Murder ballads lurk on the dark side of folklore. From The Twa Sisters, an old Northumbrian song, to The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, written and sung by Bob Dylan, murder ballads narrate what happens when selfishness, jealousy, abuse, and revenge come into play. Paul Slade describes murder ballads as “tabloid newspapers set to music,” which “never stop mutating.”
Down by the River
In a murder ballad, taking a walk can be dangerous as in an old bluegrass song Banks of the Ohio. Songwriters give their twists to this song’s basic plot. Edwin, also known as Willie, lures his girlfriend away to the river or to the field, where he stabs her to death. The woman’s refusal to marry the young man is the motive, or, as in Down in the Willow Garden, the murderer’s father tells him to kill Rose Connelly. In Young Florilla, Florilla begs for her life and even forgives Edwin, but he still kills her. Lack of motive or madness as reason is also present in Neil Young’s Down by the River. In older songs, the unspoken cause may be an unwed pregnancy.
In some songs, as in Young Florilla, narration alternates between the murderer and his victim. In Where the Wild Roses Grow by Nicholas Cave, the dead Elisa Day and her murderer tell the tale. Equal opportunity murder occurs in Olivia Newton John’s version of Banks of the Ohio, where the woman commits the crime. Versions of Delia’s Gone sometimes give sympathy to Delia, 14, or, as in Johnny Cash’s account, the viewpoint is from the killer who describes Delia as “low down and trifling,” and the “kind of evil make me want to Grab my sub machine.”
Songs from the killer’s perspective end with either the killer running away or caught and awaiting his punishment. As Marty Robbins sings in El Paso, “I had but one chance and that was to run,” or the Kingston Trio in Tom Dooley, “When the sun rises tomorrow, Tom Dooley must hang.” A third outcome is that the killer is justified as in Frankie and Johnny by Jimmy Rodgers. Frankie says, “Lord he was my man and he’s done me wrong.” In a traditional ballad, Duncan and Brady, Duncan shoots Brady dead in what appears to be self-defense. A more recent murder ballad, Goodbye Earl by the Dixie Chicks, tells how Mary Anne and Wanda turn Earl into “a missing person who nobody missed at all” before he can put Wanda back into the hospital or worse.
Goodbye Earl is a fun song unless you are Earl or someone like him. Two other songs about women getting revenge are Janie’s Got a Gun by Aerosmith and Two Black Cadillacs by Carrie Underwood. Maybe there is some justice for Florilla, Elisa Day, and Rose Connelly in the lyrics of these modern-day songs.
Murder ballads of yesteryear cover a range of murderous motives from unrequited love to cheating lovers to escape from abuse. As in Tom Dooley, the murderer can even claim innocence. Artists also sing about senseless murder, crimes without motive. The Grateful Dead has a song, Me and My Uncle, where the motivation is greed, but what is the reason for the death in Country Death by the Violent Femmes?
Because sensational current events are often the inspiration for murder ballads, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and Shankill Butchers by Colin Melroy of the Decemberists follow tradition in singing about senseless killings. Is it a comfort to know that Americans are not the only violent people? Shankill Butchers are an Ulster band of killers who sharpen “their cleavers and their knives” and ride out to kill Catholics but end up slaughtering their own too. This ballad warns that the Shankill butchers “used to be just like me and you” before “something went horribly askew.” In Nebraska, a young man takes his girlfriend along on a ride to gun down strangers. Told from the murderer’s point of view, the convicted killer is on his way to the electric chair and answering the age-old question why: They wanted to know why I did what I did/ Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.
Older, misogynistic songs turn young women into victims for daring not to marry a man. Poor Delia might not be the best person, but she is judged for being evil and killed for it. Judgmental murderers also kill Brady, Catholics and Protestants, and a cheating man (Two Black Cadillacs). Sometimes the deed seems justified like the deaths of Earl and Janie’s father. In all cases, the police, if summoned at all, do not arrive until after the deed is done. Is a common underlying theme to all these various ballads an underlying disdain for the law or its ability to bring justice?
Drawn to the macabre or the dark comedy in these songs, are we seeking answers about our inner selves? If I felt deeply wronged, would I shed blood? Would I ever let the darkness override my conscience? Would I put myself above the law?
Thank you to my daughter and husband for their help with this article. There is a wealth of useful information out there on this topic. See these websites.