Spoon River Murder Ballads

Indian Ford Bridge (now demolished) over the Spoon River in Fulton County, Illinois (original photo by Thomas J. Foley - Historic American Engineering Record, edited)

Indian Ford Bridge (now demolished) over the Spoon River in Fulton County, Illinois (original photo by Thomas J. Foley – Historic American Engineering Record, edited)

“At first I suspected something”

Tucked in between covers of Bruce Springsteen’s “Johnny 99” and Norman Blake’s “Billy Gray” on Mark Erelli and Jeffrey Foucault’s excellent murder ballad compilation, Seven Curses, is the short, mysterious “Tom Merritt.” It is a song of suspicions, fleeting glimpses, and a final, fatal confrontation. I listened to it dozens of times before ever thinking to find its source. Here’s the song, as performed by Erelli and Foucault.

Lyrics below. Listen on Spotify here.

Perhaps the song eluded my attention at first because I had never read a classic of 20th century American poetry, and had never previously stumbled upon the fascinating concept album adapting that classic’s poetry to music. Today’s post will take us on a short trip to the darker side of small town life in the rural Midwest of the early 20th century, and explore both the story of “Tom Merritt” and the story of “Amanda Barker.” In them, we find two murder ballads that shed light not only on our genre, but on a particularly influential literary moment in American self-understanding.

False (and True) Chronicles

Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950)

Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950)

2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Edgar Lee Masters‘s iconic Spoon River Anthology. The book’s free verse poems present fictional epitaphs for the citizens of Spoon River, Illinois, a rural burg of Masters’s own devising. Although he was a lawyer in Chicago when he wrote SRA, Masters drew from his own experience growing up in the downstate Illinois county seats of Lewistown and Petersburg to populate Spoon River’s cast of characters. Petersburg is on the Sangamon River and Lewistown is on the real-life Spoon River. The portrayals of the various characters are, in the main, brutally frank, and generally not sanguine or flattering. One might note that when he died, Masters’s body did not go back home to be buried …

The poems’ speakers address us with directness and candor, pulling off the artifices and niceties usually deployed for the sake of getting along. With nothing to lose and nothing to win, the deceased residents tell their stories, reveal long-hidden secrets. Each one comes across as a fresh jolt, both chilling and somehow refreshing.

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