I shot him in Virginia and he died in Tennesee
August 18, 2016 2:33 PM   Subscribe

I want to learn more murder ballads - specifically American ones (though if you really want to recommend something from another tradition I'm not going to complain). I spend a lot of time singing to myself while doing housework or knitting and so would prefer to learn arrangements that can be easily and satisfyingly sung without accompaniment. Thank you!
posted by darchildre to Media & Arts (37 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Veronica Barron - MacGoldfinger
posted by prewar lemonade at 2:54 PM on August 18, 2016

There is a whole book on these that's been on my "to-buy" list for a while - Unprepared To Die: America's Greatest Murder Ballads And The True Crime Stories That Inspired Them
posted by Captain_Science at 2:55 PM on August 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

The Mariner's Revenge by the Decemberists - video here... may fit the bill.
posted by lizbunny at 2:56 PM on August 18, 2016 [4 favorites]

Stagger Lee (Stagolee) (song starts around 2:50)
Frankie & Johnny, of course
Pretty Polly has British roots, but has become an American ballad as well
Miss Otis Regrets
posted by trip and a half at 3:15 PM on August 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Anthology of American Folk Music has quite a few, and the People Take Warning compilation has a whole disc of 'em. My favorite is probably 'Kenny Wagner's Surrender.'
posted by box at 3:25 PM on August 18, 2016

Weila Waile.

The last verse of Garth Brooks' classic "The Thunder Rolls," which IIRC is only on his live album, is murderous.

The Lonely Willow Tree.
posted by Melismata at 3:25 PM on August 18, 2016

Uh, Omiewise. Several versions out there in the traditional spots.
posted by OmieWise at 3:28 PM on August 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Goodbye Earl - Dixie Chicks.
posted by cecic at 3:28 PM on August 18, 2016

MeFi's own Paul Slade (author of the book Captain Science points to) has written about this and there is at least one good post on MetaFilter. I've always been a fan of Shady Grove and similar songs. Steeleye Span does some ones form the UK that I will recommend because I haven't heard versions of these songs in the US. They're not quite Murder Ballads but only because they nearly predate them.

- Long Lankin
- King Henry
- Boys of Bedlam
posted by jessamyn at 3:29 PM on August 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was recently hiking across the moors, and found myself in search of few good murder ballads I could sing from memory. Long Black Veil proved very singable, but I had a much more difficult time with The Mariners Lament. Johnny Cash's Delia was a good one, as well.

For a little bit of murder ballad fun, Josh Ritter's Folk Bloodbath has Stacker Lee, Delia, Barbara Allen's rose, and several other traditional references.

(While on my moor walk, I also discovered that this (quite religious) shape note piece from the Cold Mountain soundtrack was extremely satisfying to sing and already well-embedded in my brain, probably due to the absolutely feral sounding chorus of voices on the original track.)
posted by redsparkler at 3:36 PM on August 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

My favorites:

The Raconteurs - Carolina Drama

Slaid Cleaves - Breakfast in Hell

Lots of local variations: Fergus County Jail or Colfax County Jail
posted by TomFoolery at 3:45 PM on August 18, 2016

"Poor Ellen Smith," at 1920s Appalachian song, here performed by Laura Cantrell on her 2005 album.
posted by Sunburnt at 4:04 PM on August 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

IIRC correctly there are quite a few murder ballads in the Grateful Dead's repertoire. Me and My Uncle; Mexicali Blues; Black Peter...

Editing to add--I had to google this (how could I have forgotten Jack Straw?) and found the Wikipedia page on murder ballads. Lots to choose from!
posted by Sublimity at 4:05 PM on August 18, 2016

This episode of "Criminal" podcast is about the true case behind the murder ballad "Pearl Bryan," which features a modern arrangement of the song.

The podcast episode that followed repeated the form with the ballad "Lawson Family."
posted by Sunburnt at 4:12 PM on August 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Don't know who wrote it, but Johnny Cash performed "I Hung My Head," about a negligent accidental murder, on American Recordings IV.
posted by Sunburnt at 4:20 PM on August 18, 2016

I always love "Rain & Snow." (I'd also recommend hearing Del McCoury sing it, but there doesn't seem to be a great version on YouTube.) And Sarah Jarosz's cover of "Shankill Butchers" by the Decemberists.

