Murder Ballads: Why I Did What I Did

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.

Photo by Cameron Cox

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.”

Killer Perspective

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?


Author’s Note:  

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.

Maine Folklife Center

Bananas, Lawyers, and Brad


A nerdy paper I much enjoyed writing had a catchy title, something like “A Discourse Analysis of the Narrative Joke”.  It featured my father-in-law, Brad, the best joke teller I have ever known personally. He told me several jokes which I recorded and then analyzed.

Not many people tell long jokes.  I would love to do so if not for the uncomfortable fact that I don’t remember them.  I’m still stuck on knock-knock jokes. Who’s there? Banana. Banana who? Ba-na-na-NAH.

Though many things can make us laugh, not all of them are jokes.  Jokes differ from other funny occurrences by being much more generalized and always prepared.  A joke consists of the set up and the punchline. Its content can be dirty, clean, or offensive; its structure is of either the riddle or narrative variety.  

Knock-knock jokes are an example of the riddle form.  Easy to remember and good for a quick laugh, the riddle type of joke may be the most common.  The set up is pitched as a question with hopefully no response. The teller can then gleefully deliver the punchline.  

Pause please, I’m looking for jokes about Coronavirus and I’m finding plenty of articles expressing indecision over whether or not it’s okay to laugh at Coronavirus jokes or memes, but I’m not finding any actual jokes.  Do people think that a meme takes the place of a good riddle joke? A picture with a funny caption is much like a cartoon, is it not? Here are some examples of riddle jokes:

Why didn’t Natalie Wood take a shower on the boat?

She wanted to wash up on shore.

What do Princess Diana and Pink Floyd have in common?  

Their last big hit was the wall. 

Screwing in a light bulb.
How many Irishmen does it take to screw in a light bulb?


Let’s not overthink this.  Riddle jokes are almost always in poor taste.  Regardless, we laugh. We can’t help ourselves.  But context is everything with a riddle joke, and if you don’t know who Natalie Wood was or can’t remember how Princess Di died, then there is no humor here.  Sigh. What is the world coming to when there is so much funny fodder and no good riddle jokes?

If the riddle joke is a lost art, say it isn’t so, then I might also be out of luck trying to find a good narrative joke.  So I’m going to tell one of my father-in-law’s jokes, preserved not by memory but transcribed in my notes. These are his actual words, real, live words, so please excuse the grammar. I hear his voice as I type them. 

The Lawyer and the Sharks

Then they tell the story about the doctor and the lawyer and the priest who were out on a fishing boat about two hundred yards off shore.  The tide was going out from the island. All of a sudden their motor broke. They went to use the oars that were in the boat and they were rotten.  They had never been used and they just fell to pieces. 

So there they were about 200 yards offshore, the tide was coming out, they were getting washed out further to sea and they said, ‘Well, I guess we could swim for it.  Two hundred yards isn’t too bad.’

Then this pack of hunter sharks came in and started circling the boat.  And they were getting washed out further from the island. So finally the priest said, ‘Look, I’ll offer up my best prayer to God,’ and he said, ‘I’ll swim to shore, God will protect me.  I think the sharks will let me alone.’

By this time there’s quite a crowd watching them from the beach.  So the priest dove into the water. Well, he didn’t get five strokes until the sharks were all over him and a frothy, bloody stain came to the top of the water and that was the end of the priest.

Then the doctor said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’ve spent my lifetime helping mankind.’  He said, ‘Maybe God’ll protect me.’ So he dove in and he didn’t get six strokes until, same thing, blood and froth and bits of skin and hair flying in the air.  That was the end of the doctor.

So the lawyer, of course he waited until last, but then he jumped in and he just swam right to the shore and the sharks just parted for him as he went along.  And when the lawyer got to the shore and he walked up on the beach, the local residents came running down to him and said, ‘How did that ever happen?’ and they said, ‘That wonderful priest and that wonderful doctor, the sharks ate ‘em up.’

The lawyer said, ‘Simple.  Professional courtesy.’


Most of the story jokes that I could find on the internet were not nearly as long as the ones my father-in-law used to tell.  (Yes, sadly, he passed in 2004.) He loved to embellish his stories with little details and comments like the one about the lawyer being the last to go.  Brad was an obstetrician/gynecologist at the top of his field who didn’t appreciate lawsuits over events where nature had taken its course. What you have to understand about Brad is that he could tell this joke to a lawyer friend and definitely get a laugh.

The same key components which occur in the structure of a story–orientation, evaluation, complicating action, and resolution–also take place within the structure of the narrative joke.  Repetition is vital to the minimal structure of the joke due to its reinforcement of key points for the listener who may not have gotten it all the first time. Introduction and transitional phrases, plot and vocabulary are all repeated.

