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Murder ballad

Murder ballads 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

Nick Cave'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

See also

Further reading

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.

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