Rotten Romance: The Roots and Re-examination of Murder Ballads

St. Anne’s park – Dublin, Ireland. By Giuseppe Milo. Via Flickr

Perhaps more than any other sub-genre, murder ballads are a definitive component of traditional Appalachian music. 

Down in the Willow Garden,” “The Banks of the Ohio,” and “Omie Wise” are some of the most popular folk songs from the region, as well as some of the best-known murder ballads. Despite their popularity and catchiness, many of those songs bother modern audiences. The common themes of unwanted pregnancies, male jealousy, and violence against women reflect the social and moral attitudes about these issues in 19th-century Appalachia.  

Those songs originate in the borderlands of Great Britain between Scotland and England. One of the earliest recorded ballads is “Little Musgrave and Lord Barnard,” which became popular in the late 16th century. The song tells the story of a young commoner who sleeps with the wife of Lord Barnard while the knight is away. Lord Barnard is alerted to the tryst by a servant and rushes back to the castle to confront the lovers, killing Little Musgrave in a sword-fight and subsequently murdering his wife. 

Wife-killing is common in many murder ballads. Another song with old-world roots is “Down in the Willow Garden.” Unlike “Little Musgrave,” the song is sung from the murderer’s point of view. He describes how he took Rose Connolly (versions differ as to whether she is a wife or girlfriend) to a secluded willow garden to kill her with poison. In most versions, he also uses a knife or sword to quicken her fate before throwing her into a river. 

The song is thought to originate in Ireland and bears similarities to the W.B. Yeats poem “Down by the Salley Gardens.” Yeats himself claimed that his poem was, “an attempt to reconstruct an old song from three lines imperfectly remembered by an old peasant woman in the village of Ballysodare, Sligo.” 

Despite its Irish roots, the song is not thought to emanate from Celtic culture. There are no known Gaelic murder ballads, and the song was first noted in 1811 in the town of Coleraine, an area settled by Scottish emigrants as part of the Ulster Plantations. Those settlers may have carried the song with them from the borderlands. The first citation of the song in the United States is in Wetzel County, West Virginia in 1895, where it was popular with oilfield workers. 

As migration patterns shifted from across the Irish Sea to across the Atlantic Ocean, the Scots-Irish brought murder ballads to America. Though hardly homogenous, the early settlement of the Appalachian region was largely spearheaded by the Scots-Irish, who spread the musical tradition of ballads as they traveled through Virginia and the Carolinas into the mountains. Before long, that cultural influence mixed with events in the new world. 

While there is no known historical basis to some ballads, “Omie Wise” recounts the murder of Naomi Wise in Randolph County, North Carolina.  John Lewis was an Asheboro clerk arrested for the murder of Wise in 1807, when he escaped and was later recaptured in 1811. He was finally convicted in 1813—but for his escape, not the murder. 

In the song, Lewis impregnates Wise and, to avoid the shame of fathering an illegitimate child, throws her into the river after promising that they would elope. Throwing a lover into the river—and using violence to avoid the consequences of pregnancy—are both common in Appalachian murder ballads. The latter theme is absent from the British tradition, probably due to differences in social attitudes to unwed mothers. Americans, particularly in the southern mountains at that time, were much more conservative in their views on motherhood and sexuality than 17th and 18th century Britons were. 

The song also served as a warning to Appalachian youth to not engage in sexually promiscuous behavior, casting Wise as a fallen woman. 

“The Banks of the Ohio” is another popular ballad that follows the tradition of femicide and death by drowning. While the impetus to murder is different than in “Omie Wise” and “Down In the Willow Garden,” it is no less dark. A man tells of how he took a woman for a walk along the banks of the Ohio River, but when she refused his marriage proposal, he drowned her in the river. In some versions he is captured by the sheriff and proclaims his regret in the final verses. The arrest or, “final comeuppance,” is a common theme in many Appalachian murder ballads (the narrator in “Down in the Murder Garden” tells his story from the gallows). 

Perhaps the most commercially successful murder ballad is “Tom Dooley” which was popularized by The Kingston Trio, rising to No. 1 in the Billboard Hot 100 in 1958. Similar to “Omie Wise,” it is based on the true case of Tom Dula (pronounced Dooley), executed in Wilkes County, North Carolina in 1868 for killing his lover after she revealed that she was pregnant with his child. Unlike the previously discussed songs, however, “Tom Dooley” focuses more on the hanging than the murder. While other songs stray uncomfortably close to glorifying the killing, “Tom Dooley” fixates on the shame of the crime and the hand of justice: 

Hang down your head Tom Dooley,
Hang down your head and cry.
Hang down your head Tom Dooley,
Poor boy you’re bound to die.

