; Tangled Up In Blue: killing them softly

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

killing them softly

The term ballad, according to Wikipedia, refers to a song that tells a story. I know the term conjures up some woo-pitching ditties from the likes of Billy Ocean and an unashamedly mulleted Michael Bolton who spent the better part of the eighties trying to win over the fairer sex with constipated facial expressions and the simplest of drum machines, but those are not necessarily ballads.

Murder means to kill someone. It was what you wanted to do to Billy Ocean and Michael Bolton, but no one ever did (though I haven’t seen either in quite some time).

A murder ballad, as you may have already guessed, is a song that tells a story about murder. I will spare you my notes from a folklore class that I took back in college, but the genre has been with us as long as lyrics have been set to music. Long before the narrator killed his “Knoxville Girl” the “Wexford Girl” was being murdered against the same chords and melody line back in Ireland.

I love a good murder ballad, and there is nothing wrong with that. Johnny Cash may not have shot a man in Reno, and Marty Robbins may not have been quicker on the draw than some handsome young stranger in the west Texas town of El Paso, but they each did their part to feed our dark side, I suppose.

Which brings me to another top five. It might not be something you’ve ever really thought about, but there are a number of great murder ballads out there in popular music. Here are my top five.

1. “Sinkhole” by the Drive By Truckers
2. “Jack Straw” by the Grateful Dead
3. “Excitable Boy” by Warren Zevon
4. “Caleb Meyer” by Gillian Welch
5. “King’s Highway” by the Joe Henry


Blogger dolphin said...

I can only think of two off the top of my head.

The Thunder Rolls - Garth Brooks
A Lighthouse's Tale - Nickelcreek (this is more so an "accidental death followed by a sucide ballad" than a murder ballad)

6:07 PM  
Anonymous smantix said...

No Jimi Hendrix "Hey Joe"?
John Lee Hooker's "Bad Like Jesse James". He's got a few boys who do his dirty work for him.

6:30 PM  
Blogger John H said...

Violent Femmes - Country Death Song
Nothing like throwing your daughter down the well

7:12 PM  
Blogger HUCK said...

Don't quote me, but I remember hearing this on 'Thistle and Shamrock' a few years back:

Supposedly, there is quite a tradition of apalachian murder ballads, borrowed from the Scotch/Irish "Foxy" folk tunes. These songs were about some legendary character, possibly a rural serial killer, that murdered young women. The character was later mythologized into the Foxy character, and even later evolved into our American murder ballads.

One of the folk songs that later followed in this tradition, but has no mention of Foxy is probably my favorite in this sub-genre, "Dreadful Wind and Rain".

So, here is the list of my picks:
1. 'Dreadful Wind and Rain', Jerry Garcia & David Grisman
2. 'Excitable Boy'
3. 'Country Death Song', The Violent Femmes.
4. 'Sinkhole' is probably next.

and 5... Would 'Me and my Uncle', by the Grateful Dead count as a murder ballad?

...Damn it John! You beat me to the punch. I was previewing this and read your comment.

You win.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Rex L. Camino said...

My favorite "serial killer" murder ballad would probably have to be the much covered "Mack the Knife". It was written by Kurt Weil, but my favorite version is still the one by Bobby Darin.

7:25 PM  
Blogger HUCK said...


7:26 PM  
Blogger Glen Dean said...

Jack Straw is a great one. How about Friend of the Devil?

Also, bluegrass music is full of them story song.

7:50 PM  
Blogger HUCK said...

Although not a ballad, here are the lyrics from the song, 'Didn't Leave Nobody But The Baby', sung by Welch, Harris, and Kraus from the soundtrack of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?":

go to sleep little babe
go to sleep little babe

your momma's gone away and your daddy's gonna stay
didn't leave nobody but the baby

go to sleep little babe
go to sleep little babe

everybody's gone in the cotton and the corn
didn't leave nobody but the baby

you're a sweet little babe
you're a sweet little babe

honey in the rock and the sugar don't stop
gonna bring a bottle to the baby

don't you weep pretty babe
don't you weep pretty babe

she's long gone with her red shoes on
gonna need another loving babe

go to sleep little babe
go to sleep little babe

you and me and the devil makes three
don't need no other lovin' babe

go to sleep little babe
go to sleep little babe

come lay bones on the alabaster stones
and be my everlovin baby

I've always had my suspicions about these lyrics. Creepy...