In the plot of “The Lawyer and the Sharks”, three is an important number.  The three professionals think of three ways to get to shore–the motor, the oars, and swimming; and three times something goes wrong all of a sudden.  Then the same three men take turns diving into the water.

The sequence of threes establishes a pattern and the breaking of that pattern feeds into the unexpected. The lawyer, for example, does not say a prayer but jumps into the water and is unharmed.  This is unanticipated. In the joke the unexpected follows the breaking of the pattern and sets up the listener for the joke’s punchline which, if you knew Brad, you should have been expecting.

How many Irishmen does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

One to hold the bulb.

Two. One to hold the bulb, and the other to drink until the room spins.

After I published this post, I found The Big Apple 300+ Coronavirus jokes. Where did the Terminator find toilet paper? Aisle B, back. And more!!

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Emphatically a Bon-Bonist

The short story “Bon-Bon” is strange, and I admit that I do not entirely understand it. I have read it because it is a devil tale and because it is American, written by none other than the illustrious Edgar Allan Poe.  

Bon-Bon is a successful French restaurateur who is engaged in writing a philosophical treatise on the French philosophy of his day. Apparently, Bon-Bon is an expert at philosophy, and if only he did not drink so much, maybe he would finish his book. The devil visits Bon-Bon for reasons unknown to me. Is he looking for a soul to eat? Is he particularly interested in tasting the soul of a philosopher? 

Poe describes the devil as tall and skinny and wearing worn clothing made for a shorter person. Most of his head is bald except for the very long hair reaching down his back. Even though he wears “green spectacles, with side glasses,” he has no eyes. Besides the spectacles, he carries two other items on his person: a stylus and a little black book.

Bon-Bon is not at all disturbed by the identity of his visitor. Instead, he sees an opportunity to learn about philosophy.  The devil critiques Bon-Bon’s book as “clever” but needing improvement. He says that Bon-Bon’s “notions” remind him of Aristotle, who had only hit upon “one solid truth in all that he has written.” 

As their conversation progresses, Bon-Bon becomes increasingly drunker while learning nothing useful about philosophy and too much about which souls the devil finds tasty.  Bon-Bon discovers only that his soul is not a shadow or a stew or a soufflé. It is a fricassée.*

The drunk restaurateur is quite all right with having his soul be a fricassée and offers it to the devil.  But the devil refuses it, saying that he is well supplied at the moment. What then was the devil’s intent in visiting Bon-Bon?  Perhaps, the devil is a kind of chef and has work to do on Bon-Bon’s soul before it is ready to eat.

*The meat in a fricassée is cut into pieces, braised, and then served with a white sauce.

Leave a comment, please!

What, for instance, do you mean by all that humbug about the soul? Pray, sir, what is the soul?

the devil in “Bon-Bon” by Edgar Allan Poe

The Devil Take Tom Walker

You don’t need me to tell you that Washington Irving (1783-1859) is a famous American author.  In school most of us read at least one of his short stories–“The Devil and Tom Walker”,“Rip Van Winkle”, or “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.  

Stories where the devil offers a deal in exchange for a man’s soul are common. The deal is made, but then the man (or woman) thinks better of the bargain and tries to cheat the devil.  Sometimes he succeeds like Johnny does in the song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”.  Although the devil has preyed upon Johnny’s weakness, pride, Johnny’s arrogance is proved valid when he defeats the devil in a fiddle duel.

Washington Irving’s Tom Walker is not as lucky or clever as Johnny. Miserable, miserly Tom Walker has no God-given talent coming to his aid.  To escape his bargain with the devil, Tom “prayed loudly and strenuously, as if heaven were to be taken by force of lungs.”  Do Tom’s prayers save him?  Irving’s story is well worth the read if you are unsure of the answer.

Folktales are stories that have been passed orally down through generations.  By this definition “The Devil and Tom Walker ” does not qualify as a folktale since it is written.  But, this story, and others like it, are based upon the same traditions, themes, and morals as the older tales.  Maybe they can be categorized as folk narratives, a much broader genre that covers myths, fairy tales, and jokes. 

I define my own narrative, The Devil and Ella Davis, as a folktale novel.  Ella Davis is abducted from her middle age back to her youth in order to pay her great grandmother’s debt to the devil.  Although my tale is influenced by time travel and alternate history fiction, its Irving-inspired title aims to establish it as a folk legend.  

Let all the griping money-brokers lay this story to heart. 

— Narrator in “The Devil and Tom Walker”

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