 2019.
  39. ^ Bigger, Ken (August 21, 2012). "Murder Ballad Monday: Mack the Knife". SingOut!. Retrieved April 22, 2019.
  40. ^ 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.
  41. ^ "Murder Ballad". TV Trope. 7 May 2019.
  42. ^ Coyne, Kevin John (November 18, 2012). "Single Review: Carrie Underwood, 'Two Black Cadillacs'". Country Universe. Retrieved April 22, 2019.

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).