But when I go to sleep at night / Don’t you call my name.
March 27, 2020 10:56 AM   Subscribe

Originally, murder ballads focused exclusively on homicide—and often that of women. We dig into the history of the subgenre, and the women who reclaimed it. The History of Murder Ballads and the Women Who Flipped the Script
posted by Ten Cold Hot Dogs (28 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Ctrl+F Dixie chicks - Wonderful.
posted by FirstMateKate at 11:01 AM on March 27 [8 favorites]

This is one of those "I've always known about this but only now did I realize there is a name for it" moments.

This is killer (pun intended).
posted by deadaluspark at 11:15 AM on March 27 [2 favorites]

Polly, pretty Polly
You guessed it about right.
Polly, pretty Polly
You guessed it about right.
I been diggin' your grave
For the best part of
Last night.

I had this song on my mind for two whole afternoon's backyard quarantine, doings. This very song!
Sometimes I ask myself about the tunes that come up in my head, but I had no answers for this one. I think it is the Judy Collins version.
posted by Oyéah at 11:28 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]

Oh, and everyone should go listen to Hurray for the Riffraff, who is mentioned in the article. Absolutely phenomenal
posted by FirstMateKate at 11:34 AM on March 27 [4 favorites]

It might not meet the technical definition in that the actual murder is only strongly implied, but I think Miranda Lambert's Gunpowder and Lead is well within the spirit of the genre.
posted by jedicus at 11:45 AM on March 27 [6 favorites]

The article talks about it, but I want to highlight Hurray For The Riff Raff's The Body Electric, which goes beyond the Goodbye Earl style reclamation of murder ballads as something where women can kill men too and into an indictment of the culture of violence overall. The video is just stunning. (For a second track from her, it's not on the subject of murder ballads, but I can't in good conscience not mention Pa'lante.)
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:51 AM on March 27 [2 favorites]

Lord Randall, my son.... I’ve known that one forever. My parents must have had it on LP. Joan Baez, maybe? Picking one where the woman doesn’t die?
posted by clew at 12:32 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]

This is a fantastic piece. Thanks for posting it. As someone who plays a lot of bluegrass, I've always had a conflicted relationship with some of these songs.

The article cites and links to the full master's thesis "This Murder Done": Misogyny, Femicide, and Modernity in 19th-Century Appalachian Murder Ballads, (large pdf) which I've bookmarked to pick through over the next little while.

The article talks about it, but I want to highlight Hurray For The Riff Raff's The Body Electric

Oh wow. That's great.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:53 PM on March 27 [6 favorites]

Amy LeVere Killing Him
posted by Jode at 12:59 PM on March 27

I've always thought of Neko Case's "Star Witness" from "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood" as a sort of modern murder ballad.
posted by hwestiii at 1:00 PM on March 27 [4 favorites]

Great post! I'm here to add Blackie and the Rodeo Kings' Another Free Woman Gets to Walk Away.
posted by figment of my conation at 1:06 PM on March 27 [2 favorites]

Joan Baez - The Greenward Side and lyrics
Fairport Convention recorded several gruesome English and Scottish border folksongs
Matty Groves with Lyrics
posted by adamvasco at 1:23 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]

No 'The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia'?

Wherein, not only does the protagonist commit double homicide, she manages to pin it on her brother.
posted by madajb at 1:34 PM on March 27 [9 favorites]

I always felt like Auf der Mauer's "Father's Grave" was a murder ballad; sure the dude dug the grave, but who killed Dad? And why?
posted by emjaybee at 2:21 PM on March 27

Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today, madame..
posted by Nerd of the North at 2:38 PM on March 27 [3 favorites]

Also, what category does it fall into when the twisted mother coaxes her son into killing his lover by promising him money and a white shirt?
posted by Nerd of the North at 2:53 PM on March 27

Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. (I prefer Joan Baez's version)
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 2:59 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]

posted by Paul Slade at 3:38 PM on March 27

Beware Eels fried in broo.
posted by adamvasco at 4:13 PM on March 27

Does 'Two Black Cadillacs' count?
posted by Selena777 at 4:15 PM on March 27

I hope I can post this here. I discovered the magazine where this was printed no longer carries its archives back to 2011.


The polished sun of noon by sunset turned to rust.
The skyline blazed in flames, the badlands roiled with dust.
In the husky-throated darkness chirring crickets trilled.
An amber brilliance spilled from a church house on a hill,
A beacon luring sinners to the realm of Preacher Paul.

The evening show commenced as Paul crooned "Free From Sin."
Performing on the organ, his third wife, Sister Lynn.
His restless daughter, Dawn, stood brooding in the apse.
The rafters dribbled grit with the flock's ecstatic claps.
Intent and armed, three strangers leaned, backs against the wall.

