Thursday, April 19, 2012


How Murder Ballads Helped

“Your brother killed my whole family,” said the stranger who broke into my Brooklyn apartment, held a knife to my neck, and attempted to sexually assault me one September evening nearly six years ago. Later that night, the detective working my case would explain to me that rapists often create elaborate, delusional backstories about their victims in order to excuse their, well, raping. But in the first moments of my attack, as I woke to realize that a man had crept into my bed as I slept nude, and that he was now telling me that I would die soon, I fully believed that my polite, kind older brother must indeed be a secret murderer, and that I was now paying for some dastardly act that he must have committed (maybe during his junior year abroad in college? That’s why I didn’t know!). In short, in some panicked corner of my brain, the violent situation I was in seemed justifiable. What was happening to me, for a few minutes, made perfect sense.

Sometimes I wish it had stayed that way. Imposing a truly sensible narrative on my attack proved impossible in its aftermath. Though I managed to fight the guy off and escaped with only a few bruises, the heavyset intruder who climbed through my window from the fire escape, wearing a plastic hairnet and a kitchen worker’s uniform, was never caught. After our 10-minute struggle in my tiny studio, during which he repeatedly demanded I tell him my last name (with original and still-deluded thinking, I lied and said it was Smith, which strangely seemed to confuse and deter him), I was able to wriggle out of his grasp and flee, still naked, up the stairs to my neighbor’s apartment. He went back out the window, my neighbor called the police, and by the time they arrived, he was gone. After collaborating on a police sketch and spending a month making unreturned phone calls to my precinct, I gave up searching for an easy solution to the mystery of my assault. 

I’d always been attracted to dark stories — I was a young mystery editor then, and I spent my days and nights reading and shaping manuscripts filled with rape, torture, and murder. But those stories had resolutions; the brother usually turned out to have killed the intruder’s family; the intruder worked at the bakery below the single woman’s apartment. Even trying to explain the weird ordeal to my loved ones brought a flood of incredulity and questions. I moved into the upstairs neighbor's studio — she was an already close friend who grew dearer as she sheltered me, comforted me, and helped me find a new place to live. She too had been traumatized by my attack, and every night for a month we’d lie down in her single bed and put on a movie to help us sleep. Our choices were twisted and too on the nose, in retrospect – Gaslight and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Picnic at Hanging Rock — but I don’t think either one of us realized this at the time, and we certainly never discussed it. We turned to what we wanted to watch, and that happened, reflexively, to be stories about women in peril, women without autonomy, girls who disappear, dark ladies hurting within and without. On the subway, I found myself obsessively listening to old-time murder ballads like “Pretty Polly,” fascinated by the perverse beauty of lyrics like “He stabbed her through the heart and her heart's blood did flow.” And later that fall, as most days blurred at the corners and I regularly felt like I was drowning in fear and the inability to express that fear, I read Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure.

Burke picked up on something that had dislodged itself in me — he made sense, however romantically, of violence; he showed me the beauty lurking inside terror, the sublimity of survival.

But six years on, the best expression of that sublimity I have found — pushing aside the therapy, the sleepless wee hours I’ve spent fearing new bogeymen, the self-defense classes, the times I have retold and reframed this story — has been in those murder ballads, “Pretty Polly” and her kin. If Joan Didion, that troubadouress of trauma, says that we tell ourselves stories in order to live, here’s how my favorite ones go: a young dude, often named Willie (ladies, get rid of your Willies, seriously, they are murderers; see “Pretty Polly,” “Banks of the Ohio,” “Knoxville Girl,” “Cruel Willie”), asks a fair young maiden to take a walk, just a little walk, which is code for I’m-a knock you up, ask you to marry me, make you allllll mine, and/or just plain kill you without any pretext. The delicious peril inherent in that wheedling invitation gets me every time — it’s the equivalent of the horror-movie viewer’s “Run, you silly wench!” But I don’t really want the maidens to run, or at least, not so far away that they don’t get caught. Listening to these songs, I am a bloodthirsty ghoul, drawn to the darkness, trying to sort out what happens next out there in the woods.

