Every time there’s a school shooting or some other tragedy, the media is quick to point fingers at punk, metal, and hip-hop for encouraging violent behavior. The one musical form left out of this is country, which, in its centuries-old history, is more violent than all of the above genres combined. The concept of a murder ballad dates at least as far back as the late 19th century with the 1882 publication of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, commonly known as the Child Ballads after Francis Child, the collector of approximately 300 years worth of folksong.
On this side of the pond, “Frankie and Johnny” and “Stagger Lee” are country stalwarts, and “Knoxville Girl” has been getting beaten with sticks and thrown in the river for nearly a century; even Australian rocker Nick Cave was fascinated enough by the concept in 1996 to release an entire roots-influenced album, aptly titled Murder Ballads (and if you haven’t heard Cave’s creepy duet with Kylie Minogue, “Where the Wild Roses Grow”, you really should be doing that right now). Hell, pretty boy megastar Tim McGraw has recently been getting in on the action as well, murdering an abusive stepfather in “Between the River and Me”. What is the appeal of the murder ballad, and why has it captivated listeners worldwide throughout time?
Part of the public’s interest in the murder ballad could certainly be chalked up to the desire for living vicariously through song. Who hasn’t, in a moment of blind rage, wanted to kill his wife/lover/random person who done you wrong? Music allows the listener to revel in these emotions and actions without the inconveniences of actually killing someone, not to mention the inevitable jail sentence. But to attribute such popularity merely to this morbid desire is to do a disservice to the multi-faceted murder song.
Let’s first consider the voyeuristic element involved in being confronted with violent narratives. Take Porter Wagoner’s “The First Mrs. Jones”, which, for you English majors out there, bears stunning similarity to Robert Browning’s “The Last Duchess” in that the narrator chillingly tells the story of his crime to a third party within the narrative, and subsequently, a fourth party: the listener on the other side of the earbuds. In “The First Mrs. Jones”, which was penned by Bill Anderson before Wagoner made it famous, Mr. Jones delivers the tale of murder to the “second Mrs. Jones” in an attempt to keep her in line. Could we perhaps term this with the oxymoronic “auditory voyeurism”, a condition in which pleasure is derived from hearing the story of a murder of an erotic object, in addition to the pleasure resulting from the telling of such a story? Let’s face it: nearly every victim in every murder ballad is a young, pretty, and often promiscuous woman whose death is described in haunting detail. The eroticism and pleasure associated with the sadistic act of murdering such a figure is at the very least implied, if not stated outright in several songs.
The murder ballad’s popularity can also be looked at as thinly veiled misogyny in a patriarchal society and a male-dominated music industry. When the Dixie Chicks released “Goodbye Earl”, a comic song in which two friends team up to kill an abusive husband by poisoning his black-eyed peas, there was an incredible backlash by both radio and television in which several stations actually banned the single. Marty Robbins can shoot Flo for merely being in a café with her new man (from “They’re Hanging Me Tonight”, on the seminal Western album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs), but two gals can’t poison a guy who, to be honest, kinda had it coming? Perhaps this is simply an attempt to subjugate women through establishing the physical domination of males, and the Chicks’ use of humor is an attempt to slyly subvert these societal mores with a lighthearted façade of girl power which masks the true extent of feminine agency: there’s no actual bodily violence committed by Maryann and Wanda, while the poisoning of a meal—the responsibility of women in the domestic sphere—becomes the nonphysical way in which the playing field of gender inequality can begin to be leveled.
There are several other songs in which the gender roles are inverted and women kill men, though most are not nearly as popular as their female-murdering counterparts. Gillian Welch’s “Caleb Meyer” features a would-be rapist getting his throat slashed with a broken moonshine bottle. While women in murder ballads can be killed simply due to their promiscuity—real or alleged—the male characters must, like Earl, first commit violence before their murder is permitted. While there are exceptions (Loretta Lynn’s “Women’s Prison” from 2004’s Van Lear Rose, and most notably, “Frankie and Johnny”, made famous by Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash, and countless other male singers in the 100+ years since the actual event that inspired the song took place), like in horror movies, the girl who has sex is always the one who dies, while the men nearly always get off (pun absolutely intended) scot-free with a shrugged “boys will be boys”.
They might kick me out of the feminist club for this, but I love murder ballads, even the ones in which women get killed—though, to be fair, I am an equal opportunity advocate when it comes to a good killing narrative. And if you don’t count my passive-aggressive elbowing of slow walkers on city sidewalks, I’m a pretty nonviolent person. I enjoy listening to murder ballads because they are a direct link to our past: the Child ballads brought to America by Scots-Irish immigrants, the real-life stories of Frankie, Johnny, Delia, and so many others, as well as the reminder that we still have a long way to go in the struggle against our centuries-old cult of violence. When considering the format of the murder ballad, one thing is undeniable: it has produced some incredible songs that maintain this traditional backbone while allowing room for the innovation that is the heart of the roots music scene and the creative storytelling that is at the heart of folk culture.
While they’re not exactly burning up the radio waves, underground and alt-country artists are rather prolific in the penning of such songs, and their listeners, many of whom grew up listening to the violence of punk, metal, and hip-hop, are eating it up. Robbie Fulks and Neko Case seem to cut a murder song or two on each new album; bluegrass punks the Pine Box Boys are building a career and multiple albums solely around the not-so-lost-art of murder ballads, thanks to songs like “I Kept Her Heart” and “The Undertaker’s Prayer”; and it seems like every new act covers “Knoxville Girl”. As long as there are artists wanting to sing about murder, it seems as though there will be a public eager to listen, no matter their reasons.