Murder Ballads will be a three-part piece featuring commentary/opinion from Matthew LaChiusa, Eric "Butch" Evinczik and Jason "Wheezer" Von Klaw.
We all know the ballad. Man or woman is jilted, kills their partner, buries them in a shallow-grave and is caught by the Sheriff eventually to be hung from a Live-Oak tree.
This is the Murder Ballad and this genre of folklore has been with us since the Bible recorded Cain taking down Abel, yet despite the centuries of cultural relevancy, literature on the subject cannot pin-point the exact origins of the Murder Ballad.
Sources I have researched, including the online Wikipedia, the Cambridge University Press "Victorian Literature and Culture" and Olive Burt's "Western Folklore" point to the sixteenth-century as the beginnings of this ballad form.
There are literary indications that Murder Ballads may have their origins in Scandinavia, the British Isles and the American colonies, but no source can credit a country or culture with giving birth to this distinct ballad form.
Now to clarify, Traditional Ballads been around for centuries with every country having some form of the spoken or sung folktale rooted in some type of oral tradition gone to mythology or legend. These ballads, much like their oral tradition forefathers, were handed from one generation to the next. Each time the tale undergoes changes in names and location.
Murder Ballads are akin to Traditional Ballad, but are not one of it's descendants.
IS AN AMERICAN MURDER BALLAD FROM THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY.
THE EARLIEST WRITTEN RECORD OF "LITTLE SADIE" DATES TO 1922 AND THE FIRST AUDIO RECORDING WAS MADE
BY NORTH CAROLINA OLD-TIME MUSICIAN CLARENCE "TOM" ASHLEY IN 1930. THE MURDER IN THE ST
ORY TOOK PLACE IN NORTH CAROLINA, WITH THE SHERIFF FROM THOMASVILLE
APPREHENDING THE KILLER IN JERICHO, WHICH IS POSSIBLY NEAR CHARLESTON, SC.
Their history is connected to the birth of the printing press and the introduction to European countries of a one-page news-of-the-day handouts called Broadsheets.
Initially these pamphlets provided folks with up-to-date news (a sixteen-century form of Tweeter) but soon this cheaply printed courier began to contain poems, rhymes and, eventually, ballads.
Eventually the term Broadsheet Ballad (also known as "Roadsheets") identified the form of this media, containing, according to A N Bold's The Ballad (Routledge 1975, pp. 5), "Tales of antiquity...that frequently crossed national and cultural boundaries."
Some tastes never go out of style in that Broadsheet ballads featuring murder, mayhem and punishment sold more copies. Soon Europeans from Scandinavia to Ireland were taking in ballads of avenging jilted lovers, cruel sisters and murderous ghosts.
"PSYCHO" WAS WRITTEN IN 1957 BY PAT PATTERSON BETTER KNOW AS SINGER / SONGWRITER LEON PAYNE. PAYNE NEVER RECORDED THE SONG BUT MADE IT CLEAR THAT ANOTHER MUSICIAN CAN RECORD IT AFTER HIS DEATH. THE VERSION YOU HEAR IS EDDIE NOACK 1968 RECORDED VERSION.
When American colonists settled the New World they brought the practice of Broadsheets as well as the Homeland fascination with ballads of murder, crime and punishment. Curiously enough the Americanization of these Murder Ballads changed the names and place to regional identification. Wikipedia points out that the Murder Ballad, "Knoxville Girl is essentially the same ballad as The Wexford Girl with the setting transposed from Ireland to Tennessee."
Additionally American versions of European Murder Ballads removed supernatural elements from the story instead implementing relationships and consequences between individuals as the main focus of the ballad. Wikipedia references the difference between the 1750 English ballad The Gosport Tragedy featuring a ghost of a mother and her unborn baby avenging her death and the Kentucky Murder Ballad, Pretty Polly, with a cruel murder ending in the victim's burial in a shallow grave.
As America expanded West, Murder Ballads followed along the settlers. By the eighteenth-century, Old World anti-heroes were being replaced by tales of New World murderers and their deeds. Numerous Murder Ballads of folk-heroes were created; however, the lack of printing-presses limited the recording of these infamous deeds. Olive W. Burt points out in The Minstrelsy of Murder (Oxford University Press, 1958), "With printing facilities scarce...these items were not published while others saw fame only briefly in the columns of the local newspapers."
Burt also points out that because of this lack of printing-presses, many Pretty Pollys or Little Sadies were lost because of the oral tradition of passing these stories along died-out when those who remember the tales also expired.
THIS VERSION PRETTY POLLY IS PREFORMED BY DOCK BOGGS, WHO IS CONSIDERED BY CONTEMPORARY FOLK MUSICIANS AS ONE OF AMERICA'S GREATEST OLD-TIME MUSIC PLAYERS. BOGGS ALSO STANDS OUT FOR HIS UNIQUE COMBINING OF APPALACHIAN FOLK MUSIC AND AFRICAN-AMERICAN BLUES.
By the twentieth-century, Murder Ballads were well-rooted in the American music landscape. Contemporary musicians including Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley and Mississippi John Hurt strummed stories of murder and mayhem on their six-strings. In 1958, the Kingston Trio sold nearly 4 million copies of their version of Tom Dooley.
More modern releases in the 1990's featured Nick Cave's Murder Ballads, Kristen Hersh's (of Throwing Muses fame) album Murder, Misery and Then Goodnight among other releases of the genre by modern musicians including Tom Waits, 16 Horsepower, Violent Femmes and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts.
Since the very first Neanderthal Frankie brained her caveman Johnny for doing her wrong and someone told their story, the Murder Ballad has been part of cultural fabric for centuries. The evolution of this folkloric genre is truly unique in that although the subject is very base, the fascination with murder and the consequences is ever intriguing and enduring.
Perhaps society takes solace in the punishment and/or redemption of these immortal anti-heroes with a lesson to be learned. Perhaps there is a morbid streak in each of us that is only satisfied when we hear these ballads. Whichever the case may be, Murder Ballads will continue to survive and, most likely, with some changes in names and places, will be around for centuries to come.
So, hang your head, Tom Dooley, your bound to die.
Matthew LaChiusa is lead-singer for Dick Whisky. The band covers Leon Payne's "Psycho" and recently recorded it on their album "Drunkard's Lullaby".