This is a compilation of old-timey American murder ballads that I picked up in Edinburgh back in January (only to discover that it is available in Tower here in Dublin). You know murder ballads? They are this sub-category of American folk song, where the song is about homicide, with the singer either singing in the persona of a murderer or describing some other occasion of lethal violence. I first became aware of these things when Nick Cave released his 1996 album Murder Ballads, a collection of new songs nestled in among reworked old-timey tunes. I think that set was considered controversial by some people, though the precise grounds for this are not clear to me. Maybe they thought that Nick Cave's middle-class and increasingly middle-aged audience would start committing murders everywhere after listening to their master's voice. Some people may also have thought there was a misogynist strain to the whole murder ballad concept, and, who knows, they may be right on that one.
This compilation does not have the modern production and complicated arrangements of the Nick Cave record. Instead it boasts some very old recordings, often just a voice and an accompaniment on guitar or similar. I would not be surprised if many of them are out of copyright. They range from recordings by well-known people (Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Lead Belly) to ones less familiar, to me at least. Some of the songs are quite famous, even if I was hearing them for the first time - 'Where did you sleep last night?', 'Folsom Prison Blues', 'Stackalee', 'Tom Joad'. They also run the gamut from telling stories of fictional killing to describing real-life murder cases, sometimes in rather outlandish terms. The overall effect is to give open a window into a dark corner of the human experience. But the record is not without humour - Woody Guthrie's 'Bad Lee Brown' ends with the wonderful couplet from a jailed killer: "I'll be here for the rest of my life / all I done was kill my wife", surely a classic of "And now I'm the cunt" discourse.
Amazingly, this is my first direct exposure to the music of Woody Guthrie. I love how jauntily he can sail through songs telling a rather fanciful version of the death of Jesse James, or part 1 and part 2 of 'Tom Joad', where John Stenbeck's Grapes of Wrath is cheerily summarised in just under seven minutes. Where further should I go with him, readers? Or is he one of those "All the songs sound the same" artists where the first few you hear are enough? I also think this record may have given my first hearing of anything by Lead Belly, though the tune of 'Where did you sleep last night?' sounds pretty familiar.
So anyway, if you like old-timey music and are not afraid of songs about people killing other people then seek out this readily available record.
image source (to a website from which you can buy this record)