A few weeks back I assembled a list of my ‘essential eleven’ traditional murder ballads. While we here at Murder Ballad Monday usually delve deeply into one ballad or theme, we saw some possible value in a lighter ‘list-based’ approach from time to time. Judging from reader response to that first post, I think we’re on to something!
Now, I don’t want to overdo it – but eleven examples isn’t much and so, in order to give myself some curating room, I decided to distinguish between traditional and non-traditional murder ballads even though our admittedly loose definition of the genre does not quibble with such distinctions. Today then we’ll have a listen to eleven more of my personal choices, these being in the latter category.
My arbitrary line of distinction between ‘traditional’ and ‘non’ is chronological – today’s ballads all have origins from 1900 or later and, perhaps more to the point, all were recorded soon after their inspiration in an electronic medium of one sort or another. Some of these tracks are those originals and some are descendants, but the ballads all started life in a world with electricity.
We occasionally consider songs in this blog that are not just exactly murder ballads, and particularly so with 20th and 21st century compositions – but today’s list will at least clear that bar. Oh, there may not be a Willy and a Polly. There may be no deep waters or tattle-tale parrots. And the moral lines may not be so starkly drawn as in the traditional examples of the genre. But these modern and post-modern songs will each include at least one homicide proper.
Finally, as I said in that first post, these are just tracks that move me most deeply. I’m not telling you as an ‘expert’ that these are undeniably the best non-traditional murder ballads. They’re just the best *for me*. It’s my hope then that some of our other writers might eventually post their own lists that stand in contrast and serve to enlighten from a different center of insight and inspiration. But, unlike as in my first list, many of these ballads have yet to be covered by our crack staff at Murder Ballad Monday! Is this then a preview for year three? Let us know how you feel about that here, or on our Facebook page.
“Hey Joe” – Jimi Hendrix
To my mind there is no purer post-modern murder ballad than Jimi Hendrix’s classic “Hey Joe.” That we haven’t yet spent a week on it in our strange little blog is a deficiency I hope to correct next year. I think it’s at least high time that we here acknowledge that this defining track of 60’s classic rock is in fact, wholly and undeniably, a murder ballad proper.
“Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix – Lyrics
We can shudder at the misogyny and stake out a claim of moral indignation that has something to do with firearms and abusive men. But that would be, in my humble opinion, a rather naive way of engaging this counterculture art. As Hendrix’s guitar mirrors the violence of gunshots, his song purposefully reflects an America that was and still is quite real – this art just does so without the conceit of an artist’s self-righteousness. I’ll leave all that for the week we take it up. It will certainly be well worth our study, and in the meantime more so worth a good listen or ten.
“1952 Vincent Black Lightning” – Richard Thompson
Our blog-master Ken reminded me recently that my first exposure to this song was through his own a capella performance one evening in my car after a party in college. For my part, I definitely recall first hearing it from Ken, but in my memory it was in listening to Thompson’s Rumor and Sigh on a cassette in Ken’s van on a drive we took from campus to the Gettysburg battlefield one morning. I imagine both stories are true and that my confused state of mind after that party, or after Ken’s singing, left me no recollection of that first night in the car.
Either way, Ken hipped me to this one back in the heady days of our youth, and he brought his fascination with and love for this song to the wider world in a series of four engaging posts in our first year of blogging which you really should check out! (Here, here, here, and here.)
I couldn’t add anything here that would approach the insight Ken exhibits in his posts, but I will share with you the reason why this is on my ‘short list’. For years I could not hear this song without having to hold back tears; and sometimes I couldn’t hold them. “I see angels and aerials in leather and chrome, swooping down from Heaven to carry me home…” It still hits me in that place, but as I learned to hack my way through singing it with a bluegrass strum, I finally got hold of my emotions – the way a small man grabs the handlebars on a bike with big muscle.
This one has raw and violent energy like “Mattie Groves“, though it doesn’t sport nineteen verses and two bloody swords. Still, in the Appalachians they call those old British ballads, with all their gore, “love songs.” I guess some things never change.
“Louis Collins” – Mississippi John Hurt / “Folk Bloodbath” – Josh Ritter
We’ve heard from Mississippi John Hurt before, most significantly when we considered the classic versions of “Staggolee“. But he reportedly made this murder ballad up himself, presumably sometime in the 1920’s, and we really need to give it the week it deserves next year. I learned it first from Jerry Garcia and David Grisman but, despite their excellence, they could never top the master.
