The real story of murderous ballads in American music


When I first mentioned writing a podcast about killer ballads for people — spoiler: it actually happened, it’s called Songs in the Key of Death, and it’s out now — I would invariably get one of three answers. The most common: What is a murderous ballad? Then there was, oh, so like, “Bye Earl?” (Which, yeah, but this song is about invented murder, and the ones on my podcast are about actual events that inspired songs, as well as many, many older ones.) Or, well, oh, like Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads album? This line, in particular, was frequently associated with a mention of “Stagger Lee”. (Also, yes, but get ready to pop your bubble on this song.) Which took me by surprise, both when people asked these questions and when I researched my podcast, this is how much the influence of black culture is ignored despite its formative role in the genre.

Good then, what is a murderous ballad? They are, of course, a sub-genre of ballads, which are poems and songs, which go back much further in history than we will travel here – you can get your 17th century European kicks on another one. part of the Internet. And while they may relate to the death of anyone, historically the variation of the format that has become the most popular in our culture is that of murdered girl ballads (think songs like “Délia is gone“by Johnny Cash,”Omie wiseAs recently performed by Okkervil River, or Eminem’s “Kim.”)

These works frequently moralized and idealized the behavior of women. They are all about a woman or girl killed for a transgression and come in broad themes such as ballads of drowned girls, ballads of unfaithful wives, a woman who got pregnant out of wedlock, usually any behavior. not tolerated by the patriarchy or the church, which were, of course, the same. The goal was to make everyone understand that stepping outside of your expected gender role or the rules of society would be severely punished, often death. People repeated these stories to keep this message alive and to keep women powerless. But dead women weren’t the only people on whom murderous ballads were written, and America isn’t the only culture favoring them.

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The genre first became popular in the oral tradition in Britain, Ireland, Scotland and Scandinavia in the 16th and 17th centuries. (“Henry Lee,” one of the saddest and most beloved songs on Cave’s album, sung in a duet with PJ Harvey, is an interpretation of a song that originated in early 19th century Scotland. When these predominantly white and European people immigrated to America, they landed in the Appalachian region, planting roots in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Carolinas, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. This tradition came with them and these stories, passed down from generation to generation, have been meticulously collected by European historians, the most important of them being Francis Child, whose collection of ballads is the backbone of popular tradition. in Europe and America. But it was not because Europeans were the most prolific documentary filmmakers that they invented this practice. The notion of singing to convey a story or preserve a memory is a practice widely known among African, Indigenous, Asian and Hispanic cultures around the world.


The English and Scottish Folk Ballads, Vol. 1 of 5: Children’s ballads (Forgotten books)

Which brings us back to “Stagger Lee,” which just happens to be the focus of the final episode of Season 1 of Songs in the Key of Death. Cave’s take on the well-worn legend is distinguished by its explicit and violent lyrics, distorting a bar fight that has turned deadly in the extreme and trading the insults of toxic masculinity. But when you hear Cave singing “Stagger Lee”, who do you imagine Stag is in your mind? If you have watched Peaky Blinders and listened to the cut, as well as Cave’s “Red Right Hand” which serves as the theme song for the TV series, you can imagine it’s a turn of the century, a sooty white gangster, much like Thomas Shelby and his group of brothers. Yet you would be wrong.

Lee Shelton aka “Stack Lee” was a real guy who killed another real guy, Billy Lyons, after a brawl at a bar in St. Louis’ Bloody Third District in 1895 on Christmas night. They were both black. It is believed that the person who originally wrote the song was a black troubadour, one of the many prolific songwriters who were the heart and soul of the ragtime musical movement exploding in the city, a scene from which white songwriters have generously and brazenly stolen to create pop. and big band music.

The version of the song that Cave sings is taken from a book of toast among civil rights leaders in the 1960s, written expressly to be played in exclusively black spaces and to make Stack Lee a black folk hero. When white people co-opt the song, the inherent darkness in it is removed. It becomes colorless and removed from the context in which it exists, in part to better attract white audiences. This is nothing new; the song has gone from black to white audiences for generations, as the Clash, the Grateful Dead, Jerry Lee Lewis and even Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger each adapted it into counterculture scenes to be consumed primarily by an audience politically left-wing white. .

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That the legend divides in music between black and white audiences and creators is not surprising considering how the recording industry segmented at the turn of the 20th century. Before record players, people would go out to listen to music. They would go to interracial bars and clubs that sometimes acted as brothels, all-white clubs, or juke joints for black audiences – and many people would listen to music on jukeboxes at lunchboxes, diners, bars. , anywhere. Sheet music was where artists made their money. But education for the black population was, at the time, still scarce, so there weren’t a ton of black lawyers and managers, or even sections of highly literate black members of the population, to explain. to artists of color that they should copyright the large format ballads they were selling to avoid having them stolen by white musicians.

Turntables became a thing in the late 1870s, and in 1895 when Stack killed Billy, they went into mass production. To get people to buy them, companies like RCA and Victor quickly realized they had to squeeze vinyl so people could play. (Welcome to the origin story of record companies.) Under a social rule of separation but equality, music intended for white audiences was performed by white people, sold in white record stores, and classified. in white genres like pop, hillbilly / country and the big band. In contrast, black music was segregated and categorized into racing registers like jazz, bebop, and ragtime. Songs written across the color lines could be adapted and repackaged for all audiences, but in stores and later on the radio the genres remained separate at once because it was the law of at least part. from the United States and that advertisers could then reach their preferred audience.

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We lost a lot when capitalism imposed segregation to the point of making it a popular tradition. Namely, the truth. Deadly ballads are part of the traditions of Appalachian, mountain and country music. But they also exist in the traditions of blues, spirituals and slave songs. It is wrong that no one mentions TLC’s “Waterfalls” or any of the prolifically violent works of the gangsta rap era when deadly ballads appear. Instead of, Ice-T still faces derision for writing a song from the perspective of someone who is fed up with police abuse but Johnny Cash is a hero for singing the lyrics, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. ” (“Cop Killer,” an excellent protest song, is still not available to stream because it is considered too inflammatory.) Along the legends of crimes. Until this becomes widely accepted, our view of the genre is incomplete.

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