Never had these three set foot in church before.
Beneath his breath, their leader, Brett, snarled as he swore.
Handsome Dan, a ladies' man, grinned and scanned the pews.
His skittish nephew, Thomas stared at his own shoes.
While Brett and Dan had missions, all that Thomas had was doubts.

"Once my clothes were ragged," Preacher Paul proclaimed.
"But now I know God's bounty - for that I'm not ashamed.
Square your soul with Jesus to feast on God's reward."
The faithful boomed, "Amen," their voices in accord.
"I'll settle for revenge," Brett mouthed beneath the shouts.

Years back, a train, unmanned, sped through a silver town.
A posse rode the tracks to hunt the lost crew down.
Two crooks were nabbed nearby, their hands already bound.
Their double-dealing partner and loot were never found.
While Brett and Dan served time, their partner served the Lord.

Said Paul, "Choose God, not Mammon." The tithing basket filled.
When Lynn locked eyes with Brett's she felt a piercing chill.
Dan sent a wink to Dawn and she winked back in fun.
He knew he had to hurt her, he knew she'd be the one.
Freshly ruined flesh was the love he most adored.

The altar call announced, the weeping Thomas knelt.
Dan escaped with Dawn to show her how he felt.
Brett quarreled with his partner to claim what he was due.
Outside a vacant barn they planned to rendezvous.
She brought along a dagger and a sack with seven grand.

Succumbing to the sway of his partner's bribes and charms,
Brett leaned into Lynn dissolving in her arms.
Inside the barn Dawn hollered as Handsome Dan attacked.
Lynn then intervened and stabbed him in the back.
She, too, had been a victim of his brutal hands.

The sun arose as Brett and Lynn rode out of town.
Lynn tried to flee her demons but still they tracked her down.
At Sunday's service Dawn sat still, her father at her side,
Shouting, "Hallelujah," as Thomas testified.
The Preacher scanned the pews to find his future wife.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:18 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]

hwestiii - The title track from Furnace Room Lullaby is, by her own words, a murder ballad.
posted by ralan at 6:36 PM on March 27

This is great! Massive fan of the Gillian Welch song, and pretty much all her versions of classic murder ballads that I've heard. As someone who's still on the fence with Hooray for the Riff Raff - they waffle a little twee for me at times - that is a gorgeous version.

PJ Harvey's Rid of Me album is like a perfect 90s take on the genre for me. Nick Cave of course did an entire album called Murder Ballads around the same time, but I suppose that's straying from the topic a bit.
posted by aspersioncast at 7:28 AM on March 28 [2 favorites]

Steep Canyon Rangers' Pretty Little One isn't a ballad per se but I wish it was:
posted by backsaw at 12:31 PM on March 28

Down by the Water by PJ Harvey also counts - not really a feminist take though, it’s about a mother drowning her own teenage daughter for becoming sexually active.

Thinking about it, a large proportion of her back catalogue is about men murdering their partners, exes and stalking victims. The feminist unhinged harpy songs (Rid of Me) and critiques of enforced gender roles (Dress, 50ft Queenie) seem to have dried up in recent years.
posted by tinkletown at 1:14 PM on March 28

Also, what category does it fall into when the twisted mother coaxes her son into killing his lover by promising him money and a white shirt?

Murder ballads are a type of Broadside ballad, which came from current events sold on paper "broadside sheets" in blank verse that were then set to music. In the US only the scandalous murders seem to have passed into folklore but there are oodles of songs about true events; ship wrecks, boxing matches, crimes, affairs, criminal trials etc out there in trad music in other countries. So I suppose your case would be one of those.

And of course people have been riffing on these as long as they've existed either making up stories or satirizing the interminably long and boring serious stories, like in The Irish Rover.
posted by fshgrl at 6:27 PM on March 28

Also, what category does it fall into when the twisted mother coaxes her son into killing his lover yt by promising him money and a white shirt?
See, I think a lot of British Isles murder ballads have murderous women. They predate the idea that women are innocent and vulnerable: they're from a pre-Victorian gender order, in which everyone is potentially wicked, and women are maybe especially wicked, because of Eve's sin. It's really only in the 19th century that women get depicted primarily as victims of both seduction and murder, and that's the legacy that these women are contending with. But in earlier murder ballads, there's lots of mothers killing babies, one sister killing another, spurned women killing their unfaithful lovers, and what have you.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:53 AM on March 29 [3 favorites]

I have some examples of British ballad sheets about villainous women here. Some, like Mrs Dyer, are drawn from fact, others, like Mary Arnold, from what may be no more than an urban legend. (Both these songs are real nightmare fuel, so don't click the links unless you're OK with that).

There's a long tradition of infanticide songs on this side of the Atlantic, the dark humour of which allowed hard-pressed young mothers to let off some steam. Kristin Hersh's cover of What'll We Do With the Baby-o will give you the flavour.
posted by Paul Slade at 1:05 PM on March 29 [2 favorites]

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