You can almost smell the coffee. It’s morning, you’ve just pulled up a gravel road to sit at a kitchen table and listen to your friend June Carter Cash, or to your friend Wanda Jackson. You’re here to listen to another broken-hearted woman tell you in a rough hewn voice what she coulda done, what she shoulda done, and probably what she outta done. For now you’ll commiserate, hear her out, bang a fist on the Formica and listen to a familiar fantasy, the fantasy of smokin’ that chump. I’m not sure why, but in a few of my favorite murder ballads, the murder hasn’t happened … yet.
I wanted to write about “The Box That It Came In” and “The Heel” as murder ballads because the Sturm und Drang is all there. The passion is palpably dangerous. These women have strong motives (even more so than some more popular murder ballads. I’m looking at you, “Knoxville Girl”), but the murder doesn’t “get” to happen. Why does that aspect of these songs interest me?
An initial thought that came to mind when considering these songs, was that I don’t know any fantasy (deed not done) murder ballads sung by men, off the top of my head. I could look. I could find. But I’m interested in why I can’t think of one right away. This speaks volumes to me about a history of women not feeling free, even artistically, to use anger or violence. Is it that women have been told they shouldn’t express rage? Historically, it has been hard for women to own their anger without being considered “hysterical,” or more egregiously disparaging terms.
And some more food for thought… both songs were written by men. (Gasp!) Is this why the ladies in these songs don’t kill? Maybe these men just couldn’t see a woman going through with it, a woman being her own savior? Or were the writers simply tapping into a more common narrative of a woman scorned? Knowing that both songs were penned by men, why do the songs all of a sudden feel like a celebration of male infidelity for me?
If June and Wanda felt they were good enough stories to tell, then I can listen. But it’s definitely a cloud that looms over both songs.
“The Box That it Came In” by Wanda Jackson, 1965 – Written by Vic McAlpin
And I’m a walking on cardboard in my last dollar dress
I looked in the closet for my wedding gown
But the box that it came in was all that I found
He took everything with him that wasn’t nailed down
Bet he’s got a new sweetheart to fill my wedding gown
But somewhere I’ll find him then I’ll have peace of mind
And the box he comes home in will be all satin lined
He took everything with him …