Chew on that curious union of words for a minute. It brings to mind folk songs sung by applesauce-cyanide cults, clad in Nike sneakers. Screenshots of HELTER SKELTER written on the walls in blood. Streamed video of Buffalo Bill in a self-stitched skin suit, playing a mandolin to the well-lotioned occupant of his dark and deep cellar well. But what horrors do this morbid and macabre musical sub-genre actually consist of?
Lyrics laced with brutality, bitter love-triangles, buried bodies and the fresh stench of death. No, it’s not emo, screamo, hardcore, nor any of their associated Hot Topic-sporting, limp-wristed cousins. Quite literally, it’s a traditional ballad with lyrics that narrate a tale of homicide. Murder Ballads have been written, sung, and performed since time immemorial (well, at least since the advent of murder). Many of these songs have been passed down for generations, and were often used as an impromptu form of historical record. “Gunther killed Maria? Better write a song before we forget this shit…”
To give you an idea of how diverse this sub-genre is, here’s a list of 5 Murder Ballads to hum whenever your significant other gets testy.
Guy moves to a new town. Local girl catches his eye. Guy asks girl out, but to his heart-crushing avail, she’s just not that into him. So what does this go-getter go out and do? Why, he follows her to a remote area and stabs the life out of her new boyfriend, of course! She testifies against him and puts him behind bars, but (like any other perfectly sane, knife-wielding stalker) he still finds it in himself to love her. Unconditionally. Forever. The wording of the song kind of lends itself to sympathy for the creep, which completely boggles my mind.
Grayson and Tom Dooley seem to have themselves a love triangle, with a beautiful young woman to blame. Resourceful ol’ Tom Dooley finds himself a fantastic (albeit messy) solution to the whole ordeal. Not much to say here, as the lyrics really jump right into to it: Tom Dooley’s set to hang for slaying his two-timing true love.
This one’s been sung by many an artist, but Cash doles it out best. What i have here is an unaltered studio version; the other releases seriously toned down the eerie descriptiveness of the verses. Cash’s haunting lyrics get a touch graphic towards the end of this piece (golden curls?!), but the chorus is what’s truly unnerving. As the events in the song unfold, the chorus’ meaning mutates horribly. What begins as a charmingly crooned expression of love, is revealed to be a declaration of all that is psychotic, stark, and possessive.
Pretty Polly loves herself a seafaring man, and she is pregnant with his child. She is promised marriage, but alas, she receives only a cold and earthen grave. Sadly enough, this sounds like an average night on the evening news…
The crown jewel of all murder ballads; Stagger Lee, or ‘Stag’ Lee Shelton, is the baddest motherfucker to grace this list.
Stagger Lee shoots Billy Lyons in the gut with a colt .44. What for, you ask? Unrequited Love? Jealousy? Revenge?
Hell naw. Stag Lee plugs Billy for removing a Stetson hat from off the top of his head. As Billy lays doubled over and dying, Ol’ Stag takes back his Stetson, coolly swaggers out of the bar, and disappears into the night. Best part of all? True godamn story.
This may be one of the most lauded and applauded villains of all time, and he’s crept his way into literature, graphic novels, music, and poetry. From Mississippi John Hurt to Samuel L Jackson, a thousand artists have taken a swing at tackling this blues classic, and it’s no wonder. Stagger Lee is the archetype of the stoic, cold-hearted, and lawless black man you should never fuck with. Put simply, he is the early-20th-century white man’s worst godamn nightmare.
In 1958, Lloyd Price’s pop cover of this timeless song was censored for being too violent, and the lyrics were modified to end with a dainty reconciliation between Billy and Stag. Despite this, Price’s real-deal original recording managed to climb it’s way up the charts, and is credited with being Billboard’s very first uncensored #1 hit. It’s always fun to root for the bad guy, but it ain’t ever been this easy…
GO STAGGER LEE.
RIP @NPR @PBS
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