Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Hillbilly Murder Ballads

Old-time songs aren't all about home, faith and mother. The subject matter of the hillbilly murder ballad is usually a jilted lover who lures their unsuspecting, unfaithful, beloved to a remote location and finishes him or her (usually her) off in cold blood. Pleasant stuff. The strange thing is that these are often very sweet and melodic - lulling the listener into a false sense of security before going WHACK on the back of the head with a lump of wood and being dumped into the local river.

For example - Banks of the Ohio, performed here by Doc Watson and Bill Monroe:

(the hymn "His Hands were Pierced" is often sung to this tune)

Or the blood-curdling Knoxville Girl, performed here by the Wilburn Brothers:

Little Mathie Grove by Ralph Stanley is about a man (Arnold) who finds his wife with another man (Grove) - Arnold challenges Grove to a sword duel, kills him, and then beheads the unfaithful wife. Down in the Willow Garden is another account of a man murdering his fiancée, as is Poor Ellen Smith, who was "shot through the heart lying cold on the ground":

And just when you thought than one or two murders in a song was plenty, The Murder of the Lawson Family takes the genre to a whole new depth - a true story of the 37 year old Charlie Lawson who killed his wife and six children on Christmas Day in 1929 - and a song which entered the US Top 5 the following year. All of these songs and more can be found on this cd boxset.

The genre has been seen as an example of a "culture of honour" in the southern states of the US - a culture which has been identified with (you guessed it) the Scotch-Irish.

It all makes gangsta rap sound kinda tame. Guns don't kill people, hillbillies do.


Footnote: I should also have included Steve Earle's brilliant Carrie Brown, from his album The Mountain. He famously said when the album was released "...The main thing wrong with country music today is there's not enough songs about killing people...". In Carrie Brown, the lyric says "I shot him in Virginia and he died in Tennessee...". Visit Bristol and you'll find out how this geographical feat would be possible!


Colin Maxwell said...

I heard Northern Exposure play "John Hardy" in 2007 at the Ulster American Folk Park. They left out the hanging part of the song because of the high number of suicides around the Craigavon area (from where they came)

These songs are very gory, although very real.

Fair fa' ye!