DEATH AND violence are ever-present across American culture.
In 1894, Peter DeGraff of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, shot Ellen Smith through the heart and left her body mangled and cold on unforgiving, hard ground in a pool of her own blood. The poor woman, described in the language of the time as 'simple', could not understand why DeGraff had suddenly decided to reject her attentions following a liaison that had resulted in an unsuccessful pregnancy.
Distraught, she followed him around town until, equal parts embarrassed and harassed, DeGraff agreed to meet her in a remote, unobserved spot under the guise of reconciliation. The murderer was found guilty and later confessed as he was being hanged.
Lilly Shaw, to be immortalised as Lilly or Lilli Schull, was a woman living near Mountain City in east Tennessee. In 1903, the 22-year-old was shot with a .38 pistol by Finley Preston, who then burned the body to cover his crime, although he never admitted to the latter detail. The murderer was hanged in 1905 following an unsuccessful appeals process.
Confederate veteran Tom Dula, pronounced Dooley, returned from the Civil War and reportedly began a series of what must have been messy affairs with married woman Anne Foster Melton and her cousins Pauline Foster and Laura Foster. The latter was stabbed to death with a large knife in 1868 then left on the roadside, or perhaps buried in a shallow grave, with her clothes and shoes hidden away. The finger of blame was pointed at Dula, who always protested his innocence. Suspicions linger to this day that he took the fall for the real murderer, Melton.
On Christmas 1895 a gangster known as 'Stack' Lee Shelton was drinking in the Bill Curtis Saloon in St Louis, Missouri, and became embroiled in a fight with a rival called Billy Lyons. The latter made the mistake of taking a Stetson hat off the fashion-conscious Shelton's head, and was gunned down for the affront. The murderer, variously known as Stag Lee, Stagger Lee, Stackerlee, Stackolee, Stackalee and Stagalee, was tried and convicted in 1897 and died in jail.
In February 1683 – no misprint, it really was 1683 – most likely on a Sunday, an English miller's apprentice called Francis Cooper picked up a hefty stick and struck down his sweetheart Anne Nichols during one of their regular evening walks near Shrewsbury, or maybe it was Oxford. (The action would in time transfer to Wexford in Ireland and then to Knoxville, Tennessee.)
Anne had a dark and roving eye, maintained the murderer, but the victim nevertheless cried for mercy as Cooper repeatedly bludgeoned her body before dragging her by long blonde locks to the river and pushing the lifeless form into the water. Nichols is thought to have been pregnant; Cooper was hanged.
You will doubtless, by now, have figured out where this is going. But just in case:
A red-headed stranger from Blue Rock, Montana, rode into town on an unspecified day during what we assume was still the frontier era. He killed a yellow-haired lady who approached, likely with covetous eyes, a bay pony that had belonged to the stranger's wife. He shot the interloper so quick there was no time to hear the warning of bystanders; the stranger was acquitted of any crime on the grounds that the killing of a horse thief was justifiable.
Murder ballads have been a part of the American musical landscape for as long as people have gathered to play songs and share stories; along with disaster songs and social dance music such as reels and waltzes, murder ballads were brought to the New World largely – but not exclusively – by Northern European settlers, and were widespread across the American songbook long before the advent of recorded music.
The tradition was strongest in rural communities, led by those in Appalachia and across the south, evolved with the strong influence of African American culture, and while most popular among the working classes was also embraced by those further up the social food chain. At their best, the songs are a blend of evocative story-telling, current events, salaciousness and morality; they are the musical equivalent of a particularly lurid tabloid newspaper, maybe a penny dreadful.
Of the scenarios that open this piece, which are presented as a hodgepodge of historical fact, lyrical elements and leaps of conclusion by the author, only the last example is rooted in imagination. Edith Lindeman reportedly wrote Red-Headed Stranger in 1953 after 'playing with the idea of colours'. The rest – in order of appearance Poor Ellen Smith, Lilli Schull, Tom Dooley, Stagger Lee and Knoxville Girl – are based on real-life events that in the case of the last song mentioned go back centuries having ventured across oceans.
As with much of American culture, there was borrowing across the genre; many murder ballads bolted local experiences onto historic song structures and narratives, blending the outlines of an original Irish, Scottish or Scandinavian offering with parallel outrages and geographic references sourced from the immediate area. And often the neighbouring state, settlement, valley or hillside would repeat the trick.