And as the song continues, we’re deep in those woods, at the scene of the crime, where Willie, or Lee, or Johnny, our oddly tender villains, gently push the ladies into the river, or the sea, to drown (“Banks of the Ohio,” “The Wind and Rain”), or into newly — yet therefore lovingly — dug graves (“Pretty Polly”), or maybe they shoot them poignantly through the heart (“Poor Ellen Smith”), or, in my personal favorite, they give their special lady some poison in a glass of wine at the local bar:

These deaths are dear, the violence highly stylized. It’s how we would want to die if our exciting deaths were to be immortalized in song, or on film, or in literature — tragically, yet beautifully, with our hair fanned out perfectly around us, tiny blood flowers at our bosom. The artful murderers usually get caught and hang, or narrate their mournful tales of loss and regret from behind bars. But sometimes, deliciously, the tables are turned (“Two Sisters,” “The Ship’s Carpenter,” “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight”), and the murderer himself gets thrown into the sea, or is haunted by his lady’s ghost for all eternity. The titles of these songs on my playlists even construct a shifting yet somehow perfectly plausible narrative: Delia’s Gone, Little Sadie, to Where the Wild Roses Grow, at the hand of Cruel Willie.

Why do I love them so? I’m not alone. People love a good thriller, whether it’s told by Karin Slaughter or Dock Boggs. The stories we tell ourselves happen often to be about dying, in the most romantic, sometimes pat, often campy and necessarily truncated ways. But these stories tie up their loose ends. There’s a beginning, a climax, and a reckoning. The victim, the villain, and the refrain refresh themselves. The song remains the same, in order for us to live.

Molly Boyle teaches in Iowa City, where she lives in a cottage on the banks of the Iowa River.

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Princess Gigglyfart

YES!! Beautiful. My favorite is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZwXa1owy58o


@Princess Gigglyfart
Love too, BUT: Isn't it (laughably) weird they dedicate it to the town of Knoxville? And they are performing it on a television show in the 1950s (I'm assuming). The Cold War was a strange, surreal place...


So there it is then .. the end of the search ! After all these years of Hawkwind , Soft Machine , Nic Jones and various cul de sacs , its Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb that finally DO IT for me !!@j


Yes, yes, yes, and thank you so much for talking about this. One song in particular that I was sort of fixated on was "Glenn Tipton" by Sun Kil Moon, which is written from a serial killer's pov although one does not realize it right off; he seems like a normal guy up until a certain point.

Larissa Marie Swindle@facebook

i do love a murder ballad. here's another really lovely one for your list <3



@Larissa Marie Swindle@facebook I was JUST going to post that one. Love it! And really creepy, because that song is so catchy.


@Larissa Marie Swindle@facebook

and there's Omie Wise


@atipofthehat My all time fav murder ballad I just ran across a couple months ago...Miller's Cave: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uu9wmk4L2NM

Country Gentleman intro'd me to it but it seems every blugrass and country artist covered it as some point.



@Larissa Marie Swindle@facebook GAH I missed your comment and just posted downthread about "Westfall" - the last lines are soooooo creepy.


I've been thinking about taking a self-defense class. Anyone know of a good one in Brooklyn or Manhattan?


@punkahontas When I was growing up near Denver, there was this group of paramilitary neighborhood watch types (all old born-again biker dudes) called the Guardian Angels who would teach free self-defense classes every night to people who just walked in. Dudes always made me uncomfortable (kind of... well, Zimmerman-y, even though they never carried guns) but being able to attend the classes would've been great. I don't know if they have an NYC branch, when I told friends about them they alleged that the GA had basically run a protection racket in Crown Heights and were super sketch. Don't know if that's true.

I have friend who are looking around for classes in the City, if they find anything then I'll come back to this thread and let you know!



I had friends who went to the Bond St. Dojo, but it was some time ago.


