Sunday, September 4, 2011

Musical Interlude~Murder Ballads

Nothing says holiday like delving into the dark side, and I'm in a mood for the darkest tonight. The first music I ever felt was my own was the folk music I heard at the No Exit Cafe and Gallery in Evanston Illinois (now relocated to Rogers Park, I believe) when I was a mere stripling--if girls can be striplings--and some days, despite everyone in my immediate family making fun of me, I have to hear it again. Tonight, it's murder ballads, and there's a rich heritage of them to pick from. The ones I've chosen were collected and written down from oral tradition by Francis James Child in the late nineteenth century.They're bloody and often melodramatic, and full of the death that is the wages of sin. I guess before Casey Anthony and O.J., we were still fascinated with these things.

I'll start with Ian and Sylvia Tyson, a Canadian folk duo (Tyson wrote Four Strong Winds, which Neil Young later covered) with about as gruesome a tune as the mind can imagine--Greenwood Sidie-O, or The Cruel Mother. This is an old Child ballad dating back to 1638 of Scots origin:

There are a lot of versions of this one out there, House Carpenter, or The Daemon Lover, also one of the many traditional folk songs collected by Child, this one English, but widespread in American folk tradition as well, especially Appalachia. It's true there's no actual murder in it, but the woman dies for her sins anyway, so it amounts to the same thing. The Joan Baez version is the modern classic, and Natalie Merchant does a decent version, but I have a weakness for Buffy Sainte-Marie's take because of her eerie vocals:

In case you'd prefer the more tradional version, here's Joan Baez doing the same tune a bit differently with a few additional verses about rich attire, cloven hooves and hell and stuff:

No compendium of murder ballads would be complete without Matty Groves, yet another Child ballad of adultery and death. This one dates back to the 17th century, sung here by the immortal and long gone Sandy Dennis with Fairport Convention(vocals are over at 4:46--the rest is a crazy psychedelic folk jam):

I suppose we ought to have an American entry, with an indisputably American theme, and what could be more so than Duncan and Brady, based on  the shooting of police officer James Brady in 1880 at the Charles Starkes Saloon in St Louis, Mo, breaking up a bar fight. I'm using a contemporary bluegrass version  by the great Johnson Mountain Boys, but it's been recorded by everybody from Leadbelly to Tom Rush to James Taylor. It fits the Labor Day motif, with it's sardonic chorus: "been on the job too long...":

Phew--feels good to get that out of my system! Back to poetry soon.


  1. so you have a desire for songs dark and dealing with murder...why does that give me pause hedge...errr....smiles. the buffy version is def interesting with the shaky voice and clipped style delivery...

  2. ah, thanks for the memories. it's been a long while unheard these.

  3. nice to get to know you a bit better hedge...i'm more into jazz and pop but i love murder novels...big agatha christie fan..but i read them only if my fav. characters doesn't get murdered..smiles

  4. I think it's the history in these that pulls me, Claudia, and the timeless quality of both the subjects and the verse that presents them so dramatically.

    I also love Agatha Christie. More for her ability to paint that 1920's-50's world and a set of characters, though I also like her convoluted and somewhat silly puzzles. And yes, only the bounders, harlots and scalliwags get murdered in her tales, usually.


"We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." ~William Butler Yeats

Comment Moderation Has Been Enabled