Murder is a dark and twisted topic. It’s an act that causes grief, pain and suffering; however, according to Netflix charts, people love watching films and documentaries about it. We also, it seems, love similarly dark themes within songwriting and music. Murder stories have found their way into all genres, but in country and western, it’s become a rite of passage for musicians to cast their gaze upon the gallows (or Folsom Prison for Johnny Cash) and lend their voice to a haunting ballad. The Louvin Brothers sang about a slain woman in Knoxville, Leadbelly made his own take on a traditional Appalachian folk song with 'Where Did You Sleep Last Night' and The Boss himself showed how haunting his voice could be with 'Nebraska'.
However, the roots of murder ballads trace back far beyond the early days of country and western, across the Atlantic to England, lowland Scotland and Scandinavia. Quite simply, murder ballads were just a sub-genre of ballads where the theme was, obviously, a murder. They served a purpose; often found on a broadsheet (a single sheet newspaper), the ballad or rhyme would depict the story or trail of a murder. “They were the popular true crime books of their time, a time when most people did not read or write,” historian Elijah Wald shares with Holler. The ballads found their way across the Atlantic with the people who crossed it. The stories came from their memories, which they printed on broadsheets to sell. From this many of the stories were turned into song.
Finding its way into country and western mostly through Appalachian folk songs, many contemporary murder ballads are renditions of traditional ballads that overtime have changed names or language. Many are also entirely fictitious. The genre has taken many twists and turns on its routes, but below is a selection of murder ballads that cover the early British Isles classics to country and western’s most notable murders.
'The Twa Sisters' is a ballad that has been traced back to 1656 and is a fine example of a traditional murder ballad of the British Isles. The song is said to have originated somewhere around England or Scotland, possibly Northumbria, and there are at least 21 variants of the song under several names. The story tells the tale of two sisters who go down to a body of water, and the elder of the two pushes the younger into the water, refusing to let her out. The motive is jealousy - some tales tell that the sisters are being played by a suitor, others that the elder sister's affection for the man is unrequited. When the body floats ashore someone makes an instrument of it - her bones the frame and the hair as the strings - and the instruments plays itself and sings about the murder.
Though it is first known to have appeared on a broadside in 1656, there are records of a Scottish version entitled Binnorie in 1830, a version from Somerset in 1909 and one state-side in Kentucky in 1917.
'The Cruel Mother' (also known as 'The Greenwood Side'), is one of the most chilling examples of a murder ballad. The story tells of a woman giving birth to two illegitimate children, who then proceeds to kill them with a knife and bury them. Her blade becomes unwashable with more blood appearing as she wipes it. She then comes across two babies in the entrance to a church and promises them that she’d treat them wonderfully, wrapping them in silk and loving them, but they turn out to be the ghosts of her own two children, who tell her she’s bound for hell. It’s likely the story dates back to a broadside dated 1638. Gretchen Peters would record this interpretation of the ballad in 2016.
'The Knoxville Girl' is an example of an Appalachian murder ballad, derived from a 19th century Irish ballad called 'The Wexford Girl', itself derived from an earlier English ballad about the murder of Anne Nichols by her love Francis Cooper. The story of 'The Knoxville Girl' follows a man who beats a woman to death and throws her into a river, spending the rest of his life in prison with his friends not able to pay bail. Early recordings stateside go back to 1924, with possibly the most known version of the ballad being by the Louvin Brothers in 1956.
'Ballad of Hollis Brown' is based on an English balled titled 'Pretty Polly' that made its way across the Atlantic and into the Appalachian Mountains. The English original follows the story of a murdered woman in a forrest, and with 'Ballad of Hollis Brown', folk master Bob Dylan took the narrative to a new height. The protagonist is a struggling farmer in South Dakota who lives with his wife and five children. With his life becoming too much to bare, the farmer spends his last $7 on shot gun shells and shoots his children, wife and finally himself. The listener is not told to hate the man but instead to feel pity - he simply couldn’t go on watching his family suffer. Stephen Stills, Tony Joe White and many more would go on to record their own interpretations of the ballad.
'Banks of the Ohio' is a murder ballad with pure American roots. The song, first heard in the 19th century, often tells the tale of a man called Willie who invites his young lover for a walk. When she rejects his marriage proposal, he waits until they’re alone and kills her next to the Ohio River. There’s been many renditions of the songs, but ones that are most notable are those in which the lyrics are changed for a female singer, something that has been done by Joan Baez, Olivia Newton-John and Dolly Parton (though Parton’s rendition tells the tale of the murderer’s confession in his prison cell).
'Goodbye Earl' is a 1999 single by The Chicks which is possibly the least-eerie, most positive murder ballad there could be. The story is of a woman who is abused by her partner so much that she joins forces with her best friend in a plot to kill him, and the end up getting away with murder. It’s one of the few examples of murder ballads in country that take the perspective of a woman killing a man, and one of the even fewer examples of a murder ballad being such a bop. The song caused controversy at the time of release, with a few radio stations banning it, but it also become known to highlight the issues of domestic abuse against women. Ironically, the b-side was 'Stand By Your Man'...
One of the most contemporary ballads on this list is 'Kate McCannon', performed by Colter Wall. The song starts at the end, with a man sitting in his prison cell haunted by a raven. Before this, the protagonist falls in love with the daughter of a man he works with. He saves a quarter of his pay everyday to buy her a ring, but when he returns home one day, she’s not inside. Instead, he finds her up on the creek with another man, where he fires three shots and murders her. Colter Wall is a prime example of how murder ballads have changed from their early origins in the British Isles to contemporary country and western.
The most recent example of the murder ballad genre creeping into contemporary music can be found in Taylor Swift’s “no body, no crime”. The song, featuring Haim, is another example of the female perspective within the genre, one not often sung about. While the song doesn't explicitly deal with the act of murder, Swift sings about the suspicion of murder when her friend goes missing after she suspects her husband is having an affair. It’s not often that murder ballads end up in such a popular artist’s music, but it’s proof that the sub-genre is still relevant.