Love. L’amour. Is there anything sweeter than a deep intimacy between two people and the legacy it leaves behind?
Unless, of course, it goes south and one of them mysteriously disappears and the other one has blood on their hands. Sometimes that legacy evolves into one of my favourite genres of music, the precursor to today’s true crime podcasts- the murder ballad.
‘That sounds extra as fuck, Avon,’ you say, eyes wide in alarm and just a touch of morbid intrigue. ‘What is a murder ballad?’
Well, a ballad, in its essence, is a song that tells a story; sometimes of a specific event, sometimes just in a broad sense. A murder ballad, therefore, tells the story of someone’s gruesome death, and often the events leading up to it and the aftermath.
Sometimes, they’re even true.
I can almost guarantee that you’ve heard one, whether you recognised it as such or not. Have you ever been going along with a catchy tune and all of a sudden picked up on a strange word? So you look up the lyrics and a chill runs down your spine? You hadn’t realised that that peppy little ditty was about…that.
Some famous examples include ‘The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia’, ‘Mack the Knife’, and ‘In the Pines’(sidenote: I did not know Lead Belly recorded a version, which is very cool, so this is his), among many, many others. Because murder ballads have a very long and understandably controversial history.
From what we can tell, they seem to have originated in Northern European musical tradition, mostly in England/northeast Ireland/southern Scotland and Scandinavia. The absence of them in Welsh oral tradition implies a more Germanic origin than Celtic, which frankly surprises me. These early songs tend to be morality pieces, with the victim being avenged and the murderer being brought to justice, usually by burning a woman and/or hanging a man.
Many of the originals were published in early forms of newspapers called broadsides, with street musicians singing out the stories. They read like sensation fiction, with prophetic dreams, ghostly apparitions, curses, and sometimes the literal devil makes an appearance. They were so popular that when Europeans came to the New World, the tradition spread and old English songs were given new settings and characters to reflect the flavour of Appalachia or the West, as the singer needed. Unfortunately, the ones about local crimes that had very narrow scope and short interest, have been lost, or will be lost when those who remember them pass.
So what makes a murder ballad?
Well, numbers one and two: gotta tell a story about someone dying at the hands of someone else. Who that first someone is changes over time and locale. Traditionally, it’s a woman (‘Eye-friggin’-roll,’ – Bailey Sarian, 2021), and one who has done a naughty, by society’s or God’s law. She was unfaithful, improper, ambitious, greedy, etc etc. She’s usually killed by a lover, ex-lover or family member. The implication is usually that, I mean, well, what did she expect? Sometimes it’s a man, and if he’s killed by another man, it’s often an honour killing like a duel, or a kill-or-be-killed situation, or revenge. If he’s killed by a woman, it’s usually self-defense or revenge for infidelity.
However, you still can’t go around murdering people, even impious women or another cowboy who’s too slow to draw. So traditionally, the murderer also faces some punishment. One sin does not justify another, you both fry.
They’re not happy songs, I don’t know what to tell you. But they’re fascinating. And often way too infectious. That’s the part that gets me. Now I have ‘Mack the Knife’ stuck in my head.
One thing, to be clear, this has to be intentional homicide by one living human being against another formerly living human being. Accidents, illness, suicide, bear attack, zombie scratch, grievous bodily injury- all bummers, but do not a murder ballad make.
Now, over time, things have shifted a bit. The traditional tropes of murder ballads have expanded to include spree killers, serial killers (not the same thing, btw), school shooters (ok, that is a spree killer, but a specific kind), and an often overlooked whole genre (because *coughracismcough*) gangster rap. I read a fascinating article that really opened my eyes to a lot of things, and if you love the macabre and socially illuminating like I do, you should definitely check it out. I don’t want to get too far into it because this post wasn’t meant to be a deep dive, but it did make me question some assumptions I had, and uhh, yeah, I was being racist about it, lol. Lesson learned.
So, there you have it, some cute music to listen to with your sweetie while you celebrate this romantic holiday. Please don’t kill each other.
By the way, if you want a real wild earmworm, check out this bardcore cover of ‘Pumped Up Kicks,’ by Hildegard von Blingin’ and Cornelius Link. It’s the perfect intersection of two of my favourite things: deep, deep nerdiness about Medieval history and murder ballads.
What’s your favourite murder ballad? Come on, I know you have one.