From The CNN Of The 17th Century To Country Hits, Murder Ballads Won’t Die
By Courtney E. Smith
We’re kicking off a week-long series of features on murder ballads. Inspired by recent hits, Radio.com will look at the poem-cum-song’s evolutions in country music, its uses as a tool to raise social consciousness around race issues, as a storytelling device in rap, and the recent turning-of-the-tables to songs sung about vengeful women. Check back every day for a new dive into the dark corners of murder ballads.
An uncommon phenomenon hit the country music charts at the beginning of 2013: two top-selling singles from Carrie Underwood and The Band Perry that are also murder ballads captured the public’s attention. Underwood’s “Two Black Cadillacs” reached No. 2 on Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart (and No. 1 on Mediabase), while The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” hit No. 1 on both.
It’s been a while since the murder ballad was so prevalent in country music. There was a rash of hit murder ballads in the ’90s dealing with domestic violence. These included Garth Brooks’ controversial “The Thunder Rolls” (1991) and the Dixie Chicks’ crossover career-maker “Goodbye Earl” (1999), not to mention Martina McBride’s dark hit single “Independence Day” (1994) and Reba McEntire’s cover of first-person murder ballad “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia” (1991). And while the odd song will come out from the likes of Miranda Lambert (“Gunpowder & Lead”), whose honeymoon spent hunting is common knowledge, or Toby Keith (“Beer For My Horses”), whose name is almost as synonymous with avenging the War on Terror as it is red Solo cups, for the most part murder ballads stayed underground in the last 10+ years in the world of country. Until now.
The sort of gruesome justice and twisted love that murder ballads depict have strong roots in country that are today most closely associated to Johnny Cash (“Folsom Prison Blues,” “Cocaine Blues” and countless more including his classic covers), but the art form dates back to the folk and bluegrass days before the term “country & western” even existed to describe music. The re-emergence of the murder ballad in popular culture is something that’s been happening cyclically since the format emerged. But original murder ballads weren’t fun/dark little romps where fictional characters killed each other. Murder ballads were the CNN of their day.
Harold Schechter, the author of Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment, told Radio.com, “The important thing to remember about murder ballads is that they were a very early form of true crime writing. Human beings have always had this appetite to hear about sensational murders. Murder ballads, as far as we know, really date back to late Medieval-early Renaissance times. Whenever a very, very gruesome, grisly, sensational murder happened, somebody would turn it into a rhymed poem. And this was how the news of the crime would be transmitted among a population that was by and large illiterate.”
The poems were sometimes, though not always, set to music. Schechter noted that they were so popular, by Shakespeare’s time (the late 16th to early 17th century), a collector in Western Europe had gathered over a thousand murder ballads.
The tradition carried over to the U.S. as immigrants from Britain and Ireland, gaining a foothold in the folk music produced out of Appalachia and growing roots in what would evolve to become country & western music.
Take, for example, the classic 1950’s Louvin Brothers tune “The Knoxville Girl,” about a man named Willie who beats his lover to death with a stick and then disposes of her body in the Tennessee river. The tune is a very close replica, but much bloodier and more graphic, of an Irish ballad dating back to the 1800s called “The Wexford Girl.” Prior to that, the song floated around the British rounds as “The Oxford Girl.” London journalist Paul Slade traces the origin of these three similar murder ballads to a broadsheet poem from the 17th century titled The Bloody Miller, which tells the tale of a pregnant girl named Anne Nichols who is slain by her paramour Francis Cooper.
The long ago and now twisted origin makes it unclear if The Bloody Miller was a true crime poem-cum-murder ballad, but Slade finds evidence that “The Knoxville Girl,” in it’s evolution, incorporated elements of a similar murder of a girl named Mary Noel that took place in Missouri in the late 19th century.
“What I found in doing the research for [my book],” Schechter said, “was that every crime I looked at a ballad had been written about because, again, it was the way that true crime reporting was conducted back then.”
Today’s murder ballads, including the hit songs from Carrie Underwood and The Band Perry, are based entirely in fiction. The shift in subject matter seems to have happened in the 1940s and 1950s in American music, where folk and country adopted the tradition of the old songs, from “The Long Black Veil” to “Frankie And Johnny,” while the real-life details associated with them are often lost to time. And while someone like Serge Gainsbourg will tackle true crime from time to time, taking on the legacy of “Bonnie & Clyde,” for the most part the murder ballad has moved to a storytelling device among today’s country artists.