are a sub-genre of the broadsheet ballad
, the lyrics of each being a narrative poem
that tells a tale of murder
Description of the genre
A murder ballad typically recounts the 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 their way to the gallows, occasionally with a plea for the listener not to copy the evils committed by the singer.
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 of the criminals 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," Child Ballad #10).
History of murder ballads
Murder ballads are a notable portion of recorded medieval ballads from Scandinavia
and Great Britain
. In those, the victim overcomes the murderer, tricks him and stabs him to death while sleeping. Thus, justice is fulfilled, and the murderer is punished. Many of those ballads mention a row of dead brides, from seven and up to ten, until the final surviving heroine.
Often the details and locales for a particular murder ballad change as it is sung over time, reflecting the audience and 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.
American murder ballads are often versions of older Old World ballads with any elements of supernatural retribution removed. 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 murder ballad ending with the murder and burial of the victim in a shallow grave.
Modern murder ballads
's 1996 album Murder Ballads
contains both traditional and original music of this form. Mick Harris (Scorn
) and Martyn Bates (Eyeless in Gaza
) also released an album with the same name.
Other examples of modern CDs featuring murder ballads include Alasdair Roberts' 2005 album No Earthly Man and Kristin Hersh's 1998 album Murder, Misery and Then Goodnight. Another contemporary example of a murder ballad is Billy Roberts' widely covered popular song "Hey Joe", the most famous version being the one recorded by Jimi Hendrix in 1967.
List of murder ballads
- "Knoxville Girl" - Louvin Brothers, Wilburn Brothers
- "Little Sadie" also known as "Cocaine Blues" - Roy Hogsed, Hank Thompson, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Uncle Tupelo, Merle Travis, Woodie Guthrie, George Thorogood
- "Lizie Wan"
- "Lord Randall"
- "Mack the Knife" - Bobby Darin, Louis Armstrong
- "Nebraska" - Bruce Springsteen
- "Omie Wise" (also known as "Poor Little Omie Wise")
- "Pistol Packin' Mama - Al Dexter, Bing Crosby & The Andrews Sisters
- "Pistol Slapper Blues" - Blind Boy Fuller
- "Pretty Polly"
- "(She Was) Dressed Fit to Kill" - Gene Summers
- "Stagger Lee" - Lloyd Price, Nick Cave
- "Tom Dooley" - Kingston Trio
- "The Twa Sisters" (variants include "Cruel Sister" and "The Two Sisters") - Clannad, Pentangle
- "They're Hanging Me Tonight" - Marty Robbins
- "Where the Wild Roses Grow" - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
- Olive W. Burt, American Murder Ballads and their Stories, Oxford University Press, New York, 1958.
- Olive W. Burt, "Murder Ballads of Mormondom", Western Folklore, 18:2, April 1959, pp.141-156.
- Olive W. Burt, "The Minstrelsy of Murder", Western Folklore, 17:4, October 1958, pp.263-272.
- Michael E. Bush, "Murder Ballads in Appalachia", (thesis) Marshal University, Huntington, West Virginia, 1977.
- 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, 31:2, Winter 1997, pp.277-306.
- Chet Flippo, "Nashville Skyline: The Subject Was Murder", CMT.com, February 5, 2004.
- Ellen L. O'Brien, "The Most Beautiful Murder: The Transgressive Aesthetics of Murder in Victorian Street Ballads", Victorian Literature and Culture, 28, 2000, pp.15-37.
- Will Robinson Sheff, "The Dark Side of Folk: Songs about Murder", Audiogalaxy.
- Kenneth D. Tunnel, "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.
Further listening (recorded compilations)
- Blood Booze 'n Bones, Sung by Ed McCurdy, banjo accompaniment by Erik Darling, Electra 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).
- Murder Ballads, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Mute Records, 1996.