Hurt was indeed a virtuoso with an acoustic guitar, but this track proves he could turn a phrase with the best of them too. His refrain is one of the most recognizable in folk music today.
Indeed, I think that refrain’s horsepower is part of what’s under the hood in a relatively recent composition by Josh Ritter, “Folk Bloodbath.” Ritter, though, shows a mastery of his own in the way he stitches together “Staggolee”, “Louis Collins”, “Barbara Allen”, and “Delia” all with with the thread of that refrain. Is it seamless? Maybe not, but he certainly does more than “crash’em into each other” as he humbly suggests – and his last line is killer.
I’m cheating, and making this track another of my post-modern ‘essentials’, the secret twelfth of my little post and, more significantly, the beautiful rose and brier grown from John Hurt’s grave.
“Caleb Meyer” – Gillian Welch and David Rawlings
We call ourselves murder ballad bloggers but have yet to devote a week to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Are we embarrassed? A bit, but there’s a lot of this music to go around.
Well, we’ll get there. (Actually, we finally did!) In the meantime, I’m sure you’ll agree that this song should probably be the focus of that first post when it comes.
It won’t escape even the casual listener’s attention that this murder ballad achieves something quite ‘un-traditional’ – oh, we see female killers with a variety of motives in the old ballads, but in this one a woman kills a man as he tries to rape her. There’s no magic, and no back story of greed or jealousy. It’s just a broken bottle across the neck of a drunken sexual predator, and then a pool of warm blood to baptize the woman who saves herself.
Is there anything so clear in the old tradition? I’m no expert, but I can’t think of such. Instead of getting in to all of the reasons why right now, we’ll save it for an extended discussion when we see this one again. In the meantime, if this happens to be your first time hearing this song, I hope it leaves you the way it did me when I first heard it – speechless.
“Jack Straw” – The Grateful Dead
“Jack Straw” may not have the same sort of sharp musical energy as “Hey Joe”, and it isn’t nearly as gory as “Caleb Meyer”, but it deserves a place high on any short list of classic post-modern murder ballads. Why? Well, it’s not just about that moment when Jack murders his buddy Shannon to secure his own freedom – this time it’s all about the back story. Well, there is that powerful jam that musically evokes the murder – check it out for yourself.
“Jack Straw” by the Grateful Dead – Lyrics
We took this one on in three posts early in our first year – one to introduce the ballad, another to explore its connection to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and a final one that explores the ballad’s connections, coincidental or otherwise, to the murder of Meredith Hunter at the infamous 1969 concert at Altamont Speedway. If you’re curious, give them a look! There’s plenty there for Deadhead and neophyte alike.
“El Paso” – Marty Robbins
Though I’m a Deadhead myself, my introduction to “El Paso” was not through their well-known rendition. This may in fact be the earliest murder ballad I ever heard. I remember my grandmother playing it as her favorite song well before I reached an age in the double digits.
I don’t remember how I felt about it then. Who knows how songs like this affect a young listener? I do clearly remember my first time hearing the Grateful Dead play it, and how much it surprised me. I was nineteen, at my third Dead show, and it was less than two years after my grandmother died. I can’t well describe that overwhelming rush, but give the original a listen and see if your muse stirs a bit.
“El Paso” by Marty Robbins – Lyrics
Ken spent a fruitful week with Robbins’ classic, starting wonderfully with this introductory post. His second, third, and fourth posts all add great depth, and the aggregate is probably the best treatment of this song online for which one might reasonably hope. We’re as proud as can be of this one!
“Delia’s Gone” – Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash is no stranger to our blog, for reasons we expect are obvious to most of you. Shaleane introduced some of his work in a wide-ranging series of posts (here, here, and here) early in our first year. “Delia’s Gone” made an appearance in one of those posts, but the song really deserves a week on its own – not because of Cash’s performance alone, however. (Actually, we got to this one too, twice – here and here.)
There’s a great deal of history behind this one, including at the root a true story of teenage murder from Christmas Eve, 1900. And it comes with an impressive number and variety of covers in its branches and leaves, such as Josh White’s and Bob Dylan’s excellent performances.
Still, it’s Cash’s version of this song that makes it on to my short list. Though the song had been part of his repertoire for years, the track he waxed late in his life – and the horrifying music video to accompany it – are truly exceptional and can certainly represent our genre of choice in the post-modern age.
