Murder ballads are a long-standing tradition which weaves together storytelling and songwriting in order to retell tales of murder and mayhem. Though the genre originated in Britain and Ireland during the turn of the 17-century, this form of storytelling can still be found today, primarily in country and folk music. While many old stories have long been lost within the sands of time, some have managed to survive, largely due to this age-old tradition. Today I’d like to take the time to pay homage to some of these songs and present to you, dear reader, my top ten favorite murder ballads.

Woody Guthrie – 1913 Massacre

This song was written to forever memorialize Calumet, Michigan’s December 24, 1913 Italian Hall disaster. Over 500 union strikers were celebrating a Christmas party with their families in the upstairs of the Italian Hall. For some children the present they received at the party would be the only one they would receive that year. During the party someone screamed out “fire!” Everyone rushed towards the narrow staircase. Many people were trampled to death in the escape attempt, including 59 children. Some believe anti-union business owners were behind the hoax, but to this day no one is for certain what happened that night.

Bobby Darin – Mack the Knife

Darin was not the original writer of this song. The song originally came from an opera whose main character is based on the English thief and career criminal Jack Sheppard. Though Sheppard, himself, never actually killed anyone, as the character in Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera had, he rose to fame primarily due to his numerous escape attempts. He was finally put to death in 1724.

Johnny Cash – Long Black Veil

Originally written by Danny Dill and Marijon Wilkin, this song is a mashup of several different stories. Drawing inspiration from a newspaper report about the unsolved murder of a priest, as well as a veiled woman who is said to leave roses on Rudolph Valentino’s grave, the song tells the story of a man who was having an affair the night his wife was murdered. Rather than come clean about the affair, he decides to take his secret to his grave and is falsely accused, due to his inability to provide an alibi.

Nick Cave – Stagger Lee

Stagger Lee, or Lee Shelton, was a notorious pimp from St. Louis, Missouri during the 19th century. It was Christmas night in 1895, when Shelton and William “Billy” Lyons were drinking and playing cards at a local watering hole. A dispute broke out between the two men when Lyons attempted to take Shelton’s cowboy hat. Shelton shot Lyons and promptly took his hat back.

Leadbelly – Where Did You Sleep Last Night

Where Did you Sleep Last Night, also known as In the Pines and Black Girl, has been a traditional Southern Appalachian folk song passed down through the ages. No one’s really certain who wrote it and some artists who have recorded it have changed the lyrics in order to fit the political climate of the time period. Leadbelly is probably the most well-known artist to have recorded it, aside from the infamous version Nirvana played during their MTV Unplugged performance, and is the version that Kurt Cobain had based his interpretation of the song off of.

Some musical historians believe the song may have been based on a murder (real or fictional) committed by a convict employed at the Georgia coal mines. The victim’s husband discovers what happened and the murderer leaves his body on the train tracks, causing him to be decapitated and making the murder look like some sort of terrible accident.

Jimi Hendrex – Hey Joe

Hey Joe, is a relatively modern murder ballad penned in the 1960s. While there is dispute over who originally authored the rock song, the first group to record the song was a Los Angeles garage rock band known as The Leaves. The song is about a man who shoots his unfaithful wife and flees to Mexico in order to evade the law. Since the song’s origins are disputed it is unclear if the song is based on a true story or if it had been a fictional account.

Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska

Charles Starkweather was an infamous spree-killer who, along with his girlfriend, killed 11 people in Nebraska and Wyoming throughout a two month period. He has since been a popular character and has served as inspiration for Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers as well as a host of other films.

Foster the People – Pumped Up Kicks

While many purists may not consider this catchy pop tune a traditional murder ballad, it is a testament to the modern world we live in. It’s about a troubled teen who has homicidal thoughts about shooting his peers. Mark Foster wrote the song after reading in the paper about the increase in cases of teen mental illness and may have drawn inspiration from tragedies like the Columbine High School Massacre and other school shooting incidents.

Violent Femmes – Dahmer is Dead

This song is short but sweet. It’s a tongue-in-cheek tribute to Jeffrey Dahmer’s death after he was killed by another inmate in a Wisconsin prison. Dahmer had been convicted of killing and cannibalizing 17 young men and boys between 1978 and 1991. Since the band originated from Wisconsin, Dahmer’s death was all over the local news and the band decided to whip up a quick tribute in honor of Dahmer’s grim hand in Wisconsin’s rich history.

Ween – Cold Blows the Wind

Also known as Unquiet Grave, this song is more of a ghost story than a murder ballad. Based on an old Scottish Folk song, the song is supposed to warn mourners that too much grief disturbs the dead. The song is about a young girl whose lover is slain by another man. She vows to stay next to his grave for a year and a day in order to mourn his untimely passing.