“I guess there’s just a meanness in this world” (Murder Ballads and Death Songs)

by Jessie Lynn McMains

This song is about two people who go into the woods, but only one of them comes out. That’s my favorite kind of song. I have a few of those in my songbook.

Rennie Sparks, The Handsome Family

There’s a lot of contention about murder ballads (and other adjacent death songs: ballads of suicide, tales of natural disasters, songs of the “I’ve lived a bad life and now I’m bound to die young” variety (i.e. The Unfortunate Lad/Lass), etc.). People argue about their origins: do they come from the ballad tradition of the British Isles? Are the American-penned ballads less influenced by the British tradition and more a real reflection of Appalachian culture in the late 18th to early 20th centuries? Musically, do they owe more to the English/Scottish/Irish settlers of Appalachia, or to the African-American blues tradition? And how can we parse our reasons for continuing to listen to, sing, and write these sorts of songs? Are they warnings not to follow the paths of the victim(s) or the perpetrator(s)? Are they exploitative—taking the stories of real, horrific happenings, the deaths of real people, and using them to make art? Or are they elegiac—a way to remember these long-dead people and their stories? In the case of the ‘murdered girl’ ballad type, where a woman is killed by her male lover—are they misogynistic celebrations of domestic violence and femicide? Or, again, are they an elegiac way to remember these poor murdered girls? And if someone pens a song that flips the script and has a woman doing the killing (usually of her rapist or abuser, though sometimes just because she god damn well felt like it)—is that a feminist reclamation of the genre, or is it just another glorification of violence?

The answer to all of these questions is, quite simply: yes. Murder ballads and death songs are all of these things, and more.

I first got into murder ballads and death songs around late 2001, and that interest grew to its height around late 2003. (That interest has not waned in the 18 years since.) I’d heard murder ballads prior to that, but during that two year span, I got really into musicians such as Tom Waits and Nick Cave, southern gothic literature, and old-timey folk music (aka ‘old, weird America’). All those roads led me toward developing a deep appreciation of murder ballads. Back then, I never questioned why I was drawn to them. That is, I knew why I liked them, but I didn’t try to justify it. I enjoyed—I enjoy—murder ballads and death songs because they are by turns gruesome and beautiful and sad, and yes, sometimes even sexy. They are all of these things, and more.

My girl, my girl, don’t you lie to me—

“Where Did You Sleep Last Night”

Where Did You Sleep Last Night (also known as “In the Pines,” “Black Girl / Black Gal,” and “My Girl”) is a bit of a confusing one. Is it a murder ballad, or a death song? Someone in it is dead, and has died in a horrific way, but exactly who has died changes depending on the version you’re listening to, as does the way in which the victim died, and who is responsible for their death. And who is singing this song? The killer, someone that knows the killer, an omniscient third party? There are point-of-view shifts all over the place. My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me / tell me where did you sleep last night? That’s how the song begins. In the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine, she replies, I shivered the whole night through. Most of the stanzas in the version I am referencing follow this formula, alternating between the person speaking to the ‘girl,’ and the girl’s responses. All save one, which starts: Her husband was a hard working man. In that one verse, the singer takes a different point of view entirely.

Some of these confusing aspects may stem from the fact that the song we now know as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” is a mashup of two older ballads: “In the Pines” and “The Longest Train.” Some versions of the song reference the train explicitly, and state that the victim was decapitated by a train. In others, such as the one I’m most familiar with, the only reference to a train is that [his] head was found in a driving wheel. And in still others, the cause of death is reattributed and no reference to trains is made at all. Similarly, the person fleeing into the pines changes from version to version. In most, including this one, it is a woman, but why she is fleeing or what she is fleeing from is not made explicit. Is she fleeing her rapist? Is she a murderer, or the witness to a murder? Did she commit some other transgression that she is hiding from the repercussions of? Or are the pines simply a metaphor? My girl could be running from life and into death, or from chastity and into (her) sexuality.

