From the time we started Murder Ballad Monday in 2012, one of our neighbors in the curious portion of the web focused on murder balladry has been Paul Slade, journalist and owner of PlanetSlade.com. While not exactly a blog, Slade’s web site provides, among other content, in-depth articles on the “true stories” behind several, mostly American, murder ballads. He’s recently turned his murder ballad explorations into a book, and offered to talk with me about writing about the stories behind the songs and the stories of the songs. Our conversation took us through some familiar territory, but also to new perspectives on the tradition with some help from the artists carrying it forward.
MBM: Thanks for talking to us, Paul. I hope you can start by sharing a little of how your murder ballad project got underway.
PS: I started a website in 2009 called PlanetSlade, and one element of that site was a series of murder ballads essays. I got interested in those songs after listening to The Executioner’s Last Songs, a compilation album assembled by [Chicago-based Welsh musician] Jon Langford. That album featured great performances like Steve Earle’s version of “Tom Dooley,” Neko Case singing “Poor Ellen Smith” and Brett Sparks from The Handsome Family doing “Knoxville Girl.”
I’d vaguely known these songs before, but hearing them all together on a single disc made me very curious about how they got started. Were they close to the facts? If so, how close?
The Executioner’s Last Songs came out in 2002. The following year, I was in San Francisco, and I spent an afternoon in City Lights, the famous bookstore there, where I stumbled across Cecil Brown’s book Stagolee Shot Billy. It was that book that made me realize that these songs’ real murders had happened recently enough that I could research them in the newspaper archives.
Most of the other books I’ve found on these songs didn’t satisfy me. There were books written by academics, which were good on the facts but written in such a dry, boring style that they leeched all the life from the subject. Then there were books by rock journalists that were very entertaining to read, but which casually mixed fact and folklore together. I found both those approaches equally frustrating.
I came up in the era of U.K. punk. One of the key values of punk was that if you can’t find what you want, then you should make it yourself. That got me started with the website. As I started to research the songs more and more deeply, I began pitching the book and eventually found a publisher to take me up on it. That’s the book we’re publishing this month, and it’s called Unprepared to Die: America’s Greatest Murder Ballads and the True Crime Stories that Inspired Them.
MBM: What was the biggest challenge for you in developing these essays?
PS: I’ve enjoyed most of the process. I think the breakthrough came when I realized how I wanted to do this. The key for me was to try to tell two stories simultaneously and interweave them: tell the story behind the song alongside the story of the song itself.
I always think it’s important with projects like this to fence off a fairly small area for yourself and to drill down as deep as you can in that one spot. If you try to cover too much ground, you end up just scratching the surface. So I very deliberately focused in on a list of just eight songs, all of which I knew were based on real murders. Reality is always more interesting than fiction. It’s weirder and more complicated.
The other thing to bear in mind is that, despite what internet zealots will tell you, the whole sum of all human knowledge has not yet been digitized. I realized quite early on that, if I was going to research these songs properly, I was going to have to spend quite a bit of time in old fashioned bricks-and-mortar libraries too. I’m quite lucky there, because I live in London and the British Library is an amazing resource for all sorts of out-of-print books you’d never find anywhere else.
Whenever I’ve had a chance to visit these songs’ host cities, I’ve been sure to raid their local libraries too. I’ve found old newspapers and some locally printed books in these libraries that have never been widely distributed, or even printed in more than a handful of copies. I’ve also met with many local historians, some published, some not, who gave me their insight into the real story as locals understood it. I’ve tried to “surround” each song and the story behind it, then attack them from as many angles as possible.
Once I got the book deal, that opened the door to lots of musician interviews which I don’t think I’d have got otherwise. I’ve been interested to consider how the changing treatments of the songs have reflected the changing times. I think Stagger Lee’s a good example of that.