@punkahontas I'm not in NYC, but I just took a women's self-defense class that's offered nationally and I'm sure there are many around NYC. It's the Rape Aggression Defense system, or RAD. http://www.rad-systems.com/

It was taught by a woman police officer, and all of the instructors were women save for one, and he was awesome (he actually helped bring RAD to our area after his girlfriend was abducted, raped and murdered about a decade ago). It was hands down one of the best things I've done in my life - in the top three I'd say. I've always wanted to take a self-defense class but have been skeptical as to whether many of them would involve dudes with creepy attitudes. Not this one, though that could of course vary. It cost $25 for the whole course and once you take it and go through the simulation you can continue to go to any RAD class anywhere for free, to keep up on your skills. I'm not sure if the fee varies from place to place, but the ability to keep going back and stay fresh with it is a universal thing with RAD.


@punkahontas I was reading about Women's Awareness in Chelsea a while ago, it sounded good/affordable/convenient


@punkahontas do you have access to feminist ngos? you should ask around, offline. feminist self-defense classes are the best. no dudes, super comfortable.


@punkahontas the center for anti-violence education in brooklyn has ongoing free or sliding scale self defense classes for women, LGBT folks, youth, survivors of violence, etc. they are great! http://www.caeny.org/

ps: i am an assault survivor myself, diagnosed with ptsd, and vacillate between getting super triggered and super drawn into stories about trauma and violence. i can't handle ones that are part of flippant story lines, but get truly obsessed with the ones that follow the survivor into the aftermath, even, or especially, if it is brutal. the most important thing is that it is in a setting i can control-- ie computer, book. i am totally obsessed with lisbeth salander as my fantasy all-powerful patriarchy-busting supershero (haha she was my avatar picture even before i read this post i swear!), but only because i can watch GWTDT at home on my little mac screen, so i can pause and cry for 20 minutes after the rape scene before shaking it off and then cheering her on afterward. solidarity with @heyits - i could NEVER have seen it on the big screen, and am grateful i got a lot of warnings from friends about the subject matter before i finally decided to engage with the series.

molly boyle, i'm so sorry you were put through this violence, but equally appreciative of and inspired by your creative healing instincts in moving forward. thanks to you and all the other fierce survivor commenters for sharing your stories.


@punkahontas Urban Martial Arts is run by one of the founders of Racialicious and her husband!


@punkahontas I'm a Krav Maga instructor. It is the best self defense system around - practical and effective.
Find a Krav school if you can, I know there's one in Chelsea. Google Krav Maga and see what you can find.

The key in self defense is decisiveness and violence of action. Decide now what you are willing to do to protect yourself, or those you love. Do not hesitate - act.

Some very effective, simple techniques:
- eye gouge : put all your fingers together into a spear and stab
- throat strike : two fingers together , right above the clavicle - in the soft tissue.
- groin kick: hence, my name. Ball kicking is the great equalizer. Ever kicked a soccer ball? Like that. Kick his balls up through his teeth. Violence of action.
- palm strike to nose: take your open hand, hit as hard as you can to the nose. Ever been hit in the nose? It sucks.
- bite: it's gross, yes. But incredibly effective. I've bitten people in training, big guys who outweigh me by almost 100 lbs, and they immediately let go. Biting works.

The idea is to stun, to maime - to reset the OODA loop. Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. Everyone goes through all four stages in response to stimuli. In self defense, your first strike - the immediate violence of action - resets your attackers OODA loop. They have decided you're a victim. You fight back, and they have to reset their mindset - and they go from being the attacker to the attacked.

And THAT is when you get away. Make noise, attract attention. Hit once, twice - and run.


- trust your intuition. If someone seems off, creeps you out, leave. It's ok.
- be aware of your surroundings
- never go anywhere with your attacker. Ever. That's called going to crime scene 2 - and it will never end well.

And most importantly : FIGHT BACK

Ok. That was a lot! :). But I am passionate about this stuff , I've trained for 5 years and taught for almost 4.

Seriously guys. Krav Maga! Go home safe.


@wee_ramekin I checked out their site. They offer a GREAT kickboxing program (I am partial to it since I'm dating the guy who started the company --ilovekickboxing).

But - I wouldn't recommend kickboxing for self defense :)


@crotch_kicker thanks for all the good info! I thought about taking Krav Maga but was put off by the likelihood that other students would have to practice this stuff on me! Ow.


