Small town murder is an enduring plot device in the annals of the Southern Gothic, and it’s easy to understand way. The scenario provides a rich mine for master storytellers to pull from, allowing for the examination of interpersonal relationships in times of stress, differing perspectives of morality in a land where many share the same mindset, the motivations of those affected, and how citizens’ reactions reflect a larger issue in humanity as a whole. Considering these factors, “Murder in the Red Barn” is the type of song that would do William Faulkner proud.
The track is loosely based on—or at least takes its title from—the factual Red Barn Murder that occurred in Suffolk, England in 1827. In that incident, a man named William Corder was to meet with his pregnant lover, Maria Marten, at a red barn, then the pair were to run off together and get married. Instead, Corder killed Marten and hid her body in the building. A year or so later, so the story goes, Marten’s stepmother had a dream of the crime, prompting investigators to look in the barn and find Marten’s concealed corpse. Corder was later tried, convicted, and executed for the slaying.
In the song, however, Tom Waits transplants the incident to America’s Deep South, seemingly in the early or mid 20th Century. In impressionistic style, Waits relates vague details of a slaying in a town with a seedy underbelly on the verge of rolling to the surface. Who was murdered, by whom, and for what reasons are not declared. As the listener, you take on the role of a townie, catching glimpses and rumors of what happened. The suspicion and paranoia that arise when an unidentified killer is in your midst is palpable. There’s a fear that collusion between the murderer and others is occurring, that no one can be trusted and, as a result, the small town you’ve called home could blow like a powder keg.
Like “Jesus Gonna Be Here”, “Murder in the Red Barn” is a song you see as much as you hear. Here we have the reappearance of an aged raconteur spinning a yarn from his shack’s front porch, banjo in his gnarled hands. The rusty hinge of the screen door behind him supplies the rhythm, squeaking as it’s repeatedly opened and closed, the accompanying percussion sounding like stones being dropped into a hollow oil well. An autumnal atmosphere pervades the number, the rustling of leaves and bending of trees firmly planted in your mind. The vacillations of nature are in tune with the dealings of the townsfolk, some casting suspicious glances at everyone they encounter, others exchanging knowing winks. It’s a spooky mood piece that makes you shudder as you listen to it.
One of Waits’ strongest talents is being able to paint a visual with very few words. Take the characters he references in “Murder in the Red Barn” — Reba the Loon, Blind Bob the Raccoon, Slam the Crank from Wheezer, drifters who sleep inside discarded fridges. They pop up with just a name, but their names are so vivid, they give you all you need to have an impression of their appearance, while piquing your imagination to fill in the gaps of their history. Waits also contributes some of his finest and most disturbing lyrics here, dropping several quotable epigrams: “Roadkill has its seasons just like anything / It’s possums in the autumn and it’s farm cats in the spring”; “There’s nothing strange about an axe with bloodstains in the barn / There’s always some killin’ you got to do around the farm”; “For some / Murder is the only door through which they enter life”. Each of those couplets, even taken out of context, tells you precisely what kind of world you’re stepping into when you put on “Murder in the Red Barn”.
The scariest element of the song lies in its subtext of no community being free of horror, that innocence does not exist, and that the efforts undertaken to mask those unpleasant truths can themselves manifest in abominable ways. At some point, a lynch mob organizes and takes off a suspect in chains, only to have the weather turn sour and inundate the town with “months of heavy rain”. Meanwhile, “no one’s asking Cal about that scar upon his face” and, as mentioned above, no one is giving too much weight to the bloody axe in his barn. Then there is the woman drinking alone in her room; what’s her role in this sordid mess? Is she a witness, the killer, or the motivating element for the murderer? And let’s not forget the biggest question — the role of the common townsfolk. Are they complicit in covering up the murder? Do they know the identity of the killer, but are too afraid to punish him? Are they just indifferent? Did they lynch the wrong suspect? The weather’s reaction seems an omen that they erred in their judgment. But did they kill the man knowing he was innocent, perhaps as a show, a means of making the matter seem resolved to any outsiders that might be prying in? These are questions left to the listener to answer, but whatever resolution you go with, none offers much reassurance in small town conduct, and by extension, society overall.
(For further listening, if you’re one who likes to envision narrative songs as occurring in a shared universe, check out “Don’t Go Into That Barn” from Waits’ 2004 release, Real Gone. It’s another portrait of a town in the heart of the American South, wracked with paranoia over an escaped convict and the vengeance he’s coming to wreak for the community’s past sins. With the chorus-chant of the title and imagery skeletal trees, loose hellhounds, and abandoned plantations built on slaves’ bones, it’s not hard to imagine the song being a sidequel to “Murder in the Red Barn”, wherein the same town and incident is being described, just from a different vantage point.)
*“Introduction / Earth Died Screaming”
*“Dirt in the Ground”
*“Such a Scream”
*“All Stripped Down”
*“Who Are You”
*“The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me”
*“Jesus Gonna be Here”
*“A Little Rain”
*“In the Colosseum”
*“Goin’ Out West”