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.

I loved Mississippi John Hurt’s Stack O’Lee Blues long before I knew it was based on a real murder.

Click here to listen to Mississippi John Hurt’s Stack O’Lee Blues!

Police officer, how can it be?
You can arrest everybody
But cruel Stack O’ Lee
That bad man, oh cruel Stack O’ Lee

Billy DeLyon told Stack O’ Lee
Please don’t take my life
I got two little babies and a darling loving wife
That bad man, oh cruel Stack O’ Lee

What I care
About your two little babies and your darling loving wife?
You done stole my Stetson hat, I’m bound to take your life
That bad man, oh cruel Stack O’ Lee

Boom boom boom boom went that .44
When I spied Billy DeLyon
He was lying down on the floor
That bad man, oh cruel Stack O’ Lee

Gentleman of the jury, what you think of that?
Stack O’ Lee killed Billy DeLyon
About a five-dollar Stetson hat
That bad man, oh cruel Stack O’ Lee

Standing on the gallows, his head way up high,
At twelve o’clock they killed him
They was all glad to see him die
That bad man, oh cruel Stack O’ Lee

Mississippi John Hurt
Mississippi John Hurt

The place was St. Louis, Missouri; the year, 1895. It was Christmas night and the air was frigid but it was warm inside the saloon where ‘Stack’ Lee Shelton was drinking with a friend.

Stack, whose nickname was derived from a riverboat with an unsavory reputation, was a flamboyant dresser and often seen in his white Stetson hat. When he was arrested the next day, Stack identified himself as a carriage driver, but that wasn’t true. He was actually a very successful pimp and a leader in the Democratic party.

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