Pat’s Essential Eleven Traditional Murder Ballads


We here at Murder Ballad Monday are soon fixing to close our second year of writing about our topic of choice!  Don’t worry; we have a few more weeks to go before we get to our holiday hiatus, and we’re planning a Year Three.  But I’ve been reflecting on what a blast it’s been to be a part of this chaotic and deeply enriching project, and I took a notion that it might be a useful addition to our effort if the bloggers here put forth, for readers old and new, some lists of our favorite murder ballad performances.

Well, it was my idea so I have to start!  I don’t know if this will inspire my blogging partners to do the same, but I hope sooner or later we’ll all have our lists up here.

Let me be clear; because of the listening and reading I’ve done over the years I can speak intelligently to what makes a good murder ballad, but I *can’t* know what makes a good murder ballad for *you*.  Please, understand then that this is my own personal list offered humbly and without the conceit of ‘expertise.’  It’s not endorsed by the front office of Murder Ballad Monday and isn’t meant to be a definitive set of murder ballads for study.  This is just me metaphorically grabbing you by the shoulders and saying “Have you HEARD this yet?”

In other words, these eleven tracks move me like the moon moves the sea.

As well, I’ve never particularly been a fan of Top Ten lists, so just to be cantankerous and allow myself an extra ‘slot’, I’m trading alliteration for assonance and packaging this as my “Essential Eleven”.

Finally, today’s list only presents traditional murder ballads, from both the Anglo and the African-American traditions.  I need another whole post to cover my essential eleven modern and post-modern murder ballads.  This post obviously includes 20th and even 21st century performances, and some are certainly not presented with traditional music, but none of the ballads were composed later than the 19th century.  And some go back many centuries, of course.  I guess I could go on by way of explanation, but if you don’t know what separates a traditional murder ballad from other sorts, just look at Thomas Hart Benton’s painting that caps this post and accept what it evokes in you as a better explanation of the subject than I might ever offer in words.

So, let’s have it, shall we?  I’ll present the ballads in the order in which we featured them in our blog, and close with one that we *really* ought to take up soon.

“Brown Girl” – Tim Eriksen

Ken started our strange little blog two years ago with a post much shorter than what we usually write now, yet still informed by his typical curiosity and impeccable choice of source material.  Child 73 is usually known as “Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender”, but my choice for this ballad bears the name “Brown Girl” and is performed by Tim Eriksen.  We heard it first in my week about Tim, to augment Ken’s auspicious first entry.  I find it both chilling and passionate, and I come back to it regularly for inspiration.

“Brown Girl” by Tim Eriksen – Lyrics

I learned this one from Jerry Garcia and David Grisman’s track, and I’ve heard many since then, but Eriksen’s version to me tops them all.  Tim’s musical take is not strictly traditional, and he leaves behind the bouncier approach many folkies have taken with it.  The tone he sets brings out masterfully what I feel must be the original horror of this ballad.

Thomas is cold-hearted and greedy, Ellender is haughty and impetuous, and the brown girl – caught between these two less than stellar specimens of the British gentle class – acts in the only way she can to save her honor: with a knife.  As in all versions, she pays for it with her life.  But in this one, the scene might well work in a horror movie from Hollywood.

“Omie Wise” – Doug Wallin

Our second week for the blog took us to western North Carolina, and the sad, true story of Naomi Wise.  Ken opened the week with this track, and it’s been my favorite of the many versions of this song since I first heard it.

“Omie Wise” by Doug Wallin – Lyrics

Though recorded more professionally by many others, I always come back to this straightforward a capella mountain performance from the hills where Naomi Wise is buried.  You just can beat it for purity, as if Doug is singing of news that just happened yesterday.

The story Ken uncovered that week of Naomi’s children inspired me to pen a poem from their perspective.  I heard Henry, her youngest, in a young man’s voice, trying to remember the last time he saw his mother, but rather more interested in his own tryst with a rich girl.  It was the murderous woman in the next ballad with whom I imagined him spending his time, and who I imagined served him the same as John Lewis served his mother.

“Love Henry” – Bob Dylan

Shaleane’s first post for the blog focused on “Young Hunting”, and my preferred version of that old ballad is Bob Dylan’s “Love Henry.”

I was in my mid-twenties and hanging out with my guitar picking friend in his dorm room at Williams College while we listened through Dylan’s World Gone Wrong back in 1993 when it came out.  I was lounging on the floor when this song came on, and it left me psychically flattened as well.  For the next few weeks I kept playing the album, and rerunning this song particularly to make sure I was really hearing what I thought I was hearing.

Maybe it’s because I’m claustrophobic, but that line about the lady throwing Henry’s body into a deep well still gives me shivers.  The parrot in the song, too, is irresistible to me.  And that “pretty little girl in Cornersville” who mourns for Henry’s return is a truly devastating image.

