Academics call them murder ballads. Country and folk musicians call them “killin’ songs.” While murder ballads are deeply rooted in Appalachian heritage and traditional American music from the South, these tales of murder, crime, and revenge originated in 17th century Europe. The narratives are often dark, grim, and misogynistic; sometimes the stories are based on real life events, and sometimes the real life events have been mythologized and reinterpreted through oral traditions.
Murder ballads are cautionary tales and revenge fantasies. Most tell the story from the point of view of the murderer, and many of the songs attempt to portray the murderer in a sympathetic light. Johnny Cash famously “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” and anyone familiar with the music of The Man in Black knows he had a penchant for murder ballads. But he isn’t the only musician to enjoy the bloody side of country music. Here are 10 of the most disturbing murder ballads.
10. “Hey Joe”
Hippies, Woodstock, peace, love and flower power- the 1960s ushered in a lot of things, and psychedelic music was at the forefront. A murder ballad seems out of place in all the peace signs and paisley. However, in 1966 The Jimi Hendrix Experience unleashed their debut single, “Hey Joe.” The song tells the story of a man who is on the run to Mexico after shooting his wife. Due to Hendrix’s flashy guitar work, it’s easy to forget that “Hey Joe” is a murder ballad, until he says, in a matter-of-fact way: “I’m going down to shoot my old lady/ You know I caught her messin’ around with another man.”
9. “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”
“There’s seven people dead on a South Dakota farm.” Bob Dylan put a unique spin on the traditional murder ballad when he released the song,“The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” which is on the 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin. Dylan incorporated politics and social commentary into the narrative. The song tells the story of a South Dakota farmer, who, overwhelmed by the desperation of poverty and hardship, kills his wife and children before turning the shotgun on himself.
8. “When It’s Springtime in Alaska (It’s Forty Below)”
This 1959 murder ballad recorded by Johnny Horton reached No. 1 on the country chart and is best described as a cautionary tale. The song is unconventional in that the action is told from the point of view of the victim, not the killer or a third party narrator. Sadly, the main character makes the mistake of dancing with “Big Ed’s” wife: “I was as innocent as I could be/ I didn’t know Lil was Big Ed’s wife to be/ He took out his knife and he gave it a throw.” Horton ends each verse with “it’s forty below,” which sets up the song’s final line: “I’ll be six-feet below.”
7. “The Twa Sisters”
“The Twa Sisters” tells the story of a girl drowned by her sister. The ballad first appeared in 1656 as “The Miller and the King’s Daughter” and there are at least 21 known English variations of the song, including “Minnorie,” “Binnorie,” “The Cruel Sister,” and “Two Sisters.” The setting of the story is often different –sometimes the event takes place at a river and sometimes it’s the sea – but the motive, however, is always the same: the older sister murders the younger sister because of sexual jealously. When the murdered girl’s body surfaces, the bones are used to make a harp or fiddle –depending on the version of the ballad -with her “long yellow hair” for strings. Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, and Tom Waits all recorded a version of song.
6. “Goodbye Earl”
Most murder ballads revolve around cheating women and femicide, but the Dixie Chicks subverted the genre and shocked the country airwaves in 2000 with the release of “Goodbye Earl.” The song tells the classic story of domestic abuse and revenge. Wanda marries Earl, and he starts physically abusing her two weeks after their wedding; Wanda files for divorce, but Earl “walks right through that restraining order and puts her in intensive care.” Wanda and her best friend, Mary Anne, plot revenge and poison his black-eyed peas. The song peaked at No. 13 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart, and the CD incudes an ironic B-Side cover of “Stand By Your Man” by Tammy Wynette.
5. “Tom Dooley”
Tom Dooley, a North Carolina folk song or Appalachian sweetheart ballad, is based on the 1866 murder of a woman named Laura Foster. The song tells the story from Tom Dooley’s point of view and eulogizes the condemned murderer rather than the woman he killed. In real life (or so the story goes), Tom Dooley was really Tom Dula, a confederate veteran. Laura Foster was Tom Dula’s fiancé, but he was in love with another woman –Anne Melton. When he was on the gallows, Dula said he deserved to die but that he didn’t “harm a hair on the woman’s head,” a statement that’s been interpreted to mean that he was guilty of having an affair, but that it was Anne Melton who killed Laura Foster. In 1958, The Kingston Trio recorded what has become the most popular version of “Tom Dooley.”
4. “The Knoxville Girl”
“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 Knoxville Girl” is an Appalachian murder ballad derived from the 19th century Irish ballad “The Wexford Girl.” There are other variations of the ballad too, including the “Waxweed Girl” and “The Wexford Murder,” and all are traced back to an Elizabethian era poem entitled “The Cruel Miller. “The Louvin Brothers recorded the most famous version of “The Knoxville Girl” in 1956.
3. “The Long Black Veil”
Written in 1959 and originally recorded by Lefty Frizell, “The Long Black Veil” is one of the most well known murder ballads. The song is told from the point of view of a man falsely accused of murder. However, he refuses to provide and alibi because on the night of the murder he was having an affair with his best friend’s wife. He would rather face death and take their secret to the grave than admit the truth. Musicians as diverse as Bruce Springsteen, The Grateful Dead, Dave Matthews Band, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds have covered the song. Johnny Cash performed “The Long Black Veil” on the first episode of The Johnny Cash Show in 1969, as a duet with Joni Mitchel –the chorus, sung by Mitchel, describes the woman’s visits to the gravesite wearing a long black veil –and that remains the most haunting version of the ballad.
2. “Delia’s Gone”
“Delia’s Gone” is one of the darkest, meanest, and most explicit murder ballads. The song tells the story of man who ties his lover Delia to a chair and then shoots her in the side; Delia doesn’t die straight away, so the narrator shoots her again and “with the second shot she died.” The song has been covered by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, the Kingston Trio, and, most famously, Johnny Cash. In the song, Delia is described as “low down and trifling, cold and mean,” and one assumes the narrator caught her cheating with another man.
The real story behind the song, however, is completely different and one of only a handful of murder ballads based on real events. Reports suggest that Delia Green, a 14-year old African American murder victim, was the inspiration for ballad Delia’s Gone. On Christmas Eve, 1900, Delia Green was shot by her 15-year old lover, Mose Houston. Green was buried in an unmarked grave in Savannah, and Houston was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He was pardoned after 12 years.
1. “Red Headed Stranger”
Released in 1975, “The Red Headed Stranger” is a murder ballad concept album by Willie Nelson. The entire album tells the story of a fugitive on the run from the law after killing his wife and her lover. Nelson uses sparse musical arrangements and poetic lyrics, and he creates what has been called a mythological, Gospel–like narrative by referencing the past and recording older music material such as Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and Wolfe Gilbert’s “Down Yonder.”
Upon the release of the album, Paul Nelson of Rolling Stone said, “Red Headed Stranger” is extraordinarily ambitious, cool, tightly controlled…. Hemingway, who perfected an art of sharp outlines and clipped phrases, used to say that the full power of his composition was accessible only between the lines; and Nelson, on this LP, ties precise, evocative lyrics to not quite remembered, never really forgotten folk melodies to create a similar effect, haunting yet utterly unsentimental.”