Murder Ballads, in honor of Valentine’s Day

Are you ready for a blog post that will end in a 1-800 number? I certainly am!

On a recent tour of the nether regions of Wikipedia, I found a page full of links to articles on “women and death.” There is no corresponding page on men and death, so I’ll have to assume they are represented in all the pages referencing death that weren’t included. Is this construction due to some archtypal Valkrie in our collective subconscious? Is some femme fatale out there revising Wikipedia pages?

Perhaps, or the page is merely further evidence that our obsession with beautiful female murder victims (sister to women in refrigerators and cousin to the “missing white woman,”) persists. Before you think I am using one Wikipedia page as my flimsy bit of evidence, I’ll also give you the treatment of women in American Horror Story. Or horror movies. Or crime movies where the random victim pulled out of the mortuary fridge is inevitably a young woman, possibly with her breasts exposed. Apparently, we love a dead lady, so long as she’s young and pretty.

(Spoiler on the American Horror Story thing: it’s not good.)

Relax everybody, I’m not holding you personally responsible. You come from a long history of dead-lady entertainment, it all seems so natural. The page seemed so natural that the first thing to catch my eye was a reference to the Ohio River, which I live on. Death? Women? Yeah, totally missed me. Apparently the Ohio River has my heart.

The entry, a song called Banks of the Ohio is an old murder ballad. Murder ballads are apparently quite the Western tradition:

“American murder ballads are often versions of older Old World ballads with any elements of supernatural retribution removed. For example, the English ballad “The Gosport Tragedy” of the 1750s had both murder and vengeance on the murderer by the ghosts of the murdered woman and her unborn baby, who call up a great storm to prevent his ship sailing before tearing him apart. In contrast, the Kentucky version, “Pretty Polly,” is a stark murder ballad ending with the murder and burial of the victim in a shallow grave.”

accessed 2/7/2013

The song has been covered many times by many artists: Bill Monroe recorded the song, Johnny Cash recorded it, Joan Baez recorded it, Olivia Newton John recorded it. None of these people have been confirmed as killing anybody, but it does go to show how persistent this song is, perhaps because of its theme. And frankly, not because it’s a musical masterpiece. The Bill Monroe version of the song goes like this:

Was walking home tween twelve and one
Thinkin’ of what I had done
I killed a girl, my love you see
Because she would not marry me

The very next morn about half past four
The Sheriff came knocked at my door
He said now young man come now and go
Down to the Banks of the Ohio

Another stanza was immortalized in a cartoon by Rebecca Dart.

Pretty Polly, another murder ballad mentioned in the Wikipedia entry, apparently covers the same story. This version from Kentucky and describes the fate of “Pretty Polly” at the hands of another man named “Little Willie.”

Oh Willie, Little Willie, I’m afraid to of your ways
Willie, Little Willie, I’m afraid of your ways
The way you’ve been rambling you’ll lead me astray

Oh Polly, Pretty Polly, your guess is about right
Polly, Pretty Polly, your guess is about right
I dug on your grave the biggest part of last night

Oh she knelt down before him a pleading for her life
She knelt down before him a pleading for her life
Let me be a single girl if I can’t be your wife

The authors of the the 2005 book Rose and the Briar do not interpret this as a sexually motivated crime,”He sees her growing fear and tells her she’s right to be afraid. But it’s not sex he’s after. He spent all last night digging her grave.” They believe the antagonist is acting to punish this woman, in their words, “He’s sure that hiding somewhere under Polly’s pure, white veils there is a dirty slut who deserves to die.” Lydia Hammessley includes in her interpretation of the well-worn narrative the possibility that the female is pregnant, and the murder solves this problem for the antagonist.

I’m not convinced that this murder isn’t sexually motivated, Polly’s line “The way you’ve been rambling will lead me astray” raises the question– astray how? The first few stanzas establish that he has literally gotten her lost in the woods, but what exactly did she plan on doing in the woods, past talking? And wouldn’t he have had to figure she’d say no if he bothered to dig her grave all night? Is the whole marriage thing a euphemism for sex, and if so, did he want her dead before or after the fact? It was almost better when he killed her out of jealousy, as motivated the antagonist in the sister song “Banks of the Ohio.”

I digress. Point is that despite being covered by many artists, both male and female, this song is incredibly creepy. Banks of the Ohio is only relatively less creepy, because it’s about a straightforward acquaintance-murder, and Olivia Newton John performed it. The genre as a whole remains popular. The New York Times compiled a murder ballad playlist, and the genre made mention on the popular website, click here for their list of murder ballads.

Several songs popular recently have been murder ballads. Starting with the least recent, ones that come to mind include Seven Mary Three’s 1996 song Water’s Edge. Because I’d hate to miss even one chance to talk about 90’s music, I’ll include The Toadies song Possum Kingdom as an example, though that could be debated. Eminem’s “97 Bonnie and Clyde,” was highly controversial when it was released, though academic writer Elizabeth Keathley draws parallels between this piece and works that wouldn’t be expected to draw comparison– Opera. In her paper A Context for Eminem’s “Murder Ballads”, she reports:

I tallied a depressingly large number of dead women. My gruesome accounting revealed four women murdered by jealous husbands or boyfriends; two killed or raped by authority figures; one ritually sacrificed; and five who died after having been seduced and abandoned or forced to marry against their will—for a body count of twelve dead women in one semester of teaching. And that did not include tuberculosis victims.

Karen Elson’s 2010 album “The Ghost Who Walks” is is full of murder ballads , including the title track Ghost Who Walks. Then there’s Bon Iver, who performed Charles Monroe’s Down in the Willow Garden, in which the narrator poisons, stabs then throws his girl into the river. Authors at term this a “Rasputinian Murder Ballad.” Their compilation of murder ballads is hopelessly over-inclusive, but I forgive them, because I find that quip very funny.

In a murdery kind of way.

And so, in honor of Valentine’s Day, I want to leave you with the number for the national hotline for domestic abuse: 1−800−787−3224. 

This entry was posted in abandonment, art, artists, breakups, kentucky, killing, links, literary criticism, music, nonfiction, observations, psychology, relationships, sadism, sex, southern gothic, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Murder Ballads, in honor of Valentine’s Day

  1. occamyoung says:

    I expected the femme fatale link to lead to a picture of you furiously typing on a laptop by candlelight. also, though i don’t like nick cave, it does surprise me that he wasn’t mentioned.

  2. Pingback: 殺人!事故!災害!死!マーダーバラッド&ディザスターソングの世界 | お気楽なつぶやき

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