I find that all these inconsistencies and mysteries only add to the song’s beauty and sadness. It’s easier to imagine yourself as the one in the pines when you can ascribe your own personal reasons for running—and your own personal places to run to—to the song’s protagonist, and that makes the song even more haunting. Speaking of: to my ear, Leadbelly’s 1944 recording is the most haunting take—his quavering voice, the scratchy blues guitar—though Nirvana’s 1993 MTV Unplugged version is also essential. Listen, and shiver the whole night through.

Oh, dig my grave both wide and deep—

“The Railroad Boy”
broadside printing of “The Butcher’s Boy” c. 1890s (via Wikipedia)

The Railroad Boy (aka “Go Dig My Grave” and “The Butcher(‘s) Boy”) is a dead girl ballad, but it is not a murdered girl ballad—in this song, the girl takes her own life. It is also another song which came from a mishmash of other, even older, ballads. (You’ll find this is true with many of the songs I will be writing about here.) And, it is another which shifts points of view between an omniscient narrator and the characters in the story. (Which, again, is true of many of these songs. The most experimental P.O.V.-shifting novel’s got nothing on old ballads!)

There are many variations of “The Railroad Boy.” Not only do the lyrics vary widely, but the melody it’s sung to isn’t even always the same. Despite the variations, the gist of the story is: a girl is jilted by her beau, and hangs herself. Or, to explain it further: some dude (either a butcher or a railroad worker) is a big sleazeball, tells this girl he loves her and they’ll get married one day and all these other sweet little lies, then either he gets her pregnant and decides he doesn’t want to have a kid, or he actually would rather marry this other girl who—oh hey!—is from a wealthier family, or he doesn’t give a reason and is just like I’m out…and his scorned lover kills herself.

I know very well that even the most two-timing jerk can’t be held responsible for someone else choosing to take their own life, but two things strike me about this song in relation to murdered girl ballads— In murdered girl ballads, the killer’s motives are often similar to the reasons the guy in this song breaks things off with the girl. And sure, in this one he doesn’t kill her, but she ends up dead anyway. Which brings me to my second point: in some murdered girl ballads, the girl refuses to marry the guy, and that’s why he kills her. But in this song? He rejects her and she kills herself, not him. Misogyny and double standards abound in many of these songs, and I won’t deny it.

Still, I am drawn to this song. The suicide note which the dead girl penned is one of the reasons why. It is sad and beautiful and maybe just a hair over-dramatic. Won’t you tell the world that I died for love? That sounds like something I might have written in my teenage diary. And that’s part of its appeal. Haven’t we all felt, at some point or another, that we would die for/of love?

My favorite recent version of “The Railroad Boy” is by Vandaveer. As for a slightly older recording which sends chills up my spine—I’d recommend Dave Van Ronk’s live, a capella version.

Nothing was left but bones and hair—

“The Two Sisters”

The Two Sisters (aka “The Twa Sisters,” “The Wind and Rain,” “The Miller’s Daughter,” “The Cruel Sister,” “The Bonnie Swans,” et. al.) is one of the oldest ballads on this list. The first English printing of the lyrics was in 1656, under the name “The Miller and the King’s Daughter.” Versions of the ballad also appear in many other languages, including Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic. This one is a murdered girl ballad, but with a twist—the killer is also a girl.

The story goes something like this: a guy courts two sisters at the same time, seems more fond of the younger sister, the older one gets jealous, and she pushes her younger sister into a river or other body of water. She goes back to their suitor, says: “Oh, um, my little sister disappeared, so I guess you’re marrying me!” In some versions she is never caught, in others she’s caught and punished, but my favorite versions have her getting caught in a very…unusual way.

In those versions, someone finds the younger sister’s bones and hair washed up on the shore or the riverbank. Not knowing who they belonged to or where they came from, the finder decides to collect these remains and fashion a harp or fiddle from them, as one does. After their bone instrument is constructed, they begin to play it. And what do you know? It just so happens that this fiddle or harp doesn’t play regular music, but sings with the ghostly voice of the dead girl, who is now able to communicate how she died and who killed her.

