Ghost stories and murder ballads

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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. 

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Trouble part three

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It was a moment to savor, so I did. Sipping from a cup of coffee, I looked around and sang to myself in my head.

Elvis pulled up. I’d left him at the diner to walk a short distance. Now he peered at me through the passenger window of his Mojave Gold Camaro, tapping the fingers of one hand impatiently on the steering wheel. “Come on, Nikki. Miles to go and all that.”

“Just a sec.”

He leaned over and unlatched the door. “Let’s go, come on!”

“Dude! I’m standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona! Can I have a moment to enjoy that?”

Elvis made a show of looking around. “I don’t see no girl or a flatbed Ford.” He jerked his hand at me. “Get in the car.”

With a weary sigh, I complied. “You’re no fun, Elvis.”

“Oh, I’m a lotta fun, babe. I’m just ready to get on down the road.”

He put it in gear and did just that. Nearly six hundred miles of interstate made for a hell of a long day. We passed the time noting license plates from different states and scrolling through the dial for decent radio stations, singing along to every song that struck our fancy. I told him about sharing a joint with Snoop Dogg at a festival. He gave me an overview of the various ways to kill vampires. For over two hundred miles, we talked about Robert Johnson and the crossroads myth. By the time we made it to Amarillo, I should have been exhausted but it had been a good day, so when Elvis jokingly mentioned karaoke I took him up on it.

After cleaning up at a motel and grabbing a quick bite to eat, he drove us to a small out of the way Panhandle bar. The place was as redneck as it gets, lit mostly by neon beer signs and choking with smoke. We got as many hard stares from locals suspicious of strangers as we did friendly smiles. The clack of pool balls drew his attention. After watching him play I had no doubt Elvis had been able to make a living hustling pool. Luckily he had plenty of good ol’ boy in him, so nobody tried to drag him out to the parking lot and beat him up to get their money back.

I was on my second whiskey and soda by the time he got tired of pool and we moved deeper into the bar. A skinny kid in a Stetson too big for his head was the current karaoke star, singing a song he surely must have learned from his grandpa, You Never Even Called Me By My Name. Nasal and off key, the kid was a lousy singer but he was having a blast and got a big round of applause when he finished the song and swept off that massive hat in a grand gesture.

Content to sit back and watch, I was inordinately pleased to realize again that Elvis Jones had something in common with his famous namesake: they both loved music. Not just the music they sang, what they were paid to sing, but all music, all genres. Elvis Presley may have been the King of Rock ‘N’ Roll but he could sing anything and make it his own. I had no doubt that Elvis Jones, Vampire Hunter, could do the same.

A woman in her late fifties with impossibly high hair and too-tight clothes took the stage and belted out an impressive cover of Harper Valley PTA. Halfway through, Elvis leaned over, his lips dangerously close to my ear.

“Got any requests?” His breath tickled my skin. “I’ll sing anything you want.” Mouth curved in a teasing grin, he winked.

That was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Hoping I came across as merely amused at his shameless flirtation, I grinned back and gave him the name of a song. Then I quickly took a sip of my drink and pretended to be engrossed by the current performer.

I’d been hit on plenty of times while working for Turntable. Sure, I’m cute as can be, but I don’t kid myself. Rock stars flirt, it’s just part of what they do and who they are. They can’t help it. I’d never taken it seriously. But Elvis Jones did something to me, something that made him far more dangerous than any hypothetical threat from vampires.

The stage was tiny, lit with blue and red spotlights. Elvis ignored the karaoke teleprompter and grasped the microphone like a knight taking up his sword. Nodding at me, he tore into a blistering version of One Night With You.

It didn’t make my toes curl. It made everything curl. Every woman in the bar stared, quickly breaking out into catcalls and hollers. He heard it all, you could see it in the satisfied gleam in his eyes, but he kept his gaze on only one woman in the room – me.

Mouth suddenly dry, I downed the last of my watery drink. A couple of refills would give me all the excuse I needed, but I shook the thought away. This was a story. A story that would probably never be published, but still, I was working here. Had to think of ethics and all that, not the warmth of his hands, the taut muscles of his arms and chest, the network of scars that cried out to be traced by a gentle fingertip, that thick luxurious hair I’d wanted to run my hands through since first meeting him.

Damn, I should have asked him to sing a gospel song.

The song ended, the crowd calling out for more. He said – my hand to God, he actually said this – “Thank you. Thank you very much.” Then he bounded off the stage and blew past me, a hard look on his face.

Something about that look threw cold water on my ridiculous libido. I chased after him. The parking lot appeared empty but the dash light was on in the Camaro as if he’d just had the door open. Sounds of a struggle came from the side of the building. I made my way there, stopping halfway as a young woman ran into me.

Disheveled, one shoe missing, looking over her shoulder through a tangle of blonde hair, she looked terrified. I grabbed her arms to steady her. “What happened?” I had a feeling I knew the answer.

