It has been nearly a year since I began avoiding music. To make a long story very short, the catalytic event was a prolonged period of hearing loss. Then I found Vandaveer. And everything changed.
This is a post about the music that finally reached my ears… the music that made me listen, even when I couldn’t hear. This is a post about murder ballads.
Vandaveer, Pretty Polly, from the album Oh, Willie, Please…
Murder ballads are a type of traditional ballad, but where the lyrics narrate the events of a murder, frequently including the lead-up and the aftermath of the event. Some murder ballads recount real murders, some recount mythical murders, and some recount fictional murders. Some tell the story from the point of view of the murderer (maybe seeking a sympathetic view, maybe not). Others tell the tale of the crime from the point of view of the victim. Occasionally some tell the story from a greater distance. Despite all of this though, the majority of murder ballads follow a similar format:
The murder ballad will explain who the victim is, and frequently why the murderer decides to kill them. Then an account of how the victim is lured to the murder site is given and the actual act of murder is recounted. The after events are also frequently included, such as the murderer’s evasion (usually short-lived) or capture. In the end, most of these ballads end with the murderer in jail, on their way to execution, or dead by some other means. Occasionally the ballad tries to impart a lesson, with a plea for people to learn a lesson from this account, and to avoid the evils the murderer is guilty of committing.
There are a few reasons why I connected with these songs, after being sans music for such a long period of time. But the most significant reason is that the stories – and the histories – of the songs drew me in to them. The fact that the ballads have strong a sense of narrative helped me to get lost in them, which had been increasingly hard to do over the past year. And the music. Oh the music! It is rich and it is raw. At its heart this is simple music, but there are so many aspects to each ballad that every time you listen to one you hear something in it you hadn’t before. It is beautiful.
Murder ballads have been around for hundreds of years, although perhaps not instantly recognisable when evaluated against the ones that are still around today. Many originated in north-western Europe during the Middle Ages, making up a substantial portion of traditional ballads from this time. In the early murder ballads, a murder is committed and then the murderer is usually brought to justice at the hands of the victim’s family (even they are also the murderer’s family). It was common for murderous women (murderesses?) to be burned and murderous men (murderers?) to be hanged. Delightful.
Over the years, the details and locations of some murder ballads have changed. For example, The Knoxville Girl (an Appalachian murder ballad) is derived from the 19th century Irish ballad The Wexford Girl itself derived from the earlier English ballad The Oxford Girl. It’s a genre of music that spans history and continents.
Every murder ballad is different, but each is easily recognisable for what it is, and what it is not. They are unique as a genre – and it is a genre that deserves to be celebrated. You will likely have heard many of them before; I had – I just hadn’t known it. I highly recommend you seek this music out and become acquainted with these murder ballads. If Pretty Polly above has captured you, as it did me (and how could it not… in addition to being an incredible murder ballad exceptionally performed, the accompanying video is absolutely stunning), then I recommend you try Poor Edward (a more recent ‘murder’ ballad). It is starkly different in style, but it is hauntingly beautiful.
Listen to this music, learn these stories, and discover their history.
I guarantee it’ll be worth it.