This is a truly weird tale, and I love it. My favorite recording is by Andrew Bird—it’s a very sparse take, just vocals and violin. Though I doubt his violin is made of bones and hair.

And the wind did roar, and the wind did moan—

“Henry Lee”
film still of PJ Harvey and Nick Cave from the music video for their rendition of “Henry Lee”

Henry Lee (aka “Love Henry” and “Young Hunting”) is another very old ballad. It dates to the Middle Ages, and has its origins in the British Isles. In this song, it is a woman who is the killer. But this is no redemptive, feminist twist on the murder ballad form. The murderer in “Henry Lee” is not killing in self-defense. She is a cold-blooded killer in the vein of many of the male killers in other murder ballads. Her motive? “If I can’t have you, no one else can.”

Henry is an attractive young man, blithely riding through the countryside on his way back to the village, when he comes upon a lady who persuaded him to stop. She’s all: “Hey, handsome, stop and visit with me for a while.” Why not? They kiss a little, or have a couple drinks, or even head to the lady’s bedchamber. After their brief liaison, Henry says: “Sorry, but I have to leave, because I love this other lady who, by the way, is way prettier than you are.” This understandably pisses the woman off, but she takes her revenge to extreme levels—she stabs Henry, throws his body in a well or river, and is like: “That pretty chick you love more than me? She can die pining for you, for all I care.” In some versions of the song, there is a little bird who is witness to the murder, and when he threatens to snitch she says: “Keep quiet or I’ll get a bow and arrow and kill you, too.” (Talking birds? That’s almost as strange as the singing bones in “The Two Sisters!”)

Though Nick Cave and PJ Harvey’s version mentions this little bird, it leaves out the dialogue he has with the killer. However, their rendition was my introduction to this song, when I first heard Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads in 2003. And it is still my favorite. It is heart-wrenchingly sad, but also sensual; and the interplay between Nick’s sonorous voice, and PJ’s slightly less deep but still low and bluesy one, is utter perfection. Not to mention the music video: the two of them look like they are going to kiss each other at any moment, even as Nick-as-Henry is telling her he loves another girl fair better than she.

I took her by her lily white hand—

“Banks of the Ohio”

Banks of the Ohio, unlike many of the other ballads here, does not seem to come directly from other, older ballads. Nor does it share the details of a specific true crime. Its origins are in late 19th or early 20th century Appalachia, and the first known recording of the song is from 1927, under the title ”I’ll Never Be Yours.” Nonetheless, it is a classic. It distills the murder ballad (particularly the murdered girl ballad) down to its essence. Girl and her beau go out walking, he asks for her hand in marriage, she refuses, he pushes her into the river, and she drowns. He walks home, feeling all sorry about killing the girl he loved, and the next day he’s arrested.

More traditional versions of “Banks of the Ohio,” such as this rendition by The Handsome Family, can be interpreted as a warning to young women. A warning not to go out walking with a guy you don’t really know that well, lest he has ill intent. And this can be seen as another misogynistic double standard: why not write a song warning men not to kill their girlfriends? We have to consider two things when asking that question. One is that the song would have read very differently to folks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries than it does to us, now. It is of its time, for certain. But the other thing to consider, to ask ourselves, is: have things really changed so much? Most women (and non-binary people) I know have had more than one experience where we feared we might end up much the same way as the poor girl in this ballad. A boyfriend threatening you with fatal violence should you decide to leave him; a near (or complete) stranger becoming furious because you rejected his advances…these things are still all too common. As Kelly Robinson writes in “Where the Wild Roses Grow: The Strange Allure of Murder Ballads:” Change a few details, update the names, and these ballads could be stories from our own local papers, or even our own diaries. The other thing which hasn’t changed much in the past century is the abundance of misogynistic double standards when it comes to the blame placed on the would-be (female) victim versus the would-be (male) perpetrator. We, as a society, still spend an awful lot of time telling girls not to wear certain clothes, drink certain things, or go to certain places lest they encounter a rapist or murderer, and a lot less time teaching boys that they’re not entitled to any girl’s body or time, and that they shouldn’t be, y’know, murdery rapists.

