Mississippi John Hurt plays the blues in Washington Square, New York City, in 1965. Hurt first recorded the murder ballad “Louis Collins,” likely based on a real event, in 1928. (Bernard Gotfryd/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The text of this article originally appeared in the February 2014 edition of American History magazine. The author, Ron Soodalter, provided recordings of four songs mentioned here. To go directly to those recordings of murder ballads, click here.
Three verses and a chorus about murder, sung by identically dressed guitar- and banjo-playing harmonizers, launched a musical juggernaut—the folk revival of the 1960s. But the song wasn’t new. The Kingston Trio’s 1957 recording of “The Ballad of Tom Dooley,” an unadorned, true tale of killing and retribution in the post–Civil War South, reintroduced Americans to the tradition of murder ballads that arrived here with the first settlers from England, Northern Ireland and the Scottish Borderlands.
In the 19th century, songs of violent death based on contemporary homegrown incidents supplanted the ancient European ballads of sword-wielding knights and their errant ladies, and pulled off the hat trick of reporting the news, thrilling the prurient listener with often gory details and providing a moral lesson. Frequently, the song outdid the actual event for blood. As popular singer Tom Waits observes, “These were the oral tabloids of the day….News just happens to be a meal best served hot.”
The richest soil for the cultivation of murder ballads was in the Southern mountains. The cultural insulation of the Scots and Scots-Irish denizens of the hills and hollers, often coupled with an outsize concept of personal honor, preserved an age-old reliance on violence as an acceptable means of resolving problems. Isolated by geography from the world of electricity and internal combustion engines—and often of literacy—this tradition carried well into the 20th century, and with it came the songs that reported the deeds. Noted American folklorist Alan Lomax, who for decades collected and preserved traditional music both here and abroad, devoted an entire chapter of his classic 1960 volume Folk Songs of North America to murder ballads. As he saw it, “Willful and cold-blooded murders…came naturally to people whose ancestors were…moonshiners and feudists. The old [Scottish] Border ballad tradition, which linked love and death, fitted the code of the backwoods.”
The murder ballad took many forms. The most common iterations tell of a young girl led astray by a smooth-talking man. In nearly all cases, he “compromises” her, and—unwilling to take responsibility for either his actions or his unborn child—he brutally slays her. A classic example is “Omie Wise,” the story of a young man, Jonathan Lewis, who seduces Omie, and—when she becomes pregnant—disposes of her.
Lomax included both the song and the true story of Naomi, or “Omie,” Wise in his “Murder Ballads” chapter. The verses of the song, which dates to the mid-19th century, are generally consistent with Lomax’s account of the deed itself. Lewis was a dashing young man from a solid North Carolina family in the early 1800s. Omie Wise was an attractive young servant girl, apprenticed to a Mr. Adams. Although Lewis initially agreed to marry Omie, his mother arranged a more suitable match for her wayward son. Something had to be done about Omie, so
He told her to meet him at Adams’s spring; He promised her money and other fine things.
Omie foolishly agrees to meet him, thinking they are about to elope.
She climbed up behind him, and away they did go, All down to the river, where deep waters flow.
Then, realizing something is amiss, Omie asks Lewis’ intentions, and he replies,
Now Omie, little Omie, I’ll tell you my mind. My mind is to drown you and leave you behind.
Omie begs for the life of her baby, promising to “go home rejected, and never be your wife.” But Lewis is adamant: Her present condition would be an embarrassment to him. He beats her and throws her into the river, “where he knew that she would drown.” Lewis rides away, impervious to her cries. Omie’s body is later discovered and drawn to the bank by two boys while fishing. Lewis is immediately suspected and brought to the scene but denies his guilt.
Although he was arrested, the real Jonathan Lewis escaped to the Ohio River Valley. By the time a posse brought him back for trial, those involved with the case had either died or moved away. In the absence of damning testimony, Lewis was acquitted, and the most that could be said at the ballad’s end was “No friends or relations would go upon his bail.”
This failed to provide sufficient closure for some pious listeners; an “improved” version soon arose, featuring an apocryphal last verse in which Lewis confesses to Omie’s murder out of fear of eternal damnation.
Yet when he was dying, so I have heard tell, He confessed to the murder to save him from Hell.
There are a number of murder ballads in which the killer eludes punishment. One of the best known, “Pretty Polly,” follows the same basic path as “Omie Wise,” with young Willy seducing and then killing his lover. When Polly discovers Willy’s purpose, his admission of intent is chilling, and particularly cruel.
Oh, Polly, Pretty Polly, you guessed just about right. I dug on your grave the better part of last night.
He ignores her pleadings, informing her, “Your past reputation’s been a bother to me.” After stabbing Polly and burying her in the lonely grave, Willy simply rides off, “leaving no one behind but the wild birds to mourn.” He is left to face a more otherworldly form of punishment.
A debt to the Devil now Willy must pay For killing Pretty Polly and trying to get away.