“Love Henry” by Bob Dylan – Lyrics

Sometimes in these ballads it’s women who send men into that deep dark water we’ve come to know so well in this blog.  And sometimes it’s one woman who sends another one there.

“Two Sisters” – Tom Waits

My own first contribution to Murder Ballad Monday was a piece on “Two Sisters”, one of the oldest ballads in the English language.  I did three posts that week, but over the short life of this blog, I’ve done a total of nine regarding this ballad!  You can find them all linked at the bottom of that first post. I don’t want to get into it all again here – suffice it to say, this ballad matters to me.

In all the research and the listening, I ran across what’s become my favorite version.  I’ve always liked Tom Waits but never been a die-hard fan.  But his relatively recent take on this ballad, based no doubt on Horton Barker’s Appalachian version, is singular and evocative.  It’s a brilliant and faithful rendering of traditional music by a decidedly non-traditional musician.

“Two Sisters” by Tom Waits – Lyrics

While Tom stays true to Horton Barker’s melody, his delivery can’t be anything but his own.  And his addition of a simply played fiddle, as beautifully rough as Waits own voice, is perfection.  I love these lyrics because they give us something rare in this ancient story – an elder sister who actually gets away with sororicide!  She even frames the miller to take the fall.

Of course, some ballads make it common – getting away with murder, that is.

“Little Musgrave” – Planxty

While I’ve known Doc Watson’s version of “Matty Groves” for years, it was in researching for my week on that ballad that I discovered this gem.  Yes, Planxty cut a version of “Little Musgrave” for their 1980 album The Woman I Loved So Well.  And Christy Moore has his own solo version as well.  Both of these are the same song, precisely; but I wouldn’t choose them as my favorite.  Let me say though – until you see and hear and the live performance from 2004 below, you haven’t really experienced everything this ballad can be.

I made the argument in my third post that week that this particular variant sits well with those, like Doc Watson’s, that see the Lady and her lover as the protagonists, while another strain of the ballad sees the aggrieved Lord as justified in murdering them both.

I stand by that wholly.  But the more I listen, the more I realize I failed to articulate just what intangibles delivered in a live performance can bring to influence how an audience perceives such things in a ballad.  The raising and lowering of volume, the facial expression of the singer, the tempo, and each vocal nuance… it all matters in convincing us that everything going down in the story is real – every bit of it.

This version is a perfect example – you ‘get it’, that thing about the protagonists, academically with the studio recordings of this variant.  But to watch and listen to this masterful delivery is to be there every step of the way, even in to the Earth, with the Lady and Musgrave.  I’m a bit embarrassed that I didn’t make the point then – it is, after all, integral to what this art form really is all about.  Still, I’m glad for the chance to keep writing here, so that I might keep adding my own amateur voice to the greater chorus.  And it’s turned out to be the most effective way in my life to find new versions of the ballads I love!

I’m going to cheat here to give you an example of this ballad from an artist I love now and who I discovered in writing for this blog.  It was a hard choice for me between Elizabeth LaPrelle’s “Mathey Groves” and Planxty’s.  So I chose both. They’re wholly different from one another.  So, instead of eleven, I’ll have twelve performances.  I trust you’ll forgive.

“Mathey Groves” by Elizabeth LaPrelle – Lyrics

“Edward” – Jean Ritchie

Sometimes though, I find that my ‘first love’ performance of a ballad stays my favorite.  Of all of the ballads about which I’ve written here, “Edward” demanded the most of me in terms of research.  I’m proud of that series.  Yet despite weeks of reading and multiple listens to dozens of variants, I still find Jean Ritchie’s simple two and a half minute take on this ancient ballad the most moving.

It’s not that there aren’t artists today who reach the same level of excellence, of course.  As I suggest above, to my mind Elizabeth LaPrelle ranks among the most excellent already, and will no doubt carry on for decades the tradition people like Jean have passed on, and that was passed to them all the way back through time and space from the old country.

But with Jean you can hear the old country in her voice, as if the bonds that stretch across the sea and the ages are literally made of sound.

Maybe it’s just my imagination…

“House Carpenter” – Kelly Joe Phelps

Certainly my imagination is set on fire by this next performance.  I can see clearly every scene in intense detail play out in my mind because the musical treatment is so evocative.

Ken introduced us to this ‘not-quite-there-but-close-enough’ murder ballad last year, and he took us to some interesting places in that week.  In his second post for that week, he referenced Kelly Joe Phelps’ powerful version of this old ballad.  It’s been part of my life’s soundtrack since I first found it a decade ago.