The other reason I wanted to include “Banks of the Ohio” is that it features a death-by-drowning, which is a very common feature in murder ballads. There are countless murder ballads where the victim is either drowned, or is killed and then thrown into a body of water. Often it is a river, and often the victim is female. (“Ain’t Going Down to the River,” by bluegrass singer and musician Missy Armstrong, is a tongue-in-cheek take on this theme.) Why drowning, in particular? writes J. Roberta Coffelt in “She Too Much of Water Hast: Drownings and Near-Drownings in Twentieth Century North American Literature by Women.” There are several reasons, she says. One being: …the symbolic connection between female sexuality and water. Another: …is romantic: drowning is often thought of as an “easy death.” Coffelt adds: Of course, actual drowning victims are anything but beautiful, but that didn’t stop balladeers, writers, and artists throughout history from romanticizing the beautiful drowned girl. Think of Shakespeare’s Ophelia; think of paintings of Ophelia such as this one by John Everett Millais—she is beautiful, floating on her back in the water, her eyes heavy-lidded and her lips parted. Is she dead, or experiencing sexual ecstasy? (Back to that link between female sexuality and water…)

Yes, the drowning victims in these stories and songs are often female, but I think it’s important to remember that is not always the case. Snakefarm does a spooky, jazzy version of “Banks of the Ohio” which removes all gendered pronouns, so the genders and sexual orientations of both the victim and the killer are left up to the listener’s imagination. Once, many years ago, I asked a guy I was dating at the time to walk with me down to the river, where I had a surprise for him. He, knowing my predilection for murder ballads and things of that nature, said: “Uh, I don’t know if that’s a good idea. I’m pretty sure there’s a Nick Cave song that starts that way, and if I recall correctly, it doesn’t end well.”

Me and her went for a ride, sir, and ten innocent people died—

“Nebraska”
cover art from Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska

Nebraska is one of only two songs on my list which doesn’t come from a mashup of other, older ballads, and which was written in the latter half of the 20th century. It is the titular track from Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album Nebraska, and though it is much newer than most of the other songs I’m mentioning here, it is still firmly rooted in the ballad tradition. For one, it has a narrative structure, and takes the killer’s point of view (while also mentioning other characters). Two, it is based on a true crime.

The inspiration for “Nebraska” comes from the real-life murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Carol Ann Fugate, who killed 10 people (including Fugate’s mother, stepfather, and half-sister) over an eight-day period in January 1958. Though Springsteen takes some artistic license with the details of the spree and its aftermath, he sticks close enough to real occurrences that there is no question what it is based on.

It was this song, and this album, that first made me fall in love with The Boss’s music. Unlike his recordings with the E Street Band (and other backing musicians he’s worked with), Nebraska is sparse and haunting. “Nebraska,” the song, is unbelievably bleak. It sounds like the plains and badlands in which the crimes took place. Musically, there is only an harmonica, a guitar, and Bruce’s ragged voice. Lyrically, well…the killer in this ballad has no remorse. I can’t say that I’m sorry for the things that we done, Springsteen-as-Starkweather sings. At least for a little while, sir, me and her we had us some fun. This echoes something the real Charles Starkweather wrote to his parents: But dad I’m not real sorry for what I did cause for the first time me and Caril have (sic) more fun. The final two lines of the song, while not based on anything Charles said, are quite an accurate encapsulation of the mood of the entire song. (And perhaps not far off from the true motives of some of the killers in other murder ballads.) They wanted to know why I did what I did / Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.

She’s all I got, is gone—

“Delia”

Delia is one of two ballads based on the same murder. The other—“Delia’s Gone”—is arguably more famous because of Johnny Cash’s rendition. Though I am writing about both songs here, I am treating them as two separate ballads rather than different versions of the same one, because they are melodically, and lyrically, quite different. There are commonalities, but we’ll get to those later.

