PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Music

Killing Him Didn’t Make Her Love Go Away

Image from Neko Case's Furnace Room Lullaby

Violence in music begets violence in music: female artists reclaim the murder ballad.

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.