Songs That Made History: Murder ballads are a strong tradition in bluegrass and country music, even in American roots music in general. Sometimes based on real events and treated like a salacious tabloid, and sometimes based on mysterious circumstances that get treated almost like human universals, murder ballads spoke to the darkest side of humanity and to the injustice we all feel when hearing of a senseless murder.
Women come out poorly in most murder ballads, and since many of the more taboo lyrics were cut from murder ballads in the religious communities of the New World, they’re often murdered seemingly without any reason. Supernatural elements were cut as well, and this could mean that the final verses in which the ghost of the women call out or hunt down their murderer also got cut in the new world. This means that we now have a long history of unrepentant male killers without rhyme or reason who get away clean with the murder. This doesn’t sit well with too many people, so folks have been composing or collecting new murder ballads in which the women get their sweet revenge. Here are five great examples:
Abigail Washburn & Béla Fleck – “Shotgun Blues”
Old-time clawhammer banjo maestro Abigail Washburn, also a former member of the killer all-female stringband Uncle Earl, takes a swing at the murder ballads that form the crux of so many old-time songs. Seeking retribution, her new song cuts pretty deep. Here’s an example of a verse:
If I had a shotgun You’d fall down on your knees I’d get you talkin’ And you’d start beggin’ please.
The chorus, then, is
So gimme a shotgun And don’t you run now Cause if you run now you know what I’d have to do.
Rachel Brooke – “The Barnyard”
Country noir singer and songwriter Rachel Brooke has made a career not only from plumbing the dark depths of traditional country music, but also from digging deeper herself. For example, she opened her 2011 album, Down in the Barnyard, with a six minute brutal murder ballad revenge song that graphically painted the picture of a woman’s jealous murder of her man. Embracing in the hay, the man utters her best friend’s name and the heroine of the story sees red. Brooke’s line for his demise is pretty rough:
Twas a hammer of rust that ended his lust.
And he fell to the floor with such ease So I tied him to the stable to finish him later As I listened to his desperate pleas.
Leaving him tied up, she sets out for her friend’s house, confronting her and later dragging her back to the barnyard to complete a double murder. The heroine ends her days with a plea to the jury and a sentence to the madhouse. It’s a super rough revenge song that channels the brutality of male murder ballads but with an eye to revenge.
Sheila Kay Adams – “Lady Isabel & The Elfin Knight”
Not all the old traditional murder ballads dispatched helpless maidens. Some of them, like the classic Child Ballad “Lady Isabel & The Elfin Knight” (sometimes also called “The Outlandish Knight”), featured some serious ass-kicking from the ladies. The general gist of this ballad is that a young lady is lured away from her family for a tryst with a mysterious lover. Possibly a supernatural creature of some kind in some versions. The lover also entices her to steal her parents’ gold for the tryst.
In any case, they retreat to a nearby viewpoint, usually near a lake or a river or a sea. All pretenses of love gone, now the man brags that he has murdered six or seven women already and that our heroine is next! He orders her to get undressed and lie down so he can steal her dress or jewels. Cleverly, the maiden demands he turn around so he doesn’t see her naked body. Once he’s turned around she kicks him into the water and drowns him. The song usually ends with some gloating, as in this version from master Appalachian ballad singer Sheila Kay Adams:
Tis true you’ve drownded six fair maids but the seventh has drownded you.
Check out Sheila’s singing of this song; she’s a wonderful ballad singer who mentored younger singer Elizabeth Laprelle and who recently received the National Heritage Fellowship (highest honor from the US Government for a traditional artist.)
Jim Lauderdale – “Old Time Angels”
Jim Lauderdale is quite the persona in bluegrass and American roots music. Host of Music City Roots in Nashville, a multiple Grammy and AMA Award winner, and this year he celebrated his 26th album with the release of I’m A Song. Way back in 2013, though, he recorded a great bluegrass song, Old-Time Angels for his album of the same name. It’s a name-dropper of a song, bringing up a bunch of murder ballad victims starting off with the wandering spirit of the Louvin Brothers’ Knoxville Girl.
He brings up Omie Wise, Pretty Polly, Darling Cory, and Little Sadie too and the gist of the song is that the spirits of these murdered women from the ballads of yore are still up in the mountains looking to even the score. It’s a nod to the body count of old Appalachian songs and a bit of a warning to the young bucks on today’s traditional scene to watch out for the ghosts that came before and not to take these songs too lightly.
RUNA – “The Ruthless Wife”
Irish American roots band RUNA released their new album, Current Affairs, in 2014 (fwiw Hearth worked pr for them) and had not one but two murder ballads where the woman gets revenge. First was “Henry Lee,” taken from Nick Cave’s cover on his own murder ballad album. Henry Lee’s an old song, Child Ballad 68, and also goes by the name “Young Hunting.” Here’s a brief summary of the song from RUNA’s vocalist Shannon Lambert-Ryan: ‘girl kills guy and throws him down a well for cheating on her.’ Simple enough!
The other song is a really interesting from Shannon’s pen. “The Ruthless Wife” is based on the murder of her great-great grandfather policeman James Lambert. Gunned down on the streets of Philadelphia in 1922, the reasons for Lambert’s murder are somewhat murky. Shannon posits that his wife set him up to go to Blind Joe’s cigar store because she knew he was cheating on her with another woman, Rose Gallagher. After Lambert’s murder by the gangster (and dope fiend) Frank Donnelly, young Rose Gallagher took poison to take her own life. Regretting this, she drove to the hospital but later died. It’s a brutal story, and RUNA bring across the passion of the scorned wife who sets the whole thing in motion.
Photo Credits: (1) Bela Fleck (by Karsten Rube); (2) Rachel Brooke, (3) Sheila Kay Adams, (4) Berrogüetto, (6) KITHFOLK Logo (unknown/website); (5) Shannon Lambert-Ryan, (by Wolfgang Vogt/Music Contact).