Maybe ten years ago, I was on a road trip with a friend. It was the days before XM and iPods and she and I were alternating our CD choices. At some point, a few hours in, I’d chosen a disc from a Johnny Cash compilation. Organized thematically the disc, the third in the Love/God/Murder set, was a mix of prison songs, anti-death penalty pleas (which I’d thought my friend, a committed Amnesty International supporter, would enjoy) and good ol’ fashioned murder ballads.
Everything seemed to be going fine; Mr. Cash, after all, makes for near-perfect driving music. On the basis of the Tennessee Two’s backing beat alone, “Cocaine Blues” got by without a hitch, but when Cash delivered “Delia’s Gone”, my friend violated the central unspoken rule of collaborative road trip DJing: she reached over to the dashboard and turned the song off.
“I don’t know how you can listen to this misogynist shit.”
How could it be misogynist? It was Johnny Cash! Husband of June Carter Cash! One half of one of the sweetest love stories in the history of music! To even suggest Johnny Cash could be a misogynist was sacrilegious.
Of course, though, she was right.
The song is pretty horrendous and is not actually Cash’s composition, although Cash modernized a couple of the lyrics, putting a submachine gun in the narrator’s hand. Tracing its origin back to the Delia Green murder case in 1900, in which the victim was gunned down for saying something uncouth to a dismissed lover, Cash’s version details the brutal murder of a woman for reasons which remain unclear, and goes on to advocate the same course of action to the listener if he, like the song’s narrator, is having trouble with his woman.
The amazing thing was not my blindness to the song’s misogyny, since I was young and not yet convinced of Orwell’s tenet that all art is propaganda. Nor was it Cash’s decision to record the song. What came to amaze me was the sheer number of brutally misogynist songs embedded in the soil of country music and how blithely they were treated as late as the mid-‘90s. While the mid-‘90s saw cultural critics deriding the hateful attitude towards women espoused in rap and hip-hop lyrics, songs like “Knoxville Girl”, “Cocaine Blues” and “Poor Ellen Smith” remained in the canon of American country and saw a renaissance as the alt-country movement began experimenting with traditional country ideas.
Better minds than mine have dug up the stories behind these songs or theorized on the reasons for their popularity. Notably, check out Graeme Thompson’s I Shot a Man in Reno and fellow PopMatters columnist Juli Thanki’s piece, “Murder, My Sweet”. I’m more interested in examining the response to this vein of the tradition by women in country.
The War of the Sexes in music has historically been a call and response affair, regardless of genre. Hank Williams records “Honky Tonkin’”, Kitty Wells fires back with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”. James Brown tells us this is a man’s world, Aretha cautions that you can’t prove that by her. Perhaps most interesting and most instructive here is the way the role of women in hip-hop developed in tandem with lyrical trends.
In the early days of hip-hop, status of male performers was denoted by skill-based naming honorifics like Grandmaster, a tradition going back to soul musicians like King Curtis as well as Jamaican performers like King Tubby and Prince Buster. Early female rappers took similarly constructed names, like Queen Latifah and MC Lyte, forming personas that stressed their technical prowess.
But as rap lyrics tended more and more to reduce the status of women to sexual objects, a new formulation of the female rapper arose, one which stressed the performer’s sexuality, often promiscuous, along with their musical prowess. Lil Kim and Missy Elliot were the most popular of these rappers who combined assertive sexuality with their beats in a direct response to male rappers who had come to dominate the genre by the mid-‘90s.
Like their male peers in the country revival that started at around this same time, many in the current generation of female alt-country musicians benefited from a deep, archival knowledge of the genre and chose to experiment with its iconography and ideas. Neko Case’s solo debut, The Virginian (which takes its title from one of the first Western novels, a decidedly female-free piece of work by Owen Wister) depicts Case in sepia tone, tagged with a country fair blue ribbon, while Gillian Welch’s album covers seem inspired by the Dust Bowl photography of Walker Evans.