8:12 PM  
Blogger P. K. Nail said...

I quite like Dylan's "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll."

8:19 PM  
Blogger HUCK said...


Jerry had quite a fondness for these type of songs.

Another murder ballad that he and Grisman sang on the Shady Grove lp was 'Fair Ellender'. Actually it would be one of the few murder/suicide ballads that I can think of.

8:41 PM  
Blogger Raizor's Edge said...

Ah, you gotta love country music for their death ballads. My favorites:

"Knoxville Girl" - the Louvin Brothers (the Wilburn Brothers had a shorter version of the song out at the same time as the Louvins', leaving out the part about "dear son, what have you done to bloody your clothes so"). Kyle Cantrell used to say after playing this song on WSM, "If he loved her so, why did he kill her?" I guess he did it to give us this great song. LOL

"The Cold Hard Facts of Life" - Porter Wagoner. This song has so many great lines in it ("I drove around the block till I was dizzy...and then I saw our bottle there beside me and I drank a fifth of courage and walked in...I guess I'll go to hell or I'll rot here in this cell, but who taught who the cold hard facts of life?").

"The Box It Came In" - Wanda Jackson. This might be a "murder" song, but a "threat" of murder song. Jilted wife promises revenge: "and the box he comes home in will be all satin-lined." First time my brother heard this song, his only comment was, "Hmm, she sounds pissed."

"Folsom Prison Blues" - Johnny Cash. He shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.

"Partners" - Jim Reeves. Two guys go gold hunting, get trapped by the snow, and run out of food. What's a guy to do but kill the other?

Rock songs:

"Charlie's Medicine" - Warren Zevon. Not the bouncy upbeat number that "Excitable Boy" is. In many ways, the opposite: the murderer here is a "respectable doctor from Beverly Hills".

"Psycho Killer" - Talking Heads. I appreciate the irony of a murderer who says "I hate people when they're not polite."

"Ticking" - Elton John. Graphic, explicit, minutely detailed, one of Elton's best.

6:38 AM  
Blogger Kat Coble said...

Nick Cave did an EXCELLENT album full of Murder Ballads about 10 years ago. It may be hard to find...the album is called "Murder Ballads" ;-p

Stagger Lee is a great one, but my all time favourite would have to be The Long Black Veil as performed by Mick Jagger with the Cheiftains off the album of the same name.

8:11 AM  
Blogger Stella said...

You all are forgetting one of the most essential murder ballads of all times:

Used to Love Her ~ Guns N Roses

In between my hasteful packing, the other that comes to mind quickly is Go Out The Window ~ Violent Femmes

9:14 AM  
Blogger Rex L. Camino said...

I was wondering when someone would mentioned "Used to Love Her".

There is also the Beatles' "Maxwell's Silver Hammer".

4:00 PM  
Blogger D. Wooderson said...

Would the Toadies' "Possum Kingdom" qualify? I mean, if he doesn't kill the chick in that song, he's headed down that road, man.

9:57 PM  
Blogger Rachel said...

I was thinking of that Nick Cave album, too. I think I have it at home somewhere, but it appears to be available via Amazon.

11:02 AM  
Anonymous David S. Lewis, Country Music Legend said...

You cats are all forgetting about Pretty Polly...there are various versions of it; I prefer Dock Boggs but Ralph Stanley's version is excellent as well. YouTube it. And there's always Delia's Gone, and the Ballad of Sam Hall, which is both a murder ballad and a condemned man's defiant last words. John R. Cash on both of those...

3:56 PM  
Blogger rawkchick said...

If you're interested in Murder Ballads, you might want to read the book: "The Rose & the Briar" by Greil Marcus...

7:06 PM  
Anonymous Shaun said...

One of my favorite ballads is Johnny Cash's "Long Black Veil"

And how about "Jeremy" by Pearl Jam?

7:33 AM  

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