In the introduction to his history of murder ballads at PlanetSlade.com, British journalist and music enthusiast Paul Slade calls the songs a form of journalism.
“Most … were written very soon after the real-life crimes they describe. Cheerfully vulgar, reveling in gore … these songs were tabloid newspapers set to music, carrying news of all the latest horrible murders to an insatiable public,” he writes.
Seedy news is now publicized by other means, but the murder ballad endures. Friday night, for the sixth year in a row, a group of musicians will perform at the Murder Ballad Ball, a celebration of the form and its tradition.
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“Genuine murder ballads end in remorse after describing in acute, gratuitous detail the story of a cold-blooded murder,” said singer/songwriter Mikal Shapiro, who will perform at this year’s ball.
“Historically, the majority of ballads are told from a male perspective, often with a man killing some woman whose sex life he can’t control and/or a rival that threatens his masculinity. They are meant to be delivered with a lack of affect, just the cold-hearted facts, ma’am.”
Another performer will be Mark Smeltzer, half of the duo Freight Train Rabbit Killer and part of the Rural Grit All-Stars.
“Murder ballads have been part of my setlists for many years,” Smeltzer said. “Audiences love the sordid, violent, gruesome, disturbing aspects of humanity, and the classic murder ballads deliver all those.
“There are many forms: Lovers killing each other; parents killing children and siblings killing each other are just a few. Love gone wrong, pride, greed, insanity: All can be part of the setting — the darker angels of our nature.”
“A genuine murder ballad is best when it incorporates romance, seduction, betrayal and retribution, often resulting in death,” said Terrence Moore, who will perform at the ball with the Silver Maggies.
“My song ‘End of Time’ is about a woman running from her abusive spouse to try and move on. He finds her and crashes through the door.… She finally fights back and puts out his eyes to blind him so that he may never see or find her again.”
Moore’s will be one of many original songs performed at this year’s ball, but the show also will continue part of the tradition of murder balladry: the passing down of songs from one generation to the next.
In the book “The Rose and Briar: Death, Love, Liberty and the American Ballad,” Rennie Sparks of the folk duo the Handsome Family wrote a chapter about the song “Pretty Polly,” a tale of jealousy and murder. She plotted the song’s history in America.
“The first American publication in which I’ve found mention of it is a 1916 collection of Kentucky folk songs,” she wrote, “but ‘Pretty Polly’ by then had been passed around the campfires and front porches of rural America for many years.
“The song was whittled and polished by each singer who touched it. It took on the fear and longing of the American heart.”
Many of the Murder Ballad Ball performers will do the same: Put their specific spins on songs that are hundreds of years old. The duo Betse & Clarke will deliver their take on “Pretty Polly.”
“Like all good folk songs, it bears repeating,” Betse Ellis said. “My favorite version is from Lily May Ledford, a folk hero of mine. I know several versions of the song, including an Ozark version where the tables are turned and Polly gets to throw Willie off a cliff into the sea.”
Smeltzer has renamed a ballad that’s centuries old.
“The oldest one that I do is a variation of ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ published in the book ‘The Folk Songs of North America’ by Alan Lomax,” he said. “He suggests the song originated in the 17th-century Irish ballad tradition.
“The song tells the story of a violent criminal who kills a man for his money so he can give it to his girlfriend, only to have her betray him to the authorities after a night in her bed. I put my own music to the words and dropped the title from the lyrics. I call the song ‘Mushering Around.’ Mushering means to whisper sweet nothings in your lover’s ear. I’ll be doing this song a cappella.”
Shapiro has refashioned a Guy Clark song, “Dublin Blues” into an original song called “Dublin Reds.”
“I turn a remorseful, lovelorn song into a murder ballad,” she said, citing some lyrics: “So forgive me all my anger, forgive me all my faults / There’s no need to forgive me, though, for thinkin’ what I thought / I loved you from the git-go / I even loved you when you fell / Straight past the water, down through the depths of hell.”
Kris Bruders of Cadillac Flambe and Smeltzer’s partner in Freight Train Rabbit Killer, will perform his version of one of the best-known and widely known murder ballads, “Long Black Veil.”
“(The song) is told from the point of view of an executed man falsely accused of murder,” Bruder said. “He refuses to provide an alibi, since on the night of the murder he was having an affair with his best friend’s wife, and would rather die and take their secret to his grave than admit the truth.
“The chorus describes the woman’s mourning visits to his grave site, wearing a long black veil and enduring a wailing wind.”
For Bruders, part of his role in performing these songs is expressing the pathos within.
“Performing music in general to me is an intense emotional experience, especially when the content of the song has such extreme content,” he said.
“I feel like it is my job to deliver to listeners an opportunity to experience what story I am telling. As a musician, the connection to myself and the song is as important as anything. There are times when it is hard to keep myself together on stage because I put myself in the song.”
Smeltzer recalled a feverish moment at the 2011 Murder Ballad Ball. He was performing a song he had written that day and it transformed the room.
“I plugged in the Telecaster and played the bass line, turned around and the crowd had pushed to the front of the stage,” he said.
“I couldn’t really consciously remember the words, I just opened my mouth and my heart. The story I sang that night was part biblical, part confessional. Very real. Very honest. The words flowed out of me like a river of blood. The audience drank deep that night. We all did.”
A good murder ballad allows the performer and listener to identify with the circumstances and emotions that arouse homicidal rage.
“Everybody has a little bit of Cain in them, a little bit of Judas,” Smeltzer said. “At the Murder Ballad Ball we get to explore that from the safety of song, from the comfort of the stage.”
“Murder ballads are not glorifying murder by any means,” Bruders said. “If anything they are a warning: Take heed!”
Slade invoked one of history’s best-known murder ballads, “Stagger Lee,” in explaining the enduring spirit of the tradition.
“The core facts of the story in each song are surprisingly persistent and give us just enough information (about) real individuals whose short lives and brutal deaths have become an indelible part of popular culture,” he wrote. “No one’s going to care how you or I met our ends 100 years from now, but they’ll still be singing Billy Lyons’ tale and recalling his fatal encounter with that bad man Stagger Lee.
“Victims are bludgeoned, stabbed or shot in every verse and killers are often hanged, but the songs themselves never die.”
The sixth annual Murder Ballad Ball begins at 7 p.m Friday at the Dubliner, 170 E. 14th St. in the Power & Light District. Thirteen acts will perform on two stages. Admission is $12 or $10 if you wear ball attire.
7:30-7:50 p.m.: MAW
8:25-8:45 p.m.: The John Brown Boys
9:25-9:45 p.m.: Wink Burcham
10:25-10:45 p.m.: Copper Threading
11:25-11:45 p.m.: Mikal Shapiro
12:25-12:45 a.m.: Ali Harter
7-7:25 p.m.: The Matchsellers
7:50-8:20 p.m.: Freight Train Rabbit Killer
8:50-9:20 p.m.: The Blackbird Revue
9:50-10:20 p.m.: The Silver Maggies
10:50-11:20 p.m.: John Velghe and the Prodigal Sons
11:50 p.m.-12:20 a.m.: Betse & Clarke
12:50-1:20 a.m.: Billy Beale & the Whiskey Blues