Murderous Melodies: A History of the American Murder Ballad in Folk Music

The Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” is a modern murder ballad (Photo courtesy of Country Fancast).
Haley Huett, A&E Editor

Somewhere along the Ohio River, a man invites his love to take a walk with him. They stroll along the banks, and he finds the perfect spot for a proposal. He opens his heart to his love and sinks down to one knee. “Will you marry me?” he says. She replies, “No.” In the face of such immeasurable heartbreak, what does he do? Murder her, of course.

“The Banks of the Ohio,” is one example of the corpus of folk songs called murder ballads, which detailed crimes, both real and imaginary, that took place across early America. In the song, the singer confesses to stabbing his beloved and dumping her body in the river as revenge for rejecting him, but the range of deeds can vary across the many themes that are found in these traditional ballads. Together, these songs of murder create one foundational form of American tradition and music making. 

Despite being a staple of American folk music, the murder ballad began as a European tradition that was built upon and shaped in the States. English, Irish, and Scottish immigrants brought the murder ballad to America when they immigrated to the Appalachian region in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many classic American murder ballads trace their roots back to European tunes with similar themes, adding unique details, instruments, and motifs. 

Ballads are a form of narrative storytelling, and murder ballads focus on the details of violent crimes. In many cases, these songs served to communicate facts about real cases, such as in “Tom Dooley,” or fictitious ones, such as “Lily of the West.” They tell tales across the spectrum of experience. Men murder their beloved because they cheat, reject them, or become pregnant. In other songs, a murder is committed and the perpetrator is captured and executed. Sometimes they are guilty, such as in “John Hardy,” other times, they are innocent and executed anyway, such as in “Long Black Veil.” 

These ballads are enriched by their variety. Often, these tales are told from different perspectives. Some ballads are ‘sung’ by the murderer, but other times, they give a unique voice to the victims of violent crimes. These victims sing to their murderers or appear as supernatural entities to exact their revenge, like in “The Twa Sisters.” 

In the modern era, we listen to true crime podcasts and watch TV shows about police investigations. In the nineteenth century, as these ballads took shape and adapted to the American landscape, they began to be used as a means of transporting information about true crimes across regions. Before mass communication became readily available, murder ballads were a source of information about the violence that spread through their communities. Later, these songs would become a source of entertainment much like how we today consume true crime media.

Today, this form of storytelling persists through covers of the classics and through new, inventive stories. The Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl,” telling the story of two women who murder an abusive partner, adheres to this tradition of song-writing. Similarly, “The Hanging Tree” from Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games,” is another example. 

The murder ballad is a cornerstone of the American musical canon. They represent a number of experiences and beliefs unique to a specific time and place that continue to be popular today. As more singers continue to reproduce these haunting melodies, they bring modern takes to these old themes. The Chicks, for example, or Dolly Parton, give new voices to women whose victimhood has been repeated throughout these folk songs. There is a long history of women adapting the genre as a means of expressing empowerment and freedom in the face of oppression and violence. 

No matter the theme or topic, murder ballads occupy an essential place in the history of American music. Throughout the genres folk and country, it has been a source of information, inspiration, and entertainment for many singers and their audiences. Whether you’re listening to The Carter Family, Johnny Cash, or The Chicks recount chilling tales of murder, their source is likely the rich history of songwriting founded in the mountains and valleys of the States. 

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