Given that Case was already a Canadian punk scene vet by the time of The Virginian’s release and Welch was a Berkelee School of Music grad hailing from the Hollywood Hills, these image choices are no less contrived than Jeff Tweedy’s decision to don a Nudie suit for recent live appearances. But they suggest an awareness of roles previously available to women in country as much as the Patsy Cline-inspired dresses of DJ, musical archivist and chanteuse Laura Cantrell, whose knowledge of old country and folk music is staggering.
Even as these performers seemed to be embodying the images of honky tonk angels, they were subverting them through their reiteration. In post-colonial studies, this type of mimicry is employed by colonial subjects: it mocks established and acceptable behaviors by reproducing them as copies, highlighting their constructed nature and demonstrating the impossibility of the colonizer ever fully assimilating the colonized.
Case, Welch or Cantrell may present the image of their country predecessors, but they have no intention of resigning themselves to the limited roles women have previously been allowed in country music. While she presents the image of herself tagged with a blue ribbon, Case’s first album also asserts the singer’s new role: Tammy Wynette may have been willing to take second billing behind George Jones and stand by her man, but Neko Case is backed by an anonymous group she tags as “Her Boyfriends”.
While they began their careers by mimicking the imagery of older days, both performers also opted to reiterate some elements of the murder ballad tradition in their live sets, in both cases by dipping a toe into the traditional “Long Black Veil”, which interesting enough is about an innocent man and a victim of indeterminate sex. Both singers take on the male narrator role and deliver the song “straight”.
The song has also been rendered by Sally Timms, Edith Frost and Carolyn Mark in recent years and, along with “Poor Ellen Smith”, has become a popular standard for female country singers in the past few years. Both “Long Black Veil” and “Poor Ellen Smith” share one major characteristic: in both songs’ narratives, the male narrator, here embodied by a female singer, is imprisoned despite being innocent and in both cases, the body is punished while the soul goes free.
By their second albums, both were dealing with bodies of a different type. The cover of Furnace Room Lullaby (along with its follow-up, Blacklisted) finds Case sprawled out on the ground, eyes open and staring off with an empty gaze, recalling at once the bodies of Poor Ellen Smith and the nameless Knoxville Girl. Welch manages to flip the script entirely with her sophomore album’s opener, “Caleb Meyer”, which tells of the bloody murder of the title character in self-defense.
The song doesn’t simply reverse the murder ballad narrative, since here the victim is far more obviously deserving of his punishment than Delia, Ellen or the Knoxville Girl. It does, however, match them in its level of blood and violence. But unlike most of the traditionals, the murderer is not brought to “justice” for her crime (in fact, it’s the victim who ends up in chains) and does not even suffer from the haunting by her victim that is so common among the murderers of older songs (in many cases, this haunting is a hold-over from the Irish and British ballads the songs descended from, which were generally more explicit on the subject of supernatural vengeance).
This shift towards innocence and impunity is characteristic of this new generation of murder ballads. As with Nellie King in Welch’s “Caleb Meyer” and the subject of Amy LaVere’s “Killing Him (Didn’t Make Her Love Go Away)”, the murderous team in the Dixie Chicks’ controversial hit “Goodbye Earl” get away scot-free. Maybe it’s the idea that physical abuse makes homicide more justifiable than the infidelity that is occasionally alluded to in older murder ballads, or maybe it’s just that women in country songs have been lyrically abused for so long that a bit of scale-balancing is necessary, but the female conviction rate in country has dropped considerably in the past 20 years, a trend out of proportion with the real-life tendency towards much heavier sentencing for female murderers, even those who’ve been the victims of domestic abuse, than their male counterparts.
Regardless of the sex of the perpetrator, violence in music only begets violence in music, and while resorting to lyrical mimicry and murder might be positive step towards subverting a tradition in American music that’s piled up lot of female bodies already, I want to leave off with a song that attempts to break the cycle, responding to the tradition of murder ballads with sympathy and sadness.
In her haunting tune “Knoxville Girl (Parting Gift)”, Jennie Stearns lovingly exhumes the body of one of the tradition’s most famous victims from her watery grave and allows her the chance to dance one last time, to the bitter waltz written about her own death. Rather than reverse the murder ballad, Stearns gives it one more listen and finally, a proper burial.