Despite being some of the most unsettling songs you’ll ever hear, I like a good murder ballad. The best ones sound like an invocation to the murdered ghost, an invitation to share their grief and exact vengeance. There’s no random killing in murder ballads, it’s always someone the victim loved. The dead is usually a woman, though not always. A woman who gives her heart and her trust to the wrong man is a woman not long for this world in the landscape of the murder ballad.
Johnny Cash’s voice haunted me so in his version of Delia’s Gone, I named a character after poor dead Delia. This song and Pretty Polly by Dock Boggs are both story songs that have mutated over the years, like a game of telephone across time. The lineage of Delia’s Gone can be traced to a true crime in Savannah, Georgia, in 1900, though that true story bears very little resemblance to the tale told by Cash. Pretty Polly is one of the great Appalachian murder ballads. Polly allows her lover to lead her deep into the woods, where they eventually come upon the grave he has dug for her. The song’s genealogy is traced to a similar ballad from England in the 1700s, in which the murdered girl is also pregnant. The Gosport Tragedy allows for revenge by the two ghosts and although there is nothing inherently supernatural about the lyrics of Pretty Polly, the version by Dock Boggs recorded in the 1920s sounds very much to me like his banjo is conjuring up the dead.
Where the Wild Roses Grow by Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue is a modern ballad, though it fits in musically and lyrically with older songs in the tradition. Two things strike me about this song. One is the fact that it’s a duet, so we hear from both the murderer and the murdered. The blending of two such disparate voices as Cave and Minogue is perfect to tell this story. The other thing that strikes me is the murdered girl’s refrain: “They call me The Wild Rose / But my name was Elisa Day / Why they call me it I do not know / For my name was Elisa Day.” Murder is the ultimate act of destruction, killers don’t even see their victims as people. Elisa Day could not comprehend why her lover, and possibly others, did not see her as a person, as a woman with a heart and a soul and life of her own to live. That simple insistence – “my name was Elisa Day” – feels like a quiet demand that she not be denied her identity, her humanity. Surely emotion that strong would mark the land and haunt the place she died.
Furnace Room Lullaby by Neko Case – just put this one on repeat and see how long it takes you to get twitchy. If I had any skill with editing mash-ups I would pair Neko’s voice with Dock’s banjo and probably never sleep again. Such a pairing would bring forth every bloody ghost between the Delta and Appalachia, floating past my vision on their way to whatever vengeance they could find.
So much of music seems like conjure work to me, calling up energy, filling it with intention, then casting it loose to do its work. I don’t pretend to know what work murder ballads do. Calling them Southern gothic memorials to domestic violence feels too flippant. They are musical ghost stories, and I like a good ghost story. Sometimes when I’m up long past midnight and I can’t sleep, a good ghost story is just what I need.
Author’s note: this post originally appeared on my old, now defunct blog. I liked it, so I’m bringing it over here to live with the new music posts.