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.
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.
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.