“Delia’s Gone” by Johnny Cash – Lyrics
“Little Glass of Wine” – Stanley Brothers
It might not be obvious to those of you who are not yet too ‘folked up’ that bluegrass music belongs in the modern camp and not the traditional. Of course, some of the ballads that make up classic bluegrass are certainly from pre-industrial ages, but here’s one that seems to me to be squarely set in the 20th century. From the moment I heard the classic Stanley Brothers tune “Little Glass of Wine”, I knew it would hold a unique place in my musical life.
I could be wrong about its provenance, and there’s no time right now to dig into it. [update: It turns out I was wrong! See comments below.] So, we have yet another topic for our third year! Check it out and see what you think.
Lyrically this just isn’t “Pretty Polly” or “Omie Wise”, though its clearly a daughter or granddaughter. As I said, I’ll have to do the research later; but for now I hope you understand why it made my short list. The intertwining of love and violence is nothing new of course, but the way it’s achieved here is something singular in my listening experience.
This is one of those songs to which I keep coming back.
“The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” – Bob Dylan
It’s likely not a profound or original thought, but my perception for many years has been that the best protest music covers some of the same psychic space as murder ballads. And when murder is at the heart of the injustice to be sung about, then the overlap is all but unavoidable, particularly for a musician steeped in the American folk tradition.
I don’t mean to define Bob Dylan as primarily a protest singer, of course. He’s well beyond those sorts of labels. But his classic “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” is a must-hear in my book, whether you’re seeking post-modern murder ballads or not.
Shaleane gave us a quick look at the tune during her week on “The Ballad of Hollis Brown.” We could go deeper with it though, so perhaps it will make it back to the spotlight. I’ve always loved “Hollis Brown” since the day I heard it. But everyone needs to know Hattie Carroll’s true story.
“1913 Massacre” – Woody Guthrie
Well, most of us know that Dylan wasn’t the first American folksinger to carve out a place for the murder ballad in a political context. And most of us know that Dylan, like millions of us, found great inspiration from Woody Guthrie.
We explored Woody’s legacy vis a vis modern murder ballads around his 100th birthday last year, in four posts. I wrote one in particular exploring his album Struggle, and in that post I argued that his classic “1913 Massacre” sits squarely within the murder ballad tradition, albeit in a less than traditional way.
“1913 Massacre” by Woody Guthrie – Lyrics
The history behind the Italian Hall “disaster” is open to your own examination, and my little post is just one place to start. The topic is worthy of our study, and I hope my small contribution is helpful.
But whether you dig into it or not, I’m not sure you’ll ever find a song that quite hits the same chord as this one.
The dead children of striking miners, murdered by company thugs, lain by their parents under their Christmas tree while the town is bathed in moonlight- “See what your greed for money has done…”
“Betty and Dupree” – Josh White
I’ll close my ‘best of’ list with another true story, though there’s nothing of politics here, at least not in the song itself. “Betty and Dupree” is a modern classic African-American ballad, but Frank DuPree and his Betty were white. His 1922 trial and hanging, for murdering a Pinkerton agent while robbing a diamond ring from an Atlanta jewelry store, became something of a media sensation, with much sympathy directed Frank’s way.
It’s worth wondering whether or not folks would have had so much sympathy if Dupree and Betty had been black. But that’s too complicated a question for this simple post. And of course, ballads like this one rarely square with history, but we’ve no time to uncover all that either.
So, we’ll most certainly have to dig into this one next year to tell you whether Josh White’s version is telling the truth. But, let me be clear for now. To my mind, Josh White’s version is telling The Truth, whatever the facts might be.
Judge for yourself.
“Betty and Dupree” by Josh White – Lyrics
This is another one of those songs I first heard performed by the Grateful Dead. Of course, their version is unique and it’s not particularly helpful to compare it to Josh White’s. They belong in different times and have different contexts though, for what it’s worth, I think they chew some of the same psychic ground.
Still, it’s White’s version that gets under the skin. I can’t ignore it when I hear it, though the song is clearly meant to entertain more than it is meant to strike a deep chord. But it resonates for me for some reason I’ll have to explore another day.
So, like every other song in this post, now you know why I call it ‘essential’.
List-making is all fine and dandy, and I believe it can have a small but important place in our work for this blog. However, it’s not the same as digging deep – and that’s what we like to think we do best.
As we approach the final weeks of our second year of blogging and prepare for our hiatus, I certainly hope my fellow writers here consider offering their own unique lists of ‘best murder ballads’ for our readers next year. But, whether they make lists or not, I can promise you that we’ll all continue to move a good deal of earth to uncover just what it is about these ballads that keeps bringing us back for more.
Until then, I just want to thank you for indulging me today, and for these last two years – I hope you had fun!