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 MassacreThis 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 KnifeDarin 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 VeilOriginally 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 LeeStagger 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 NightWhere 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.