Murder ballads in sepia
We heard from the folks at American Murder Song last month. Their touring production of original murder ballads, set in an mostly imagined early 19th century America, intrigued me enough to want to explore it here. I hoped I might find something provocative to add to our discussion, like eighth blackbird’s live performance of Murder Ballades. I wanted to see whether and how this performance connected with the tradition and connected with me. What is the music doing? How does a show composed exclusively of murder ballads work?
American Murder Song is at least two things. First, it is a live show, currently on the road as a stylized wake for one A. Finneus Buck, an invented character of hilariously tragic heritage and uncertain final rest. It is also a set of recordings, released in three EPs in 2016, that together comprise a remarkable murder ballad album ringing the changes on the genre, but with a slightly different set of bells. These two components relate to each other only loosely. The former creates a comedic context for the delivery of the latter, but the stories don’t overlap. American Murder Song may become something more in the future—perhaps a film, following in the footsteps of its creators’ previous works. The artists are testing whether a production so conceived and so executed can long endure. They add new “video outposts” to their web site each week.
I first wanted to experience the live show on its own terms, although I approached it with trepidation. American Murder Song is the work of cult film artists Terrance Zdunich and Saar Hendelman. Their previous work includes the futuristic, splatterpunk film musical Repo! The Genetic Opera, and the horror movie musical The Devil’s Carnival. With these credentials, I anticipated something dark, loud, metallic, and gory from American Murder Song. (It may surprise some to learn I’m not really all that in to gothic, especially depicted visually.) This earlier material is well out of my wheelhouse. I really wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into, and whether I’d leave shocked, troubled, entertained, or transformed.
Dark Alleys and Cult Followings
The venue for the show’s one Chicago appearance was a video studio west of the Loop. It’s an industrial neighborhood; more warehouses than residences or restaurants. The show started after dark. I parked my car, and walked past an antique furniture warehouse that occasionally doubles as a wedding venue. After I passed its lit-up single doorway and the reception inside, I reached a lonely section of sidewalk. The street lights were out, and trees further diminished what little light there was. I passed a cab driver who had double-parked his cab beside a shaded space behind a truck in order to give himself a little privacy while he relieved himself. He wasn’t expecting foot traffic on the sidewalk in this part of town at this time of night.
I was still uncertain where I was going or who or what I would find when I got there. A note on the door of the venue’s published address told me to go around to the side entrance. Perhaps this invitation was just an elaborate set-up to lure me to a secluded location. I hoped not, however much poetic irony it might offer. I walked around the corner to find the back door for the show’s improvised venue. As the VIP guests were just being admitted, I found two lines of guests. Many were dressed in top hats and other Georgian or Victorian finery; many favored Goth.
I was on the guest list because of Murder Ballad Monday, so I joined the end of the VIP line (Very Important Parishioner). The other guests there were quick to tell me of the treat I had in store. Some were on their third show, having caught it at previous dates in Ames, Iowa and Minneapolis, Minnesota. A devoted following was a good sign.
I decided to go through the full experience, pausing for a quick photo with the stars, “Mr. Tender” (Zdunich) and “Mr. Storm” (Hendelman), and following the assembled mourners at the wake as they signed the guest book. Zdunich and Hendelman gave a brief mini-concert for the VIP guests. Many audience members stood close and sang along word-for-word. This was clearly a Zdunich and Hendelman crowd. I had made the decision not to listen to too much of the show’s music in advance, as I wanted to understand how it worked as performance art on its own terms. I brought familiarity with the murder ballad tradition, others brought familiarity with the artists’ prior work.
It’s not a funeral. It’s a wake.
The introduction to the show includes prerecorded performances of “Auld Lang Syne” and some slightly twisted religious and patriotic numbers. “Yankee Doodle” goes to town in a minor key. We then learn about the rather gnarly family tree of the evening’s honoree, the late Mr. Buck, through a short video. “Mr. Tender” and “Mr. Storm,” the “Blood Travelers,” take the stage, backed by a small ensemble on banjo/keyboards, doublebass, and fiddle. They then spin out their murder songs, ensconced within a kind of steampunk burlesque aesthetic. The show and its music then take the audience on a playful and murderous odyssey through the territories of American identity, looming mortality, and divine judgment.
The show’s producers intentionally keep the audiences small, aiming for between 100 and 200 guests, depending on the venue. This keeps the wake an intimate affair, connecting the performers and the audience closely. My fellow line-standers had told me that the show changes from night to night based on audience engagement. The audience stood close to the low stage, bantering and flirting with the performers, who were game for both.