“Some freak tried to bite me!” Without another word she ran. I forgot about her, rounding the corner of the building to find Elvis fighting a vampire.

It was the skinny kid in the massive hat. Well, that was unexpected. So was the chokehold he put on Elvis, rendering him unconscious. Elvis slumped into the gravel. Skinny Vamp eyed me with a feral hunger and a nasty grin.

Oh, shit.

Skinny Vamp didn’t move. I backed up against the wall of the bar, looking around for something to use as a weapon. Elvis lay unconscious on the gravel, no sign of one of his many stakes. I didn’t have much confidence in being able to fight my way out of this and I had no idea what to do. I expected the vampire to rush me any second but for some reason, he kept his distance, not even looking at me. Risking a glance in the direction of his stare, I saw another man climbing out of a luxury sedan that had just pulled into the parking lot.

A vehicle like that stood out against the rest of the pickups, SUVs, and muscle cars in the lot. So did the man, sporting a designer gray suit and expensive haircut. He would have fit right in with the slick record company execs in LA. Also, I was pretty sure he was a vampire.

“Get lost,” he ordered the smaller vamp.

Without another look at me or Elvis, Skinny Vamp said, “Yes sir, Mr. Gatlin.”

Oh great. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

Gatlin gave Elvis a cursory glance before facing me. I said, “So which one are you?”

He took his time answering. “Micah. The middle brother. He killed our youngest brother Darnell in Las Vegas.”

I swallowed. “Yeah.” What else could I say? Offer condolences? Somehow I didn’t think he’d appreciate it.

“And you were there.”

“Yeah,” I repeated, feeling like an idiot. Wishing I had a flame thrower in my back pocket.

“That’s bad for you, Miss McGraw. Just about the worst case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time there could be.”

Did I see a flutter behind Elvis’s eyelids? I wasn’t sure but I knew it had to be better to keep Micah Gatlin talking than trying to fight my way out of this situation and failing. “Why is that? I was just a witness, I had nothing to do with your brother’s death.”

“Oh, we know that.” He gave me an American Psycho smile. God, I hated that movie.

“Then why concern yourself with me?”

“Because it’s what we do. Besides, he killed Darnell to protect you. That makes it your fault. So Lewis and I, we’re going to make sure you die the worst way we can come up with.” He stepped closer, his expensive cologne choking my sinuses. “We’re very creative, Nikki. And we enjoy what we do.”

Based on his tone of voice he could have been talking about gardening or something equally innocuous, but that didn’t cover the strong vibe that suggested he could go all “it puts the lotion on its skin” at any moment.

I thought briefly of all the sexy fictional vampires I’d read or watched and how they compared with the terrifying reality. This fanged psychopath in a suit wanted to kill me for fun. Somebody needed to have a talk with all those romance novelists.

Movement behind Micah caught my eye. “There’s nothing I can say to talk you out of this, is there?”

He took another step closer, exactly what I hoped he’d do. “No, but feel free to scream all you like.”

I resisted the temptation to roll my eyes. After all, he could kill me with one swipe of his hand. He might not want to kill me that quick, but if pushed I doubted that would stop him. I tried to think of a sassy comeback but I was all out of snark.

Instead of witty repartee from me, Micah Gatlin got a stake in the back from Elvis. I jumped to the side to avoid the sudden burst of red flames as the sharpened wood penetrated the vampire’s heart. Elvis stood over the pile of ash, blazing with the dark light of a satisfied thirst for vengeance. Taken aback by the coldness in his eyes, I stumbled and threw my hand up to catch the wall, trying to avoid the scorch mark left by roasted vampire.

I said, “Are you okay?”

Elvis snapped his gaze to meet mine. The cold in his eyes melted to a heat that drew me to him.

One of the first things I learned at Turntable was, don’t make the story about yourself. No matter how you feel about the music, no matter what kind of impact it’s had on your life, no matter how much fun you have partying with the band – it’s not about you. And when it is about you, leave it out. Nobody wants to know about it when you play pool with the quiet bass player because he’s more interesting than the brash lead singer everyone wants to read about. The editors aren’t going to let you turn the magazine into a tabloid just so you can brag about making out with Lenny Kravitz.

Okay, maybe there are those who would enjoy reading about that. I might have prided myself on being Turntable’s most adventurous writer, but there’s a right way to do that and a wrong way. I’d found the right way, and didn’t bring myself into what I wrote.

So when it came time to write about the vampire hunting Elvis impersonator, there would be no mention of how easily I fell into his arms. Of how roughly he pushed me against that scorched wall, trapping me between it and the hard muscles of his chest. How he took my breath away, his lips bruising mine in a kiss that sent shockwaves to every nerve in my body. Of how his hands roamed over my body, his touch rough and full of need.

No, I would be skipping ahead to the part where he dragged me to the Camaro and said, “We need to get out of town right now.”

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