On Christmas Eve, 1900, in Yamacraw, Savannah, Georgia, 14-year-old Delia Green was at a party at a house where she worked as a scrub girl. Also in attendance was her 15-year-old boyfriend, Moses “Mose” Houston. Mose was drunk and mean, teasing Delia and calling her his “little wife” and telling the party-goers about the supposed details of their sex life. So she called him a son of a bitch. Willie West (the owner of the home) could see how heated things were getting, so he told Mose he should leave. Mose made to go, but as he reached the door, he turned around, pulled out a pistol, and shot Delia in the groin. This wound caused her death. Mose was caught and turned over to the police in short order, and he confessed. He said he shot her and would do it again if he had to. She deserved it, he said, for calling him a son of a bitch.

Though both “Delia” and “Delia’s Gone” have things in common with each other, and with other murder ballads, I want to look at where they differ—both from each other and from other murdered girl ballads. The version of “Delia” I’m working with, recorded by Blind Willie McTell in 1940, is a classic Blues song, with each verse ending with the line She’s all I got, is gone. What I am primarily looking at is how the lyrics portray Delia. The song starts off with Delia was a gambler, gambled all around / She was a gambling girl, she laid her money down. Later, in the fourth verse: Delia, Delia, how can it be? / Say you loved them rounders, and don’t love me. Those parts of this ballad portray Delia in a negative light: as a gambler who runs around with drunkards and layabouts. Still, that is easily attributable to Mose’s (or “Curtis,” in this song) attitude. “What’s the fuss about? Why does it matter that I killed her? She deserved it, because…” And no matter what “Curtis” might say about her, Delia’s grieving parents also appear in these lyrics: Delia’s mother weep, Delia’s father moaned / Wouldn’t hate it so bad if that child had died at home. No matter what rumors her killer might try and spread about her, she was cherished by her family. And her killer is punished, in the end.

The killer in “Delia’s Gone” is also punished—both by the law (he’s in prison) and his own mind (the memory of Delia torments him). And, like the killer in “Delia” (and Delia Green’s real-life murderer), he seems to think she deserved it—or at least tells everyone she did. This is where the similarities end. For one, “Delia’s Gone” hews entirely to the perspective of the murderer. There are no crying parents, nor a judge handing down a sentence. It is only the killer, singing to the jailer and whoever might be listening. Delia, in this song, isn’t just a gambling girl who loves bad boys, no: She was low down and trifling / And she was cold and mean / Kind of evil make me want to / Grab my sub machine. The way she is killed is much more horrific than it was either in real life or in “Delia.” This is no crime of passion, it’s calculated. The killer went to find Delia, tied her to a chair, and then shot her twice. Despite being haunted by her memory, at the end of the song he is still entirely cold-blooded and remorseless. In the final verse, he tells us: So if your woman’s devilish / You can let her run  / Or you can bring her down and do her / Like Delia got done.

Why am I making so much of this? It’s because of the difference in the way the victim is portrayed in these songs—especially in “Delia’s Gone”—as opposed to many other well-known murdered girl ballads. In many, if not most, other classic murdered girl ballads, even if the killer accuses the victim of infidelity, the song itself is quick to point out that she was faithful and pious. And even if the victim was pregnant out of wedlock, the song itself mentions that it was not her fault—she was lead astray by a scoundrel! Who then decided to kill her rather than do the right thing and marry her! But Delia—who was arguably even more innocent than the victims of other murder ballads, considering her young age—well, she was low down and evil and devilish. And this is where I want to remind you of what was different about the real Delia Green as opposed to the real victims other murdered girl ballads were based on (Naomi Wise, Pearl Bryan, et. al.). Those other murdered girls were white. Delia Green was Black.

Gender isn’t the only basis for double standards. Race is another one. A lot of people are very invested in overemphasizing the innocence of white girls while at the same time making a fourteen year old Black girl out to be a full-grown devil woman. And more people seem to care about getting justice for the victim and her loved ones if she’s a (conventionally attractive, young, cisgendered, heterosexual) white girl than if she’s of any other race. Think of the national uproar about Gabby Petito. Think of all the murdered and missing indigenous women the media never mentions.