@crotch_kicker yes krav maga! I did a short self defence class a while ago, after something very bad happened to a friend. It was good but the krav maga classes I've started going to over the past few months are so much better and not only do I feel in a much better position to defend myself if needed, it's actually really enjoyable and I almost want to skip home. This is not my normal reaction to things. I can understand why people might not want to join a mixed class, but in general it seems like the girls in my class get more out of training with guys, possibly because they're not so worried about hurting guys, so they go for it a bit more realistically. Also they're often taller or bigger than me so it's useful practice. Possibly not everyone's cup of tea, but I really recommend giving it a go and finding out, even in one class you might learn something useful.


Oh, I love this post so much. I grew up in a rural area and was OBSESSED with these songs when I was young. My favorite has always been Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender: http://www.smokemusic.tv/content/sing-murder# (sung by a woman I actually knew growing up). I've listened to it a million times (and heard it sung live more times than I can count) and I still get a chill at the part where he cuts off the Brown girl's head.

I also love thinking about these songs in the Joan Didion "telling ourselves how to live" context. I think I'm always drawn to things like this because I've always been a very anxious person and it's a way to practice living out my worst fears.


I really, really liked this article, thanks for writing it! Thanks for sharing your story.

After growing up with sexual violence I still can't stand movies that depict it, but I've tended toward really dark, power relationship-focused music and I can't tell if there's a correlation there. I became really obsessed with the band Swans (oh hey look it's my avatar) for a number of reasons but probably first among them is their lyrical fixation on being powerless. It bothers me, but not enough apparently.

Nick Cave of course had a whole album of Murder Ballads (his most commercially successful musical venture, as I recall) but people whose opinions I generally respect tell me that there are better versions of most of those songs out there. I'm not familiar with many of the classic versions.



I'm also a survivor of childhood and adult sexual trauma. I went to see The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo with a friend (the new one) and didn't really know a lot about the plot. I was doing ok until the first graphic rape scene, and I had a panic attack and had to run out of the theatre.

For my part, I've gone to the other end of things, where I don't like to listen to or watch or read anything that is focused around that sort of thing. The only exposure I get to it is through my volunteer time on a rape crisis line. That feels oddly cathartic and empowering to provide information and support.

I'm sorry for the violence you survived, but thanks for sharing what you did. Every time I read something like this article (and the subsequent comments) I feel less alone in my experience.


@Danzig! I was waiting for someone to bring up Nick Cave.


@heyits @Danzig! Samesies. Thank you both for sharing, and massive (boundary-respecting) hugs to you both.

I can't tolerate anything depicting graphic violence, rape, torture, cruelty to children or animals (or anyone/thing, really), abuse of power, etc. I once idly picked up a friend's copy of American Psycho off the coffee table and read a few pages (I thought "everyone's talking about it, it must be really good!"), and nearly checked myself into the hospital following the subsequent week-long panic attack where I was convinced everyone around me was planning to kill me in my sleep with a nail gun and stuff my cat into an ATM. I realize that's not rational, but, gah...such is the power of a trigger. :/

I volunteer at a battered womens' shelter as a means of silent protest against all the horrible shit I grew up with, and all the horrible shit which constantly happens in the world at large. It's mildly triggering from time to time, but @heyits...you're totally right. Helping someone from the perspective of Knowing The Way, and maybe leading them down that Way a little bit is hugely, enormously self-helpful.

The horrible shit just keeps happening, but I guess the best we can do is build the safe harbors for injured ships to sail into when it's time. <3


@heyits I'm glad! That's the worst, is when you feel lonely and different. If you ever feel bad, chime in one of our Friday social threads and you'll get good support.

My original plan for school was to go into anti-DV / social services training, get an MPA in domestic violence program stuff, and work in the field helping people, but I realized that my maleness would be a pretty major stumbling block. The limits of what I can provide are a lot more stringent, and I don't think I would be hired by many DV centers, honestly.

Solidarity with @all y'all though. I think we're all going to be happy, eventually.


I struggled with the original watching it at home, so there was no way I was seeing the new version in the cinema where I would have no way of getting away from it, bar running out of the theatre.
I almost had a panic attack the other day before a comedy-horror (the Cabin in the Woods, which is AMAZING) because one of the adverts was an anti-assault thing about rape. I appreciate what they're trying to do, but it seems pretty unfair to be forced to sit through that. If I was on my own I would have lost it completely I think...