“House Carpenter” by Kelly Joe Phelps – Lyrics

The blues meets a ballad from merry old England?  Sure.  It’s not like the Appalachian singers generations ago didn’t add blue notes, banjos, and other features of African-American music.  In their singing we hear echoes of the native peoples of those mountains too.  Integration has always been a part of the way we do music here in the States.  Why?  Well, if you listen to this version and you cannot find the answer, then I’m not sure I can help.

“Rain and Snow” – Dillard Chandler

Certainly the Grateful Dead are most people’s source for knowing this ballad from Madison County, North Carolina.  They cut it for their first album back in 1965 and it stayed in their repertoire until Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995.  But, as I pointed out in my first post on this song, they took the murder out of the murder ballad!

If you want to know what’s really going on with this dark song, go to the source.  The most powerful and chilling version I know comes from the site of the murder that inspired it, in Madison County, from the singing of Dillard Chandler.

“Rain and Snow” by Dillard Chandler – Lyrics

Everything about the way Chandler delivers here lets you know that this is a true story.  This is the bloody news from the mountains, and if you really want to know one proper way in which murder ballads function, this is a key performance to hear.  My second post on the song though gets into all it in more depth, as I think more is going on here than just the telling of stories about which neighbors have killed someone lately.

However you cut it though and whoever performs it, unless you do like the Dead did and delete the murder completely, this is a *brutal* song.

“Duncan and Brady” – Dave Van Ronk

Occasionally though a murder ballad comes from a ‘happy place’.  Well, maybe not happy per se, but celebratory at least!  My work on “Duncan and Brady” at the start of our second year reminds us that this African-American murder ballad is indeed rooted in the real murder of a policeman in the racial powder keg of east St. Louis near the end of the 19th century.

But, while the history is fascinating, the song itself transcends it all in almost every version I could find.  And none are better in my humble estimation than that cut by the Mayor of MacDougal Street himself, Dave Van Ronk.

“Duncan and Brady” by Dave Van Ronk – Lyrics

Van Ronk’s performance manages to be great storytelling while still preserving enough of a hint of the historical root of the murder – the tension between black citizens who enjoyed “the sporting life” in St. Louis and Irish policemen intent on keeping what they defined as order in the city – to keep it grounded in reality.

Still, “Duncan and Brady” doesn’t get anywhere near articulating it all as does another murder ballad from the same time and place.

“Staggolee” – Pacific Gas and Electric

My first chapter of our Digital Compendium regarding “Stagolee” came in March of our second year of blogging, and cataloged the classics. I’ve added four chapters since, each with a unifying theme that never admitted of inclusion of what I find to be one of the most compelling versions of the song – and it’s one I haven’t been able to stop playing since I stumbled across it this past spring.  So, today I’m going to lay it on you!

“Staggolee” by Pacific Gas and Electric – Lyrics

I don’t have time here to dig into the history behind this performance, and in some ways I think it might deserve a post of its own.  Why?  It’s clearly not the most energetic or musically interesting compared to others.  But I’m a lyrics man, and somehow this version includes elements from all of the other major paths I’ve found that this ballad has taken since Lee Shelton shot Billy Lyons in east St. Louis on Christmas night in 1895.  It’s just all in there, from the simplest early formulaic lines to the shocking reality of the toasts!  The Stagolee in this song is as fully developed a character as I’ve found in any version.

I mean – “I don’t run, white folks, when I got my .41!”   How can you resist?  It’s remarkable.  I may indeed write that post, so I want to be careful not to get into it all here.  But check it out.

“Little Sadie” – Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott

One more bit of unfinished business leads me to my last ‘essential’ murder ballad on today’s list.  This one too is from the postbellum African-American tradition, where it’s earlier name is “Bad Lee Brown” or simply “Bad Man Ballad”.

Now, we’ve never written about this one, and it’s high time we did!  (Update:  I finally got around to it, in three parts!  Here with the main post on its origins, here exploring it in Country music, and here looking at it in bluegrass.)

It’s no stretch to say this is one of the better known murder ballads that crossed over into Bluegrass, and it’s in that genre that we find some particularly powerful performances.  It’s certainly one of the earliest murder ballads to find its way in to my life because of my early interest in bluegrass.

But the best performance I’ve heard comes from Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott at the turn of the 21st century.  I received this CD as a gift from our founding blog father Ken soon after it came out, and it still blows me away.  I think it’s a fitting final entry for an essential murder ballads list.

“Little Sadie” by Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott – Lyrics


So, all that’s left is to gently cajole my blogging partners to create their own lists, and to finish my project with another ‘essential eleven non-traditional murder ballads’.  Hopefully I’ll be able to put that together sooner rather than later, but either way I thank you for indulging me today and I hope you enjoyed it!

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