Perhaps I am reading too much into this. “Delia” was a Blues song, which came from the black community, and its origins stretch back to 1906, not long after the real murder. The most famous version of “Delia’s Gone” was written by Karl Silbersdorf and Dick Toops, and the first recording of it was by Johnny Cash in 1962. Though Silbersdorf and Toops had obviously heard older songs about someone called Delia, they may not have known anything about her age or race. (I didn’t know anything about Delia Green—or even that she was a real person—until doing the research for this piece.) I’m only mentioning all this because I do think its important to be critical of the media we consume; and I also think it’s important to ask why certain crimes get more attention than others and why victims are portrayed much differently depending on their race.

As Alynda Lee Segarra sings in Hurray for the Riff Raff’s “The Body Electric”—a song which tackles our culture’s romanticization of misogynistic, transphobic, and racist violence head-on—Like an old sad song, you heard it all before / Well, Delia’s gone, but I’m settling the score.

He stabbed her in the heart and her heart’s blood did flow—

“Pretty Polly”
label from an old Columbia record of The Stanley Brothers’ 1951 recording of “Pretty Polly”

Pretty Polly (aka “The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter”) has all the classic hallmarks of a murdered girl ballad. It is based on an older English ballad (“The Gosport Tragedy”), which was itself possibly based on a real crime. There are the point-of-view shifts in the lyrics, the ruthless killer, and the beautiful, innocent girl who winds up dead. In the older English versions of this story, Polly’s ghost torments the killer until he either goes mad and confesses or is just straight-up killed by her vengeful spirit. But most new world renditions of the song eschew the supernatural element, and end with the killer burying her body and getting away scot-free.

The tale told in this ballad is a truly chilling one. This is another one in which the killer is cold-blooded and calculating. His crime is not one of passion. He leads pretty Polly deep into the woods, where her grave is already waiting—he’d been up all night digging it. Then he stabs her, and throws her in the fresh-dug earth.

That’s the gist, but every performer puts their own twist on it. There are 30+ known verses for the song, and each singer chooses the ones they like the best. My favorite versions right now are this one by Amythyst Kiah and Roy Andrade and this one by Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn. Though both are banjo-driven, as befits an Appalachian ballad, they are quite different in other respects. Amythyst Kiah’s rendition includes verses which I was unfamiliar with, and which bring a sense of foreboding into it from the get-go. The first time I saw you, you wounded my heart, Willie says to Polly, foreshadowing the way in which he will kill her. And in the next verse, they are leaving her loved ones and family behind. You just know the danger she’s in grows alongside the distance between herself and her family. Also, this is one of the new world renditions which retains the closing verses about Willie returning to sea and being driven mad by Polly’s ghost. Musically, Amythyst Kiah’s version clips along at a fast pace, like the gallop of the horse Polly and Willie are riding on. Abigail and Béla version is a bit slower, lovely and spooky. Abigail sings the pared-down version, using only the lyrics that are more commonly known. They don’t include the supernatural elements. However, there’s a part towards the end where Abigail cries Pretty Polly! over and over, like she is the killer, seeing Polly everywhere she goes. Or like she’s a spirit herself—a ghost, or a bean sídhe, or some strange animal crying in the forest at night.

Whatever version you’re listening to, “Pretty Polly” is one of the most chilling, yet also most beautiful and alluring, murdered girl ballads of all time.

And I felt his blood run fast and hot / around me where I laid—

“Caleb Meyer”

Caleb Meyer is the last song I will be exploring here. It is also the only other song here, aside from “Nebraska,” which was not based on other, older ballads. Though, like “Nebraska,” it is very much a murder ballad all in its own right.

“Caleb Meyer” is a song by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, which appeared on Gillian’s 1998 album Hell Among the Yearlings. Unlike “Nebraska,” it is not based on a true crime—at least not a specific one—but it may actually be truer to the ballad form. Musically, it wouldn’t have sounded out of place in 1920s Appalachia. The lyrical structure has the verses telling the story, and a repeated refrain that comes in after every two or three verses. And Gillian sings it in true balladeer style. Though she is singing from the point of view of the killer, she sounds almost detached, like she is simply a vessel letting the story come through her.