It didn't stop there; the songs as performed in the pre-World War I era were adopted and adapted by those bringing the ballads to a wider audience via the recording technologies deployed by what some refer to as folklorists or ethnomusicologists, and others as systematic and sometimes shameless appropriators of rural culture. The arrival of commercial country in the 1950s and the revival of the folk tradition in the 1960s dictated further changes, driven by a mix of style, politics and convention.
As a result most murder ballads, as with any song with roots deep in the history of American music, tend to have multiple sets of lyrics depending on genre, performer and preference; perhaps that flexibility is one source of the ongoing endurance of the form.
The closely-related disaster song, also regularly referenced under the more generic 'event' ballad heading, has not fared as well. In the 19th and 20th centuries you couldn't move for tales of train derailments, fires, floods, ship sinkings, mining accidents, explosions, bridge collapses and -- in the early years of aviation -- plane crashes, among other human tragedies. Few examples feature significantly in the modern American songbook; and the rare modern additions that come to mind – The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Louisiana 1927 and Casey Jones, for example – seem to me the exceptions that prove the wider rule (and yes, The Grateful Dead version of Casey Jones was itself based on the true-life subject of an earlier telling).
The canon of the murder ballad, by contrast, is both ever present throughout modern music and ever expanding, particularly in Americana, country and roots. Some of the best examples rival their forebears, albeit the formula has changed somewhat over time, largely moving away from the factual and brutal and towards a more encompassing, descriptive and emotional narrative.
I offer four outstanding tracks for consideration based on nothing more than personal taste; if your favourite is not included I apologise in advance:
Folk Bloodbath was written by Idaho native Josh Ritter but is based on three characters well travelled across the murder ballad landscape. The already introduced Stagger Lee appears alongside Delia, from Blind Willie McTell's song of the same name, and Louis Collins, a titular character made famous by Mississippi John Hurt. Ritter borrows elements of their individual stories – which all end in murder in their original incarnations – throws in a few associated musical phrases and lyrics, and creates something entirely new and haunting.
The song is, miraculously, elevated onto a even higher plane in a subsequent recording by Noam Pikelny, a multi-instrumentalist usually with Brooklyn string band Punch Brothers but in this particular instance on his 2017 solo release Universal Favorite. Stark, unaccompanied banjo and a hesitant, low-key vocal seem entirely appropriate to a final line soaked in rueful resignation: And I'm looking over rooftops and I'm hoping it aint true / That the same god looks out for them looks out for me and you.
Folk Bloodbath manages simultaneously to offer continuation and change, tradition and invention, familiarity and surprise. That it sounds absolutely amazing and, in Pikelny's telling, like nothing else in this correspondent's record collection, is a bonus.
Sink Hole is more of a southern rock, twin guitar attack on the murder ballad. The Drive-By Truckers track features on 2003 release Decoration Day and includes a 50 second intro so dripping with menace and foreboding that the subsequent narrative becomes almost unnecessary. But only almost. Because when the meat of the song duly arrives, it tops the already established sense of dread with an even darker tale of rights and wrongs, farm repossession and revenge punctuated by iconic cultural references – alligator wrestling, banana pudding, sweet tea and no less than five tornados. As well as disposal of a body in the titular sink hole.
The masterpiece represents an evolution of the murder ballad, weaving an intergenerational sense of family achievement and a quiet pride in the simple act of perseverance into wider questions of relative morality -- the murder may be abhorrent but is there not a sense of natural justice at play? Do we not feel sympathy and understanding for the farmer, for any farmer, in similar circumstances? Are we completely without the same desire to commit the ultimate sin, however detached from the act itself? Drive-By Truckers, founded in the 1990s in Georgia but with a broad stripe of northern Alabama running through its collective veins, have always been brave enough to pose these sorts of difficult questions; that we each have to formulate our own answers is part of what makes the music so essential.
Modern murder ballad number three comes out of the Canadian great plains. Colter Wall was raised in Swift Current, Saskatchewan and possesses a baritone matured well beyond his 25 years on this planet. His repertoire is equally weathered but, at least to these ears, seems to represent something of a modernising crusade through rodeo, swing and other unfashionable outposts across the wider map of old-time country.