I am an assault survivor who is also fixated on murder ballads. I always connected it with my interest in traditional music and other old things, but now you've set me thinking.
Anyway, here's my favorite version of my favorite one.


Dear Hairpin,

You just keep on knocking it out of the park, okay? This is just terrific. Thanks so much for writing it.

Must go mull now. Mull mull mull...

Speaking of cake, I have cake

Another great murder ballad is The Bonny Bows of London, 16th c. Childe ballad lyrics set to a traditional tune by Martin Carthy. In this case it's a woman who pushes her sister into the river, then the handsome prince makes a fiddle out of her bones (as you do) and when he plays it it sings the story and outs the sister as the murderer. Like in so many of the murder ballads, no motive is provided - the sisters are out for a walk and bam! one kills the other, seemingly out of nowhere.

And then if you want even more extreme ye olde fucked-up-edness, there's always The Maid and the Palmer or Green Grows The Lily-O (same terrible story of rape, incest and murder told in two different songs with disturbingly jaunty/lilting melodies). Spoiler alert: there is NOT a happy ending

miss olsen

@Speaking of cake, I have cake
The wind and the rain mentioned in the post sounds like a spin-off of The Bonny Bows, except it provides a motive (jealous love, what else). I think Gillian Welch sings it on the Songcatcher soundtrack, which is not particularly murder-ballad-focused, but wonderful music in general, and especially if you like traditional/Appalachian music.


@Speaking of cake, I have cake YESSSS THE CHILDE BALLADS.


This made me think about how people seem quick to subscribe to the notion that "being morbid" is bad, simplistic, and something you should snap out of. I love how you tied it to the notion of the sublime, and I think that's so right on.


@leastimportantperson: I totally agree!


Westfall by Okkervil River is a newer time murder ballad and one of my all time favorite songs of all time ever. Also, thank you for this, it was beautiful.


@hallelujah Westfall is great, with creepy modern child murderers. A Glow isn't actually a murder ballad, but it kind of reminds me of one.


@MilesofMountains Yes! And So Come Back, I Am Waiting is a song from an old kidnapper guy to his kidnappee who escaped! And Black is about a (incest? abuse? never was able to entirely parse) survivor who kicks ass and moves on with her life. I love Okkervil River so much.


@hallelujah They just love the creepy stuff, eh? Happy Hearts, too, has some child molestation stuff (I think? What does "held me down and made me feel as bad as he" mean?). For some reason, I find the POV of the abusive boyfriend in Love to a Monster creepier than the POV of the murderers in Westfall.


@hallelujah Yesss to Okkervil River and their impressive discography of murder ballads. "Westfall," "The War Criminal Rises and Speaks," "Kathy Keller," so on and so forth! They did a cover of "The Wind and Rain," too.


I couldn't help thinking of Okkervil River while reading this awesome writing. Will Sheff is a gooood songwriter, and I tend to prefer the oldies as featured above. Black Sheep Boy Appendix exerpt: "get in your battered mustang and the back seat will be your tomb". I have to hunt down all these albums now, it's gonna rule. I reeeeally dig this article.


Brave and brilliant piece.

I learned nearly all those songs from Kristin Hersh's album, "Murder, Misery and then Goodnight". She decided to record the songs her father sang her as a child. Her own kids appear on the record. It's eerie, beautiful, unsettling and also cheery.

I Never Will Marry: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tomQRbLde3A


I directed a scene from "Buried Child" by Sam Shepard when I was in college and spent a semester focused on that disturbing play. I spent a lot of time searching out the best creepy music to use and found an incredible song that was on the "Friends of Old Time" c.d. set, it was about an old man talking from the grave after he had just died. I'm going nuts trying to figure out what it was.

When I look back, pretty much all of my creative projects in college were focused on familial murders and secret sexual violence somehow involving family members. Did not really ever notice that before!

EDIT I just found it, it is "Hick's Farewell" by Doc Watson, and it's actually by a missionary who thought he was about to die and wrote the song and mailed it back to his wife. He did not actually die at that time. It's not really a murder ballad, but the tone is so dark and powerful.



