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Horror and Murder Ballads (Part One)

The dazzling variety of experiences to which we are subject as humans can be both intoxicating and bewildering – no less so when one narrows down life into something as “simple” as music. From grindcore to noire jazz, the range of sonic experience that can be defined as “listening to music” is so vast that it is almost useless as a classification (take, for example, the broad and blurry borderlands in which noise music or industrial travel). But there’s more to music than just sound, right? And although sound itself can bridge the worlds of music and horror – think of artists like Fantômas or even Black Sabbath – but what about that all-important component of both life and horror, story?

From the earliest, murkiest origins of humanity, “folks” music of various kinds has offered a broad range of sonic experience, and, likewise, many folk music traditions are very story-conscious. In point of fact, there was no distinction between song, history, and story for a good portion of human history – and “history” itself comes to us in many cases descended along an oral tradition that includes song. There is, as it happens, a particular sub-type of folk song so closely related to horror as a genre that it bears remarking on – namely, the fine art of the murder ballad.

For the uninitiated, Wikipedia has a pretty good and sufficiently broad definition of what we’re talking about:

Murder ballads are a subgenre of the traditional ballad form dealing with a crime or a gruesome death. Their lyrics form a narrative describing the events of a murder, often including the lead-up and/or aftermath. The term refers to the content, and may be applied to traditional ballads, part of oral culture.

“Murder ballads” as understood in Western music have their roots in British and Scottish Lowlands folk traditions. They quickly made their way to the shores of the colonized New World, in particular the hothouse murder environment of Appalachia, where the genre took root and has borne delicious, poisonous fruit ever since. If the soil where blood has been shed in anger or hate crieth out to Heaven (as some have claimed), maybe the centuries-long chorus of murder balladry – not to mention the myriad other astonishing musical feats of Appalachia – is the sound of that cry.

Generally speaking, the tale told by a murder ballad is one of ill-fated love, followed by murder, followed by intense regret and supernatural – often diabolical – torment, followed by damnation, suicide, prison, and/or execution. Cheerful stuff! But incredibly gripping to listen to. Some examples of the species you might familiarize yourself with if you’ve never heard them include “Long Black Veil” (I’ve linked the Mike Ness version, because murder ballads provide a country-punk link that is musically interesting), “Charles Guiteau” (a classic of the genre), and “Frankie and Johnny” (I’ve linked the Sara Tidwell version because there is also a deep connection between murder balladry and jazz). Current iterations of the form are plentiful and diverse – some examples include Colter Wall’s heart-stopping “Kate McCannon” (which – if you only listen to one of these songs, please make it this one), “Satan’s Song” by the Bridge City Sinners, and “Blood on the Bluegrass” by the Legendary Shack Shakers.

Murder ballads are crime stories, sure, but for the most part they are horror stories as well. All of them deal with themes of murder (obviously) and dark human emotion. Many are explicitly supernatural and tell stories of devils, ghosts, hauntings, and fate. Generally, the instrumentation is creepily minor-key and the arrangements as diverse as one could expect from folk music. Just about every musician dips their toe I n the blood-warm waters of murder balladry, given enough time: Nick Cave wrote a whole album of them, Johnny Cash is well known for his, and Jack White is a fan of the art form (as was Kurt Cobain). Murder balladry, like a lot of folk art, provides a surprising link between “mainstream” art and horror – a link to the darker side of human experience that people who only casually peruse horror can still enjoy. And as an art form, there are few well-established artistic tropes or trends I would call darker than murder ballads.

And that brings us to the problem that will be addressed in part two of this post next week: the inherent misogyny of the genre and the way that it almost universally treats women as objects, victims, and props. But don’t worry: no spoilers, but I predict that murder balladry – like much of horror and culture at large – is in the process of a long-overdue shift.

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