And Abigail Washburn's wrote anti-murder ballad called "Shotgun Blues."
posted by little onion at 4:23 PM on August 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nick Cave has a whole album of murder ballads, called, um, Murder Ballads. It's really very good!
posted by merocet at 4:33 PM on August 18, 2016 [4 favorites]

Here's more on Abigail Washburn, she is amazing.
posted by slmorri at 4:33 PM on August 18, 2016

Mississippi John Hurt-Louis Collins
posted by hortense at 4:40 PM on August 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: A minor clarification: while I love links to lists and print sources - seriously, Unprepared to Die looks amazing and has already been added to my ILL list - right now I'm focused on stuff I can add to my own repertoire and so would most appreciate recommendations of particular artists/arrangements/recordings/performances I can seek out, rather than large surveys of the genre. Thanks so much to everyone who has already replied.
posted by darchildre at 4:45 PM on August 18, 2016

Hurricane by Bob Dylan

On my phone so can't link but it's a great ballad. Easy tune. Just needs a lyric sheet (it's long).
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:07 PM on August 18, 2016

About half of Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen.
posted by Etrigan at 5:31 PM on August 18, 2016

My parents used to sing murder ballads as lullabies. My favorite was "Tom Dooley" by The Kingston Trio.
posted by xyzzy at 5:36 PM on August 18, 2016 [4 favorites]

I cannot believe I get to be the one to suggest Caleb Meyer, by Gillian Welch, in which the eponymous Meyer meets a grisly end when he attempts to have his way with Nellie Kane, whose husband has gone to Bowling Green.

I saw her (and David Rawlings, the other member of the band called "Gillian Welch") play in Houston 15 or more years ago, on a cold rainy weeknight, and the show was criminally underattended as a result. They basically just played by request all night, which was fantastic. At a lull, about halfway through the set, a voice from the back of the room requested "how 'about a killin' song!", and off they went.
posted by uberchet at 5:52 PM on August 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

Old 97's - The Other Shoe
posted by Ufez Jones at 5:58 PM on August 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

"Delia's Gone" by Johnny Cash
posted by jbickers at 6:45 PM on August 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Jean Ritchie.
posted by bunderful at 6:54 PM on August 18, 2016

There are several lovely arrangements of "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll" but why not start here
posted by padraigin at 8:18 PM on August 18, 2016

I'll second My Beautiful Bride by the Handsome Family - it really is so dementedly lovely. Actually The Handsome Family has many murder ballads in their repertoire.

You might also try Kristin Hersh's Murder, Misery and then Goodnight recording. Murder ballads done as lullabies. Weird but intriguing.
posted by elendil71 at 8:36 PM on August 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh, and perhaps Jim White's The Wound That Never Heals.
posted by elendil71 at 8:46 PM on August 18, 2016

Technically Waltzing Matilda doesn't meet your qualifications but I would include it if I were making this playlist.
posted by aniola at 9:45 PM on August 18, 2016

My personal favorite song (more or less) in this genre is "I Wish I was a Mole in the Ground," as recorded by Bascom Lamar Lunsford. I've heard other versions (noted on that page) that are more murdery. This version of this song is namechecked and discussed in Griel Marcus' Lipstick Traces, which is essential reading on Anglo-American music in the 20th century, which is where I first read about it. There's also a beautiful rendition on DJ /Rupture's Special Gunpowder.

Might be more relevant: I also love "In the Pines"/"Black Girl"/"Where Did You Sleep Last Night," which has been recorded by dozens of musicians. Perhaps the most notable recordings are Leadbelly and Nirvana, but I think I first heard the version by the Louvin Brothers (who also recorded a version of Knoxville Girl), and it holds a special place in my heart.
posted by lousywiththespirit at 3:47 PM on August 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

The Sun And The Moon, by Cordelia's Dad, which is a version of Child Ballad 13, Edward. Also Son O Son, by Boiled In Lead, for a different take on the same ballad.

Queen Jane, sung by Tim Eriksen.

And here's Tim singing Omie Wise.

Step It Out Mary is more of a double suicide ballad, but still a bedtime favorite at our house.
posted by SobaFett at 4:25 PM on August 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Westfall by okkervil river
posted by secretdawn at 4:58 PM on August 19, 2016

Ooh ooh, The Cobbler is a cappella! Tommy Makem YouTube video *swoon*

The Dubliners again, The Glendalough Saint.

The Irish tradition seems to have a lot of these, hmm.
posted by Melismata at 12:24 PM on August 24, 2016

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