It's not a murder ballad (more an accident-then-grief-stricken-suicide ballad), but I love me some Darcy Farrow.

Rain Jokinen@facebook

Not strictly a murder ballad, but a classic folk song about death that always manages to make me sob... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocszAkZSPrE


This is a wonderful piece of writing, and thank you for sharing your story.

Not sure if this counts, but I love The Pirate of Penance by Joni Mitchell:

Maggie McCube

*Frantically taking notes for murder ballad Spotify playlist*

Anita Ham Sandwich

What about Neko Case's "Deep Red Bells?"

It's been stuck in my head since another hairpin post a couple weeks ago!

Faintly Macabre

@Anita Ham Sandwich I was going to mention that, too! Being younger and from the east coast, I had no idea what that song was about until someone mentioned it on here. I thought it was just a kind of creepy song. Then I read about the murders and now I can't listen to it without getting seriously creeped out.

all the bacon and eggs

If you're into that sort of thing, the Decemberists have several spooky murder and/or old-timey tragedy songs. Mariner's Revenge Song leaps to mind, but there are others.


@all the bacon and eggs "The Rake's Song" is awesome. I mean, for a song about a dude bumping off his children one by one once his wife is no longer alive to protect them.

Messy Jessi

@all the bacon and eggs The Culling of the Fold!!!

all the bacon and eggs

@Messy Jessi These too! Also "The Shankill Butchers." Wow, there are kind of a lot.

Faintly Macabre

This isn't quite about seduction/murder of women, but Folk Bloodbath by Josh Ritter (who's just all-around awesome) is great--he combined a whole bunch of old murder/grieving balads into one epic (but not gory) story of people dying and killing.


@Faintly Macabre I love that song so so so so so much. Excuse me while I go listen to it for the millionth time.

Cara Mia@twitter

Pirate Jenny! The best version is by Nina Simone, but it's originally from Threepenny Opera. Nina's version knocks me off my feet.


I think the Hairpin is reading my mind. Or I've tuned into the Hairpin hive mind?? But I have been planning an 8track mixlist of murder ballads -- mostly because I love love love Jesca Hoop's Tulip, which is a gorgeous example of the murder ballad tradition -- and this is AMAZING.

i kant even

i also love a good murder ballad. one of my all-time favorites would have to be "henry lee" performed by pj harvey and nick cave. do watch the video--it is so awesome. <3 pj! (and nick cave, too)


Betsy Murgatroyd

I have always loved The Handsome Family for a good murder ballad. Up Falling Rock Hill, Arlene and Where The Beech Trees Lean always affect me so. But there are so many others by them if you need an murder ballad fix.


Great article! So sorry that happened to you, sounds terrifying. A murder ballad that I first heard last summer that always gave me the chills is Karen Elson's "The Ghost Who Walks." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D10iE2YVe60&ob=av3e

mc coolfriend

I understand this behavior very well I think, though your interpretation of it in yourself is a little different than mine. I remember being close at hand during violent death of someone very close to me, and I remember that I shared this proclivity in the aftermath. There was a kind of comfort in blocks of Law & Order, and procedural docs about murders, and basically anything that illustrated that sometimes bad, violent things just happened, and they had happened long before they happened to me, and that this kind of horror wasn't special to me or a direct result of me specifically somehow. Sometimes to those close to you it can look like morbidity, or wallowing, or indulging trauma and their immediate reaction is to try and counter and discourage it. I didn't always trust that anyone would be able to understand that it was almost the opposite, and usually stuck to much more simplistic explanations than you've offered here, or just patronized their immediate concerns. It's kind of nice (I don't know, not really b/c it's not nice that something of this scale happened to anyone but you know) to see what I felt understood so well by someone else.


My father was a country singer with some regional popularity in the 50s and 60s, and he wrote and recorded a murder ballad for his sister Rose. She requested that he write it, and I've always wondered why, as I find it a very eerie song. I've been putting the songs of his that I can find on youtube.
"My Darling Rosie"


Country Death Song by the Violent Femmes? Love that one.