The story is told from the point of view of Nellie Kane, a woman who lives in a secluded area in the mountains (in the pines) with her husband. Their only nearby neighbor is a creepy, drunken moonshiner by the name of Caleb Meyer. One day, her husband goes to town and leaves her alone at home. And it seems that Caleb’s been lurking around, waiting for just such a moment. He calls her out of her house, and when he ascertains she’s alone, he throws his bottle on the ground and then throws her down onto a bed of pine needles. And he attempts to rape her. And she kills him.

But “Caleb Meyer” is no feminist revenge anthem in the style of The Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” or Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead.” (Which, while good songs, are not actual ballads.) This is not to say that “Caleb Meyer” is anti- or un- feminist. Nellie Kane kills the man who was going to rape her, and we never for a second think that wasn’t justified. But this song captures the complexities of the situation in a way some other songs don’t. The protagonist doesn’t kill her assailant and enjoy her righteous revenge and live happily ever after. The refrain is: Caleb Meyer, your ghost is gonna / Wear them rattlin’ chains. / But when I go to sleep at night, / Don’t you call my name. Though she did what she had to do, she’ll be haunted by this to the end of her days. Nellie will not only have to recall Caleb’s violence and the attempted rape, but also how she killed him and his blood ran fast and hot around her. And his ghost is out there wandering in the pines, calling for her forevermore.


Why are so many of us, myself included, drawn to, and inspired by, murder ballads? After all, they are sad and strange, horrific and haunting, as dark as the darkest pine woods. But many of us are drawn to dark things, and that’s been true of humanity for a very long time. Murder ballads are no darker than old fairy tales (have you ever read “Bluebeard?”). And what of all the other sad, strange, terrifying, spooky kinds of art? Why do we like horror, or mystery, tragedy, or ghost stories? How can we be aware of the very real issues that the art we consume or make may romanticize, and still take pleasure in it?

Rebecca Solnit, in a section about sad country songs in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, writes: There is a voluptuous pleasure in all that sadness, and I wonder where it comes from, because as we usually construe the world, sadness and pleasure should be far apart.is it that such sadness is only the side effect of art that describes the depths of our lives, and to see that described in all its potential for loneliness and pain is beautiful?

Sometimes creating or consuming something depressing, macabre, or violent, is a way of working through trauma, grief, or fear. Art can be a safe place to put your darkness, rather than letting it destroy you. It can also be a safe place to enact your desires, ones that you may not even want to touch in real life. As Kelly Robinson writes in “Where the Wild Roses Grow:” The fantasy of being loved to the point of obsession is a frequent one.….what I think lies at the heart of the allure of murder ballads, is that the fantasy is linked with the desire to be desired—to incite love and lust in a lover to the point that he can no longer control his actions. As Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family writes: These songs are about life and lust not about death and dust. They make your heart beat fast and your skin flush. They are, perhaps, the remnants of ancient pre-Christian blood/sex rituals and are designed to make you want to roll in fields of blooming heather, not to become the next Ted Bundy. As Tom Waits once said: The man who writes the murder mysteries doesn’t have to be the murderer.

I guess there’s just a meanness in this world. And murder ballads are one of the ways some of us process that.

It is all of this, and more.


ENDNOTES:

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  1. Frank Hudson says:

    A good run down of the complicated context of murder ballads. Of course everyone has their favorite versions, but I speaking of deconstructing old texts, I can never hear “Love Henry” without thinking of this live version by Wisconsin’s own Judy Henske:

    Tall and big voiced, Henske was the opposite of the quiet female folk singer. Here’s a shorter piece from a folk-scare exploitation movie, and “Omie Wise”

    As to modern murder ballads, this is a chilling one I tried to my best by for Halloween today, and I found your post via WordPress’ suggested algorithm on my post.

    https://frankhudson.org/2021/10/27/theyre-all-dead-now/

    Liked by 1 person

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