Urgency and Dread
A few weeks ago when I wanted something just right to read, I visited my bookshelf. I relish in-home browsing, and I also generally find what I need. That day, I was looking for a new way in to thinking about a song I’d been playing on the ukulele. I pulled two books. The first was Jane Springer’s Murder Ballad, a collection of poems informed by the rural south, cruelty, poverty, and myth. Tucked inside was a grocery list and a review by the poet Lynnell Edwards.
In her review, Edwards observes that Springer “exploits the urgency and dread of every keening murder ballad, showing how that cleaving is both our undoing and our salvation.” I keep dissecting that statement, trying to determine if urgency and dread are split or braided and, by extension, if undoing and salvation are plaited or sequential. Part of the difficulty is that “cleave” is a contronym, a word that can mean the opposite of itself. This is either frustrating or fun, depending on any number of things – if you love puzzles, if you love words, if you’ve had coffee.
As I consider the cleaving mentioned by Edwards, I wonder if she mixed up the order (if there is an order) of events. Instead of following a pattern of ruin and redemption, murder ballads more often begin with quietude and end with tragedy. Musicians who perform them follow a narrative into a rabbit hole of sorrow, and so I wonder, too, about the relationship between art and destruction. I’ve been thinking about this relationship as I think generally about murder ballads and specifically about “Knoxville Girl,” the song I’d been playing. It’s one of many ballads in which affection curdles – suddenly and violently – into abhorrence.
It was by way of Jane Springer’s book that I discovered Jake Adam York’s first (and earlier) book, Murder Ballads – the other book I pulled off the shelf. There are 35 poems in this book, loosely or directly informed by murder ballads, including York’s “version” of “Knoxville Girl.” In York’s rendering, the intersection of art and destruction becomes central to the work and success of the poem. York’s poem relies heavily on Charlie and Ira Louvin’s arrangement of the traditional song, but York transforms the song by imagining another transformation in which the Louvin brothers, through their performance of “Knoxville Girl,” morph into killers.
The poem unlocks the song in a new way for me. Maybe it will for you too. Here’s the full text, shared with permission from Elixir Press:
(Traditional) Arranged by Charlie and Ira Louvin. Recorded
May 3, 1956.
The Song is one their mother sang,
a campfire waltz on autumn nights
or alone, a lullaby,
the oldest song they knew.
Now the tape is rolling,
Charlie on guitar, Ira mandolin,
the way they’ve done since they were kids,
in heirloom melody –
I met a little girl in Knoxville,
a town we all know well –
their voices twine, almost one,
the harmony almost gospel.
But this is not a hymn.
They walk the riverside, whittling
smooth that driftwood branch
they’ll use to strike that fair girl down
where she’ll plead for mercy,
dark eyes twinkling
like the river in the wind
as they only beat her more.
They’ll grab her by her golden curls
and drag her round and round,
and throw her into the river
that runs through Knoxville town.
In the song, they never pause
but run on home to bed and dream
her singing hush-now rhymes
while the sheriff fiddles at the door
and we never see her raised
from the stream’s thick water.
But the song is old,
and she has waited years before
in the Thames and the Tennessee
for her miller, her minstrel, her country boy
to call her back, then strike her down
and lay her in the stream,
her hair a wild anemone,
a millweed that snakes like flame
to light the sheriff’s page,
an ancient tongue in guilty mouths
or moonlight through the bars
of the cinder-block cell
where they sit for killing that Knoxville girl,
that girl they loved so well.
Sweat gleams on the guitar’s face.
Ira holds the chord in the mandolin
till the wood is still.
They wait as the tape rolls out,
smoothing like a stream to hold
sky’s last light,
till she’s still and quiet
as a lullaby child.