American Murder Ballads
The rich field of American folk culture is laced with dark tales of murder, mayhem and madness. Collectively known as murder ballads, these songs grew out of the ancient ballads of England, Scotland and Ireland; many were reworked to echo the details of true crime stories reported in the popular press, and together they form a chilling testament to the birth of a nation.
Murder ballads are a sub-genre of the traditional ballad form - a narrative song which uses a series of recognisable formulas. Murder ballads recount the details of a true crime, introducing the killer and explaining his or her motives, before relating how the victim is lured to the murder site and the act itself. The ballad frequently ends with the murderer in jail or on their way to the gallows, sometimes warning the listener not to copy their evil ways. Some murder ballads, such as Tom Dooley, tell the story from the perspective of the murderer. Others tell recount the crime from the point of view of the victim, such as Lord Randall, in which the narrator takes ill and discovers that he has been poisoned. Supernatural revenge sometimes features in murder ballads such as The Twa Sisters.
The Hanging of John Hardy
Many traditional ballads originated in England, Scotland and Ireland. These were adapted and altered by American singers to suit the needs of a new, young country. For example, an Irish ballad known as The Wexford Girl was transformed into Knoxville Girl and the setting was transposed from Ireland to Tennessee. Ultimately, both songs are based on The Oxford Girl, the original English murder ballad. Although American murder ballads are usually based on Old World examples, it is common for all supernatural elements to be removed. For example, the English ballad The Gosport Tragedy featured the ghosts of the murdered woman and her unborn baby summoning a storm to prevent his ship sailing before tearing him apart. However, the Kentucky version, Pretty Polly is a stark murder ballad ending with the murder and burial of the victim in a shallow grave.
Some are didactic, some are sadistic, and some are downright demented. So gather round me children and I’ll tell you all a tale . . .
This grim ballad tells the story of Naomi or ‘Omie’ Wise, who was murdered by John Lewis around 1815. In accordance with the broadside ballad tradition, lyrics to the original version of the song were written soon after the murder occurred. The song was first recorded by G. B. Grayson in 1927 in Atlanta, Georgia. This version can be found on Harry smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and opens with the lines:
I’ll tell you all a story about Omie Wise,
How she was deluded by John Lewis’s lies.
The North Carolina musician Clarence Ashley recorded an incredibly bleak and haunting version, and Dock Boggs also committed the song to disc.
Research indicates that the real Omie Wise was an orphan who was taken in by William Adams and his wife Mary in Randolph County, North Carolina. At the Adams' farmhouse, Jonathan Lewis met Omie and the two became lovers. Jonathan was advised by his mother to pursue Hettie Elliott, whose family was ‘in good standing’ socially and financially. Omie went missing in April 1808. William Adams gathered a search party and followed horse tracks to Asheboro, North Carolina, where they found Omie's body in the river. Mrs. Ann Davis, a local resident, confirmed that she had heard a woman screaming the night before. An Asheboro coroner examined the body and found that Omie had been pregnant. Jonathan Lewis arrested but found not guilty. In 1820, he was said to have died of an illness, confessing to the murder of Omie Wise on his deathbed.
Banks of the Ohio
Resembling Omie Wise, Banks of the Ohio is a Victorian ballad in which Willie invites his young lover for a walk along a river bank. The girl rejects Willie’s marriage proposal, and once they are alone, he murders the young woman. Red Patterson's Piedmont Log Rollers recorded the song on 12 August, 1927. It was subsequently recorded by Ernest Stoneman, Clayton McMichen and the Carter Family.
The Carter Family
John Hardy is a folk song based on the life of a railroad worker in West Virginia. John Hardy was ‘a desperate little man’ who killed an opponent during a craps game. He was convicted of first degree murder and was hanged on 19 January 1894. The first known recording of this song was by Eva Davis in 1924. The banjo players Buell Kazee and Dock Boggs released distinctive versions in the 1920s. The legendary Carter Family recorded an atypical version, in which Sara Carter’s strident singing injects a strange sarcasm into the tale. The blues singer Leadbelly recorded a thunderous version on his 12-string guitar, and his friends Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger followed with versions of their own.
Frankie and Johnny
Frankie and Johnny tells the story of a woman named Frankie, who finds that her partner Johnny has been ‘making love to’ another woman and shoots him dead. Frankie is then arrested and in some versions executed. The song was probably inspired by several murders. One of these took place on 15 October 1899 in St. Louis, Missouri when a 22-year-old dancer named Frankie Baker stabbed or shot her 17-year-old lover Allen ‘Al’ Britt, who was having an affair with a woman named Alice Pryor. Britt died of his wounds two days later. On trial, Baker claimed that Britt had attacked her with a knife and that she acted in self-defense; she was acquitted and died in a mental institution in Portland, Oregon in 19 and 52.
One of the most famous murder ballads, Stack O'Lee, also known as Stagger Lee and Stagolee, is a blues song based on the murder of William ‘Billy’ De Lyons by Stagger Lee Shelton. Lee is a ‘bad man’ who shoots Billy De Lyons for trying to steal his five dollar Stetson hat. It is possible that Stack O'Lee predated the 1895 murder and that Lee Shelton got his nickname from these songs. The folklorist John Lomax published the song in 1910. The song was well known in African American communities along the Mississippi by the 1910s.
The renowned country blues singer Mississippi John Hurt recoded a definitive version in 1928. Nevertheless, the song has been reinterpreted by disparate groups and singers ever since. The Clash's 1979 album London Calling includes a cover of the song Wrong 'Em Boyo by the Jamaican rocksteady group The Rulers. In this version, Stagger Lee is the hero and Billy the villain. Samuel L. Jackson performs a crazed version in the film Black Snake Moan, which is remarkable for the tone of exultation.
Pretty Polly is a traditional folk song found in the Appalachian mountains. Originally an English ballad entitled The Gosport Tragedy, the song was transmuted into The Cruel Ship's Carpenter, before being recorded as Pretty Polly. The song tells of a young woman lured into a forest where she is murdered and buried in a shallow grave. In many versions the villain is a ship's carpenter who promises to marry Polly but murders her when she becomes pregnant. When he goes back to sea, he is haunted by her ghost, confesses to her murder and dies insane.
The preeminent version of the song is that recorded by Dock Boggs, whose rendition begins in the first person (‘I courted Pretty Polly and her beauty’s never been found’ and shifts to the third person for the murder. American versions tend to omit the supernatural retribution wrought by Polly's ghost. The ballad is the probable basis for Bob Dylan’s Ballad of Hollis Brown by Bob Dylan and the music critic Greil Marcus argues that Nirvana's song Polly is a descendant of Pretty Polly.
Burt, Olive W. American Murder Ballads and their Stories, Oxford University Press, New York, 1958.
Burt, Olive W "The Minstrelsy of Murder", Western Folklore, 17:4, October 1958, pp.263-272.
Bush, Michael E. "Murder Ballads in Appalachia", (thesis) Marshal University, Huntington, West Virginia, 1977.
O'Brien, Ellen L. "The Most Beautiful Murder: The Transgressive Aesthetics of Murder in Victorian Street Ballads", Victorian Literature and Culture, 28, 2000, pp. 15-37.
Tunnel, Kenneth D. "99 Years is Almost for Life: Punishment for Violent Crime in Bluegrass Music", The Journal of Popular Culture, 26:3, Winter 1992, pp. 165-181.