Kate McCannon is track five on Wall's self-titled debut from 2017; it is remarkable not only because of the almost gothic narrative – raven, love, infidelity, murder, hell – but because the story is related as much through the instruments as it is through the vocal. Sparse acoustic guitar and backing resonator introduce the gravel-throated prison cell narrator, who reveals his crime before moving on to relate the early courtship, the settling down, and the hopes for the future. A muffled drum punctuates the introduction of another lover, an increase of volume and intensity swirls around the act of killing, a thumping cacophony of strings describes the aftermath of the violence, before the quiet of remorse takes hold. The listener is left with a sense of exhaustion and loss, of emotional wrench and tear. The result is unique.
Golden Girl completes this murderous quartet. California country outfit I See Hawks In L.A. recorded the song in 2006 on what was their third release, snuggled into a running order that also included Motorcycle Mama, Raised By Hippies, Slash From Guns N'Roses and The Donkey Song. The ballad features the band's self-described 'dense, three-part harmonies, innovative telecaster and steel' and a flair for inventive song structure and lyrics that underpins all nine of their albums to date.
The result is a masterwork in five minutes: a half-country, half-operatic tour de force in which the narrative rides a subtle rolling banjo from quiet infatuation – via mandolin, guitar and steel – into a noir-soaked crescendo of death and disaster, a heartbreaking bridge of realisation and, inevitably, a finale soaked in retribution and repercussion.
Founding band member Rob Waller said many elements of the song, including the robbery element, were 'pure invention', but that the deep roots of the ballad were planted firmly in reality.
'I grew up in a small town in Minnesota,' he said. 'When I was in high school I had a friend who was murdered by her estranged boyfriend. It was a tragic and horrible and shook the town. I hadn't really heard murder ballads yet but later, when I finally found them, in a strange way they helped me to remember my friend.'
He added: 'Like all good stories do, they helped me know that others had shared this kind of suffering. I think that personal history is always in the mix when approaching a song like this.'
Waller's own favourites in the genre include Knoxville Girl, Katy Dear, Long Black Veil and Pretty Polly. He also recommends modern adherents The Handsome Family who have 'really explored the form'.
As to the enduring popularity of the form: 'There's a element of true crime to it, I suppose. They also point clearly to the pain and madness love can cause. That stuff never gets old.'
WHICH brings us right back to where we came in. We'll go ahead and exit by the same door, and within the application of the same rules of creative licence described above:
On an unidentified date sometime in what feels like the frontier past, Louis Collins returned from a trip out west to find his little Delia had been killed in unknown circumstances. While buying an outfit for the departed's funeral, Collins is murdered by Stagger Lee with a shot to the back of the head, ensuring Louis will be together with Delia in eternity. The killer receives no mercy from the judge in the subsequent trial and is sentenced to hang. The ghosts of both Delia and Louis Collins haunt the murderer's final days.
A religious southern farmer, whose property has been in the family for five generations, fails to secure a credit extension from a heartless and unapologetic banker. Rather than lose his farm, the owner makes plans – fantasy or otherwise – to invite the guilty party to dinner before guiding him onto the very property at risk, where he will exact his revenge beneath a November sky. The body will be dumped in the old sink hole and the killer will have no qualms going to church on the following Sunday, where he will look the preacher directly in the eye. And still consider himself a good man.
A miner meets a man with a beautiful daughter of dark hair and green eyes; a courtship is initiated and steps are taken to secure a diamond ring ahead of a proposed marriage. His intended, however, has eyes for another. The miner catches the pair and puts three rounds into Kate McCannon, for which the murderer is imprisoned and hell-bound. A raven mocks his condition from outside the cell window.
A church-going man newly estranged from his wife becomes enchanted with a 17-year-old in the congregation choir. They start a relationship fuelled by alcohol and sex, which escalates when the golden girl hands the older man a pistol and asks him to rob a nearby bar to fund their excess. The church-goer ropes in the assistance of his brother but something goes awry, and the latter is shot and dies during the raid. The teenager is unmoved by the tragedy, instead recalculating the split among two rather than three. The golden girl is shot down and buried in the pines by the waterfall. The man offers himself up to God's judgement.
Intrigued? Find the records. Explore the genre. Discover your own favourites. Draw your own conclusions from the centuries of story-telling and music on offer.
You won't regret it.
All text © 2020 by Todd Westbrook. May not be reproduced without express written permission of the author.