I love American roots music. A lot of music can fall into this category – blues, bluegrass, folk, soul, jazz, and country can all qualify – but today I want to write specifically about murder ballads.

Murder ballads are uniquely American. There are, of course, songs about murder in every culture, but Americans truly made it an art form. Part of the reason I like them so much is because they are unpolished and imperfect. The edges are blurred. It’s mysterious. I like that there are unknowns, and that these songs defy classification and labels.

The criteria to be a murder ballad is fuzzy. As its name suggests, murder ballads are songs about homicide but the genre includes songs about gruesome accidents or ancillary events, like a courtroom trial. Geechie Wiley’s Last Kind Words probably qualifies, and is one of the most under-rated songs ever.

The time period is difficult to define, too. I would define it as songs written between 1900 – 1960, but I’m sure there are examples that were written before or after that timeframe.

Murder ballads can often be spotted by their cheerful titles: The Lawson Family Murder, for instance. They are occasionally named for the victim (Fate of Rhoda Sweeten) or the murderer (I wrote about Stack O’Lee Blues a while ago). Sometimes the title is just a description of the event, like Ohio Prison Fire or McBeth Mine Explosion. There’s even a whole subset of murder ballads dedicated to natural disasters (The Santa Barbara Earthquake, Baltimore Fire, Ryecove Cyclone, Alabama Flood).

Often different artists covered the same traditional songs, occasionally with spelling differences. But there could be multiple murder ballads about the same crime or disaster, especially if there was a lot of publicity. I found four separate songs about the Titanic’s sinking. Of course – the Titanic still fascinates everyone.

Unprecedented headlines related to the sinking of the Titanic

Maybe a better example would be the murder of 14-year-old Delia Green, which occurred on Christmas Day, 1900 in Savannah. Her boyfriend, Mose Houston, was caught immediately and put on trial for killing her in the spring of 1901.

Blind Willie McTell

The crime captured the imagination of many songwriters, including Blind Willie McTell, the greatest bluesman in history. McTell wrote a song describing the murder that is simply called Delia. Another song, Delia’s Gone, also became popular. This song is written from Mose’s perspective. Johnny Cash initially covered it in the 1960s and loved it so much he recorded multiple versions.

The lyrics of a murder ballad are written like a story – sometimes a very liberally embellished story. It seems to me that the feel of the song varies by where it originated. Murder ballads from Appalachia have a distinct moralistic feel to them. They might feature a weeping, repentant murderer cautioning listeners, “Now, don’t you go and do what I done.”

The Southern songs often describe a crime and end with vengeance – someone being hanged for a crime.

I’m really glad artists are still performing these traditional songs. Like the genre, these performances aren’t easily classified. Jack White covered Son House’s Death Letter. He definitely put his own spin on it and it’s a good song in its own right. Nick Cave and P.J. Harvey’s version of Henry Lee sounds much more traditional.

On the afternoon of October 22, 1895, Guillaume-Marie Pellerin, the engineer of the Granville–Paris Express train, was irritable. He was behind schedule, though it was anyone’s guess why, since the train left Granville at 8:45 a.m., its usual time. Pellerin hated to be late.

Gare Montparnasse station, prior to the derailment

The speed of steam locomotive No. 721 may have been slowed by its cargo. Far from traveling light, the Granville–Paris Express had 131 passengers aboard and was hauling six coaches, three luggage vans, and a post van to Gare Montparnasse terminus.

Pellerin drove the locomotive faster to make up for lost time, and at 4 p.m., Gare Montparnasse came into view. The conductor was doing paperwork, and hadn’t even noticed how fast they were traveling.

Pellerin didn’t brake as soon as usual, which would have made the train even later but he was confident he could stop quickly and safely, thanks to its state-of-the-art Westinghouse air brake. He applied it a moment later, but to his horror, nothing happened.

Pellerin then tried the locomotive brakes but they were ineffective; he was unable to curb the train’s speed. His scrambling caught the conductor’s attention, who realized in a moment that the train was entering the station too fast and that it was too late to apply his own handbrake.

The Granville–Paris Express train ran across the buffer stop on the station platform, crashed through a 23 inch wall, then fell over 32 feet to land on the street.

Photo credit: Levy & fils

The following day, London’s Morning Post ran a story by their Paris correspondent describing “a most sensational accident [that] occurred at 10 minutes past four this afternoon.”

 

 

Incredibly, the accident claimed only one life, and that was of a poor woman selling newspapers near the station. Marie-Augustine Aguilard was struck and killed by falling masonry. Six people had injuries.

The Pall Mall Gazette of London wrote that the train was still suspended over the road two days after the train derailed. “According to the information given before the examining magistrate,” they wrote, “there appears to be no doubt that Pellerin, the driver, was to blame and that he will be tried before the Correctional Tribunal for manslaughter, due to imprudence.”

Four days after the accident, The Star of Guernsey, England wrote, “Pellerin declared yesterday to the examining magistrate that on reaching Dreux and Versailles he asked the stationmaster to provide him with a new engine as the brake upon his own was not under proper control. They are held to be responsible for the accident in so far that they did not reverse the engine in time, and that they broke the rule by relying upon the Westinghouse brake to draw up at the terminus.”

Pellerin was found guilty of driving too fast and fined 50 francs. The conductor was fined for not applying the handbrake; he paid 25 francs.

One hundred eleven years ago today, on April 18 at 5:12 a.m., a violent earthquake shook San Francisco.

 

This was 30 years before the Richter scale was developed to measure an earthquake’s magnitude, and nearly 70 years before the system we use today, the Moment Magnitude scale. The scale ranks an earthquake on a scale of 1 – 10, with 10 being the most catastrophic. Each step accounts for 32x increase of energy expended.

The San Andreas fault

The 1906 earthquake is estimated to have been a 7.8. For comparison, an average tornado is around 4.8, the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was about 6.2, and a Mt. St. Helen’s eruption is about 7.6.

18 April 1906

When you consider the damage done by the earthquake (and most disasters), it is really incredible to think about how quickly they happen. In 1906, the timeline was very short:

5:12 a.m. Strong foreshock occurs, lasting 23 seconds.

5:13 a.m. The main shock occurred, and it lasted 42 seconds.

And it was over by 5:14 a.m. But several separate forces – the damage from the earthquake, the aftershocks, and the gas lines that provided energy to the city – collided with one another and a fire ignited. The city burned for three days.

But San Francisco was destined to be more than a sepia-toned memory. The people refused to let the city lay in ruins, or to scatter and rebuild elsewhere. San Francisco defiantly built itself back up, grander and more flamboyant than before. The fingerprints of the old earthquake are faded but visible,  a reminder of San Francisco’s great courage and resilience.