Murder Ballads - any other fans?
Posted: Mon Jun 05, 2006 10:19 am
My wife just bought a compilation of murder ballads with tunes like Tom Dooley, Cocaine Blues and Stagger Lee. Alot of interesting history behind some of the old tunes, Tom Dooley, for example was about a North Carolina womanizer named Tom Dula, who got caught up in a love triangle and killed his girlfriend (some accounts attribute the motive to the fact that she gave him a veneral disease).
http://www.metrobeat.net/gbase/Expedite ... oid%3A3249Death is entertainment. A quick scan of history can easily support that statement. For example, human slaughter was sport in the Roman Empire, where millions flocked to coliseums to witness circus games: chariot races, public executions and gladiator battles. In modern times, violent action, suspense and horror movies fulfill the same primal craving. And the glut of violence in the news also helps scratch the itch of morbidity.
In the realm of music, the time-honored genre of the murder ballad also helps fill this void. Although the ranks of murder ballad composers have dwindled in recent decades, it remains a popular traditional form, with a vast repertoire of existent songs.
Although tales of death and murder have long been fodder for poets of probably every generation and culture, what we call the murder ballad came to its greatest level of development in two places: Victorian England and the hills of Appalachia. English songs such as "Oxford Tragedy" were printed quickly, and were intended as "reports" of current events. The songs were written according to a particular formulaic narrative structure, with detailed descriptions of shootings, stabbings and strangulations and the resulting judicial proceedings. These ballads were often attributed to the criminals themselves, although few scholars would testify to the accuracy of such sensationalism today.
Anybody who listens to country, folk or bluegrass music will be well acquainted with the story of handsome Tom Dula, a talented, fiddle-playing North Carolinian. The Wilkes County native was a known womanizer, and ended up being hanged for the 1866 stabbing death of girlfriend Laura Foster. A local poet, Thomas C. Land, immortalized Dula and the murder with a ballad called "Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley," which proved to be very popular with the mountain people in the surrounding areas. The Kingston Trio helped bring the song to a broader audience in the late '50s with their version.
Like other songs in the folk tradition, murder ballads are constantly reworked and reinterpreted. Take "Stagger Lee," for instance. This grim tale of gambling and gunshots has been recorded no less than 200 times, with wildly varying lyrics and musical settings. Everyone from guitar-slinging poets Bob Dylan and Woodie Guthrie to improv-freaks The Grateful Dead to blues-man Mississippi John Hurt and R&B singers the Isley Brothers have made this song their own. But perhaps the strangest version of "Stagger Lee" is by Nick Cave. The Australian purveyor of Doom & Gloom humorously packs the piece with profanity in a play on the grandstanding and braggadocio of hip-hop.
That song was featured on Cave's 1996 album entitled, you guessed it, Murder Ballads. Although Cave frequently dismisses the work as a rushed project, the album combines new arrangements of traditional songs such as "Henry Lee," (a gorgeous duet with PJ Harvey) and originals like the 14-minute "O'Malley's Bar." In this song, Cave's protagonist waxes poetic as he mercilessly guns down all the patrons in the titular watering hole. Verse after verse, the tension builds. Cave's character seems to believe he's on a divine mission of some sort, backed by superhuman strength of will. But when the police finally arrive, ordering him to "come out with [his] hands above [his] head," the murderer "had one hard think about dying, and did exactly what they said."
As a songwriter and son of an English professor, Cave has a natural affinity for words. As such, he's sometimes admits that he looks up to such pillars of 20th century songwriting as Dylan and Johnny Cash. Cash, in particular, appears to be an influence. And the man who wrote "Folsom Prison Blues" knows a thing or two about songs of foul play. The Man in Black sings about shooting his woman in "Delia's Gone" and "Cocaine Blues." The famous case of John Wesley Hardin breathes new life with "Hardin Wouldn't Run." And when Cash tells us he "shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die," we believe him, such is the force of personality behind his rich baritone.
Did Johnny Cash actually spend time in prison for any such crimes? Of course not. "I never spent time behind bars except for a few overnight jail times back in the Sixties," he told Rolling Stone magazine before his death. But like other great artists, Cash possessed an innate sense of human nature. He had definite views on the appeal of the macabre in music. "It's always been an American theme to make heroes out of the criminals," Cash said. "Right or wrong, we've always done it. You know, it really is a crime in itself, but we do it. I think there's a little bit of a criminal in all of us. Everybody's done something they don't want anybody to know about. Maybe that's where it comes from."