While the majority of Appalachian murder ballads are rooted in the British tradition, they inspired similar songs in other American folk music genres. 

Stagger Lee” is a murder ballad that has been passed down in various genres of African American music. It tells of the real-life murder of Stagger Lee, a St. Louis pimp who was shot and killed in a bar fight in 1895. The song is thought to have begun as a field call by Black field workers in the Mississippi Delta, and was first penned down in 1911. Black and white artists alike sang renditions in the including Ma Rainey, Duke Ellington, and Woody Guthrie in the pre-war era, and later Doc Watson, Bob Dylan, and Huey Lewis and the News. 

Murder ballads are an important sub-genre of Appalachian folk music, but they also rest on femicidal themes and misogyny. But some murder ballads flip the script, leaving the men dead or injured. In “Frankie Silver,” the title character murders her husband out of jealousy, while in real life she was thought to be the victim of spousal abuse. She was also the first woman to be hanged in North Carolina. Frances Silver was executed for the murder of her husband in 1833, after a two-day trial during which she was not allowed to testify.  

A few other examples include: 

While some songs perpetuate the stereotype of a femme fatale, an attractive women who seduces men to destroy them, others humanize women by portraying them as strong, instead of passive, characters. In either case, murder ballads that result in a man’s demise highlight gendered violence just as traditional murder ballads. In many songs, the man experiences the consequences of his abusive actions. 

There is a special power in murder ballads sung and written by women. When a woman sings a ballad, the listener is reminded of women’s humanity, such as in “The Body Electric” by Hurray for the Riff Raff:

“Songwriter Alynda Segarra uses the song to address how our culture treats violence with detachment, especially violence against women, and she expertly frames this by pointing to the casual violence of murder ballads: ‘While the whole world sings / Sing it like a song / The whole world sings like there’s nothing going wrong,’” Karen Hogg wrote in She Shreds

“The Body Electric” is a personal attempt to tackle a wider cultural problem. In comparison, Dolly Parton’s “The Bridge” is a first-person account—a pregnant woman tells of how she fell in love with the man who got her pregnant before he left her. The song may not seek to address the wider culture, but it does so indirectly. In the song, the woman returns to the bridge where she fell in love to commit sucide. Although the man does not physically injure her, his abandonment places stigma on her, an unwed mother-to-be. The song is incredibly haunting because it reveals to the listener the woman’s inner-most thoughts before her death. 

Despite their complicated past, Appalachian murder ballads remain an integral part of the cultural canon of the region. The songs can continue to be enjoyed by modern audiences, but it is important to understand the gender and class contexts in which they were written and initially sung. In many cases, such as “Omie Wise,” the woman is of the working-class, while the male lover is from the middle- or upper-class. The discarding of Wise and her pregnancy is just as much about the upholding of John Lewis’ reputation as a virtuous member of the commercial class as it is an instance of frontier misogynistic violence. As Edward Baptist notes, however, the male lessons from these songs were complex and contradictory. His status as a murderer was shameful, yet the upholding of masculine honor was still central to the lyrics.

Perhaps the enduring appeal of these songs is similar to that of Greek tragedy. Murder ballads confront listeners with the dignity and the weakness of humanity, just as the writings of Pindar and Sophocles did for the Greeks 2,500 years ago. “Passion overmastereth sober thought/And this is cause of direst ills to men,” Euripides reminds his audience in Medea

Murder ballads might make some listeners squirm, but they emphasize the darkness that runs through the heart of us all.

The team at expatalachians has put together a Spotify playlist of some of our favorites, let us know what you think of our collection on Twitter or Facebook, we’re @expatalatalachians. 

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Nick Musgrave first became fascinated with West Virginia’s history while growing up in Parkersburg. He continues to read, research and write on the Mountain State’s past from its birthplace in Wheeling. For more neat history and some political snark, follow him on Twitter: @NickMusgraveWV.

Annie Chester is a writer and co-founder of expatalachians. She writes about the environment and culture in Appalachia and abroad.

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