Folk songs are about love, peace, understanding, and dragging your lover under a bridge in a fit of jealous rage and bashing her head in with a pipe while she shrieks hysterically for mercy. These quaint old songs have stayed with us down through the ages, connecting our present to a sunlit past of misogyny and brutal violence. Let us, then, celebrate these traditions by remembering some of our civilization’s most heartfelt murder ballads, and contemplating the universal truths they have elucidated.
Dock Boggs “Pretty Polly,” 1927
One of the most popular murder ballads, there are approximately infinite versions of this song in which some evil bastard leads Polly off the beaten track and kills her for no reason in particular (Because she’s got rings on her fingers? Because she’s pretty? Who knows?) The Byrds’ psych-tinged version is one of my favorites…but for this list I had to go with Dock Boggs’ brutally stark rendition, in which Boggs’ clawhammer banjo style and keening vocals scrape against each other like a knife across bone. There’s something particularly chilling in the way Boggs’ inflectionless voice reads the nonchalant lines, “Pretty Polly, Pretty Polly, you’re guessing about right/ I dug on your grave two-thirds of last night.” That’s a hell of a way to have your sweetheart tell you he going to kill you.
Mississippi John Hurt, “Frankie,” 1928
Here’s one of the few murder ballads where the woman gets to do the killing. John Hurt’s shimmering guitar-work is indecently jaunty, and he seems to be having the time of his life as he declares of the soon-to-be-victim, “he’s her man and he done her wrong.” There’s obviously supposed to be something more than a little amusing in the gender swap — though by the end of the song, the repeated catch phrase and Hurt’s almost uncannily lyrical playing combine to add an eerie touch to the narrative. Jimmie Rodgers has a great version of this song also under the title “Frankie and Johnny” — and Johnny Cash did a straight-up comic version, in which, alas, nobody dies.
The Louvin Brothers, “Knoxville Girl,” 1956
Charlie and Ira Louvin’s version of a 19th century broadsheet ballad, this is perhaps the most explicit country death song I’ve heard which isn’t sung by Nick Cave (though I believe, inevitably, he’s done a version as well.) In their perfect trademark detached lonesome harmony duet, the Louvins emotionlessly describe each brutal detail; picking the stick up, knocking her down, her frantic pleas which only causes the murderer to “beat her more.” And then, after beating her bloody, the narrator says, “I took her by her golden curls/ And I drug her ‘round and ‘round/ Throwing her into the river/ That flows through Knoxville town.” The end of the tune gets extra points for the narrator’s utter lack of remorse; he expresses bitterness at having to spend his life in jail, but none at the fact that he murdered “the girl I loved so well.”
Marty Robbins, “They’re Hanging Me Tonight,” 1959
Dock Boggs sounds like he gargles turpentine and Ira Louvin is scarily detached, but you don’t need to drip menace to sing a murder ballad. Exhibit A in this regard is Marty Robbins, whose precise diction, earnestly smooth delivery, and Spanish-tinged guitar all make him sound about as dangerous as a newly-washed Pat Boone. But did the incongruity stop Robbins? Hell, no. On his most successful album, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, he turns his inoffensive warble loose on a slowly unfolding tale of jealousy, revenge, and death. “I think about the thing I’ve done/ I know it wasn’t right/ They’ll bury Flo tomorrow, but they’re hanging me tonight.” Nice guys can be scumbags, too.
Hank Snow, “Miller’s Cave,” 1960
Snow’s fruity nasal twang is if anything even less scary than Robbins’ delivery. But this Jack Clement-penned number is a goof anyway, a chipper little ditty with barber-shop harmonies about a cave that’s home to cute bats and bears and spontaneous moments of unconscionable violence. “They laughed at me and then I shot ‘em.” And then the backing vocalists say, “ooooooo!” And the last we hear of the murderer he’s drenched in over-the-top echo because, you know, he’s hiding in a cave. Ah, for those halcyon days when spousal abuse was a punchline….
Johnny Paycheck, “(Pardon Me) I’ve Got Someone to Kill,” 1966
A lugubriously paced tale in which the narrator informs his drinking buddy that he’s heading out to shoot his ex, the guy she’s shacked up with, and himself. Paycheck sings it like a grand weeper; it’s all about his own tragic heartbreak, and its up to the listener to add what he or she will of humor or horror. In the humor department, I enjoy imagining the interlocutor’s expression when the drunk and insane narrator declares, “This gun will buy back the pride they took from me,” apparently pulling the thing out and waving it around.
Porter Wagoner, “The Cold Hard Facts of Life,” 1967
A husband comes back into town early from a trip, accidentally runs into his wife’s lover in a bar, follows said lover to his house and then inside, pulls out a knife, and…well, you know the rest. Wagoner’s tale is distinguished by the fact that his character not only feels no remorse, but is actually pleased with himself all the way to the end. “Who taught who the cold hard facts of life?” is the song’s final vindictive line, sung from the cell — and repeated cheerily by the chorus, of course.
Tanya Tucker, “Blood Red and Going Down,” 1973
This is perhaps the most uncomfortable murder ballad in existence. It’s not just that it’s narrated from the perspective of a ten-year-old; it’s not just that Dad tells his daughter her mother’s a no-good two-timer; it’s not just that Dad has her wait outside while he kills Mom and her dude, and then she manages to catch a glimpse of the dead bodies “soaking up the sawdust on the floor.” No, what really twists the sharp implement (if that’s the metaphor I want) is that Tucker was fourteen when this was released, and the song was obviously trading on her youth for extra-added exploitation value. Either despite or because of that, though, the singer’s performance is top notch - simultaneously vulnerable and tough - with a bizarre quaver punctuating the end of each line. Along with the bombastic strings-and-all production, the whole thing is a masterpiece of unhealthy pop gothic.
Willie Nelson, “Red Headed Stranger”, 1975
Nelson’s great concept album, The Red Headed Stranger, includes a standard issue murder ballad (“Medley: Blue Rock Montana/Red-Headed Stranger”) in which our hero kills his unfaithful girl and her lover. In this song, though, he murders for other motives which are, if anything, (at least from the song’s perspective) even more justifiable. As the lyrics say, “You can’t hang a man for killing a woman who’s trying to steal your horse.”
If this isn’t enough mayhem for you, never fear; there’s no shortage of material in this vein. Among my favorites are Doc Watson’s “Omie Wise” from his 1964 debut album; Johnny Cash’s “Delia’s Gone” from his 1994 American Recordings; The Blue Sky Boys’ “Banks of the Ohio” from 1936; and Jean Shepard’s “The Color Song (I Lost My Love)” from 1960 where the girl gets to kill the guy. Nick Cave’s 1996 Murder Ballads, an album length tribute to/desecration of the form is also highly recommended. And, of course, there’s always “Hey Joe.”