Cesare the Somnambulist

Thank you, Ms Boyle. And if you care at all for Burke, you might get a kick out of the Nightmaze.


It's a murder ballad about killing the rival not the girl, but it's hard to beat Dylan's lyric's and Joan Baez's voice...



I don't know if this exactly the stuff you're looking for, but The pAper chAse have all sorts of twisted songs. One of them starts with knife-sharpening as the percussion! Their stuff is pretty dark and most people probably don't like the dude's voice, but I think they're great!


I love this! I love the dichotomy between the beautiful sound (the harmonies of the Louvins or the Everleys for instance) and the darkness of the lyrics. I also find it interesting that there is some gender equality among the early accounts of "psycho killers qu'est-ceque c'esting" about (I so loved that phrase from the other day that I had to re-use it!). But when you think of the lot of an a woman living in poor agrarian rural 17th century Anywhere, what is surprising is that there are not more of them.

While some of it is a little precious, some of you may be interested in the essay collection "The Rose and the Briar" and the companion CD. There is a chapter on regional and historical lyrical variances (think Stagger Lee), and how some of the songs had been "cleaned up" by folk like Burl Ives for popular consumption.

Don't Panic

I actually wrote a paper about murder ballads when I was in law school. My thesis was that they are a form of social control - a way of punishing transgressors that weren't punished by the legal system in a way satisfying to people in the community. I focused on Franky & Johnny, Lizzy Borden and Delia's Gone because there are records of the underlying legal proceedings. My research indicated that many murder ballads were based on real events. I think your experience of finding them soothing after you assault is really fascinating and makes me happy to know that these songs can have a positive effect centuries after they were written.

I second the recommendation of the book The Rose and the Briar - some really good stuff in there.


Softly sings "Lily of the West" under her breath.


Wow, this was lovely. And makes sense in a way that had never occurred to me before. Thanks for writing and getting me thinking.
My fave Murder Ballad is the Nico Muhly/Sam Amidon version of "The Only Tune" (which is also Two Sisters/The Wind and the Rain.) It's totally enveloping, and it's almost 15 minutes long so you feel like you've been on this epic journey of madness. Or maybe that's just me?
Anyway, it's in three parts, part one is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9HjllAe9oI


I remember listening to a newly-bought Judy Collins CD when I was 9. I got to Pretty Polly, made it to the murder, & freaked out (what can I say, I was fairly sheltered from depictions of sexual violence up to that point). Definitely a learning experience for me.

Coincidentally I learned about the Jennifer Hopper case from Choire's post on the Awl back in August. If you haven't already read Eli Singer's pieces in The Stranger on this horrific tragedy, DON'T, you will regret it. I'm still haunted by it and am now compulsive about never sleeping with the windows open.

So when I read Molly's account of her own experience here, I immediately thought, "Oh, it's like the Hopper case but with a happier ending."


Oh man, Okkervil River's "Westfall" is the creepiest murder ballad ever. Especially this:

Now, with all these cameras focused on my face,
you'd think they could see it through my skin.
They're looking for evil, thinking they can trace it,
but evil don’t look like anything.


Tim Eriksen (of Cold Mountain music fame) is great at all dark-tinged folk songs, but I have a special fondness for his murder-ballad where the planned victim gets her revenge: "Castle by the Sea", http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lic6OLh4Zi4

H.R. Vixen

Missus in this murder ballad kinda deserved it;

Miss Strumpet

Slightly more english, murder ballad, Eliza Carthy sexiness:


Murder Ballad Monday takes up a ballad or a theme related to the genre every week!



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Ghost ie

I just started dating a guy who loves murder ballads. It wouldn't bother me other than the fact that he often wants to go on walks or drives late at night to really secluded places and becomes very quiet on those walks and I just get a bad feeling. He is so sweet and thoughtful, but he owns a saber and just seems really preoccupied by those kinds of stories. I don't know his whole history, but I know that when he was younger a girl he loved very much was raped and because of it he lost his future with her and I don't think he's gotten over it. I love him, but I'm a little afraid of him. I just get this feeling. I just need someone to tell me that you can love murder ballads and not want to actually murder someone :) is there a link? Am I over reacting?

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