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Jazz And Blues Legends

The Rough Guide To Murder Ballads



From tales of jealous lovers to gunslinging outlaws and assassins, American roots music has long embraced the concept of the murder ballad. These seminal recordings offer an intriguing insight into this macabre genre which continues to be reinvented by musicians to this day.

The tradition of the murder ballad can be traced back to European folk songs of the 17th century. Through storytelling and songwriting, tales of murder were passed down and spread across the new world by early European settlers. To this day, the canon of American folk music is full of murder ballads which continue to survive and be reinvented, often bearing little resemblance to their original form. A case in point is the opening ‘Pretty Polly’, a stark and blood-soaked murder ballad with the victim being betrayed by the man she loves. Deriving from an old English ballad called ‘The Gosport Tragedy’, this early recording of the song by banjoist B.F. Shelton was recorded at the famous 1927 Bristol Sessions in Tennessee, widely considered as the "Big Bang" of modern country music. Dick Justice’s version of ‘Henry Lee’ is another fine early example of how an old world, in this case Scottish, ballad called ‘Young Hunting’ evolved in its American surroundings. This song was most famously recorded by Nick Cave in 1996 when he described it as "a story about the fury of a scorned woman.”

Along with murder ballads rooted in the British tradition are those drawn directly from American folklore, with arguably the most well-known being ‘Stack-O-Lee’. Embraced by both country and blues musicians alike, it tells of the real-life murder of William “Billy” Lyons who was shot and killed in a bar fight in 1895 for supposedly snatching the stetson hat of the St. Louis pimp Lee Shelton, nicknamed Stag Lee or Stack Lee. Memphis bluesman Furry Lewis’ classic variation entitled ‘Billy Lyons and Stack O'Lee’ differs to other versions in that it doesn’t allude to the theft of Shelton's stetson hat as the motive of the shooting, but rather a gambling bet gone wrong. Mississippi John Hurt also famously recorded his own variation, however it’s another classic ballad of his, ‘Louis Collins’, which features here. Recorded in 1928, it’s based on an earlier ballad that he reshaped, with the real identity of Louis Collins remaining unknown.

Perhaps the most commercially successful murder ballad, ‘Tom Dooley’, was popularised by The Kingston Trio in 1958, but was first recorded by the hugely influential fiddle and guitar duo Grayson and Whitter some 30 years earlier. It tells the true story of Tom Dula (pronounced Dooley) who was executed in Wilkes County, North Carolina in 1868 for killing his lover named Laura Foster. Unlike other murder ballads, which can stray uncomfortably close to glorifying the killing, ‘Tom Dooley’ focusses on the shame of the crime and the hand of justice, with the repeated refrain “Hang down your head Tom Dula hang down your head and cry, you killed poor Laura Foster and now you’re bound to die.”

Occasionally the tables are turned and the ill-treated woman kills her lover. The most famous account is known as ‘Frankie and Albert’ or ‘Frankie and Johnny’ as in the case of Jimmie Rodgers’ classic rendition. Based on an incident that occurred in St. Louis in 1899, the song is a no-nonsense account of betrayal and retribution. Confirming that her man is being unfaithful, Frankie charges into a barroom and shoots him several times.

Although technically not a murder ballad, ‘Railroad Bill’ has had an enduring appeal with artists to this day. Real name Morris Slater, the perpetrator was an African American who robbed freight trains in the 1890s and was notable for his dramatic escapes from the law in the style of Robin Hood. Little is known about the featured Will Bennet, whose 1929 version is a classic forerunner to later renditions by amongst others Bob Dylan, Roger McGuinn and Joan Baez.

Bessie Smith’s grimly titled ‘Send Me To The ’Lectric Chair’ can be further categorised as a courtroom ballad. In the song, Smith confesses to the murder of a deceitful lover and expresses her willingness to accept her punishment. As she recounts the murder, she stoically states “I wanna take a journey to the devil down below, I done killed my man, I just wanna reap what I sow“. Conversely, fellow blues diva Victoria Spivey takes a different stance altogether when appealing for freedom for killing her unfaithful partner. However, it’s doubtful that such brutal honesty will aid her case as she implores, “Judge I ain’t done nothing but killed a man what belonged to me.”

One of two featured songs about presidential assassinations, the closing ‘White House Blues’ is a lament to the shooting of President William McKinley, 25th president of the United States, who was killed by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist, in 1901. Recorded in 1926 by banjo player Charlie Poole and The North Carolina Ramblers, variations of this were subsequently recorded by many great bluegrass, folk and country performers including Doc Watson, Merle Travis and Bill Monroe.

Clarence Ashley was another pioneering banjo player who treats us to a wonderful version of ‘John Hardy’ or ‘Old John Hardy’ as in this case. Based on the life of a railroad worker living in West Virginia, John Hardy is believed to have got into a drunken dispute during a craps game and subsequently killed a man named Thomas Drews in 1893. Hardy was found guilty of murder in the first degree and duly hanged, with allegedly three thousand people in attendance.