The perpetrator doesn’t get off so easily in the case of the unfortunate “Rose Connolly.” The killer—who is also the song’s narrator—describes in great detail his brutal murder of young Rose. First, he poisons her with a bottle of “burglar’s wine,” then he stabs her and says finally,
I threw her into the river, Which was an awful sight.
He says his father promised “money would set me free,” but alas, it was a false hope.
My race is run beneath the sun, The gallows now waits for me, For I have murdered that dear little girl Whose name was Rose Connolly.
Despite Lomax’s view that the descendants of “moonshiners and feudists” were the natural heirs to the murder ballad tradition, not all murder ballads were products of the rural South. Victorian murder ballads sprang up as far north as New Hampshire and as far west as Texas. In the winter of 1896, Pearl Bryan of Greencastle, Ind., had gotten “in a family way,” and her lover hired two dental students to perform an abortion. Shortly afterward, a headless body was discovered and, after intense investigation, identified as Pearl’s. The students were soon caught. They confessed to accidentally killing Pearl with an overdose of drugs, and decapitating her to prevent identification. A song arose almost immediately, the last lines of which were perfectly crafted as an object lesson.
Now all young girls take warning, for all men are unjust. It may be your truest lover; you know not whom to trust. Pearl Bryan died away from home on a dark and lonely spot. My God, believe me girls, don’t let this be your lot.
The murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser’s classic novel An American Tragedy occurred on Big Moose Lake, in New York State’s Adirondack Mountains, when Chester Gillette unceremoniously dumped a pregnant Grace Brown from his canoe rather than compromise his social position. He was arrested, tried and condemned.
Two mothers are weeping and praying; One praying that justice be done; The other is asking for mercy, Asking God to save her dear son.
God didn’t intervene; Gillette was among the first to be executed in the electric chair, in 1908.
Of all the gruesome tales of love gone awry, the ubiquitous “Ballad of Tom Dooley” is perhaps the most sordid. Had it not been for the Kingston Trio, Tom would likely have remained relatively obscure, his story sung only by the occasional purveyor of traditional ballads. As it now stands, several parodies, five books and a (thoroughly inaccurate) Hollywood movie starring Michael Landon have resulted from the song’s popularity.
Tom Dula, locally pronounced “Dooley,” was born in 1844, in Happy Valley, Wilkes County, N.C. From his mid-teens, he carried on an affair with Ann Melton, a “mesmerizingly beautiful creature,” according to John Foster West, author of two books on the Tom Dula story. Already married at 15, Ann nonetheless made herself available to Tom, as well as to other young swains.
In 1861 Tom enlisted in the Confederate Army. Upon returning home four years later, he resumed his relationship with Ann. Tom also bedded Ann’s cousin, Pauline, and a handsome young woman named Laura Foster. All three women apparently enjoyed relations with other men as well. For those whose concept of Victorian American mores runs to prudishness and sexual abstention, a New York Herald Tribune journalist—sent to Statesville, N.C., in 1867 to cover Tom’s trial—reported otherwise: “A state of immorality unexemplified in the history of any country exists among these people, and such a general system of freeloveism prevails that it is ‘a wise child that knows its father.’ ”
Things might have gone along blissfully for all concerned had Tom not contracted syphilis—or “the pock,” as the locals referred to it—from Pauline. In short order, he passed it on to both Ann and Laura, and they in turn infected several others. Tom was furious. Mistakenly convinced that Laura was the source, he told a neighbor that he intended to “put her through”—kill her. He convinced Laura to elope, and they rode off into the night. Laura was never again seen alive; suspicion immediately fell on Tom.
Hang down your head, Tom Dula, Hang down your head and cry, You killed poor Laura Foster, And now you’re bound to die.
Laura’s shallow grave was found on a remote hillside six weeks later, her body showing a knife wound in the chest.
You took her on the hillside, For to make her your wife, You took her on the hillside, And there you took her life.
Tom escaped to Tennessee, where a posse, including a Colonel James Grayson, overtook him.
This time tomorrow, Reckon where I’ll be. Hadn’t a-been for Grayson, I’d been in Tennessee.
Tom was arrested, condemned and taken to Statesville for execution. Evidence strongly pointed to Ann as an accomplice, but Tom refused to implicate her. He supposedly wrote a one-line confession the night before his execution, exonerating Ann. Few believed him.
Tom died on the Statesville gallows on May 1, 1868, before a crowd of thousands. He gave a long speech, which was followed by an unusual performance, as chilling as it was unexpected. According to an eyewitness, “At the conclusion, an old white-bearded man pointed at Dooley and repeated the song that had been sung many times for the six months prior. I don’t remember the words, except the old man pointed and sang: ‘Oh Tom Dooley, hang down your head and cry. Because you killed poor Laura Foster and now you must die.’ ”
Ann was eventually tried, but acquitted for lack of evidence. Locals claimed her remarkable beauty had swayed the all-male jury. But the mountain folk had their retribution. Years later, as Ann lay dying—according to some who claimed to have stood at her bedside, including the grandmother of famed folksinger Doc Watson—she screamed that she could see black cats crawling up the walls, and the fires of hell at the foot of her bed. If Ann was indeed dying of syphilis, she might well have imagined such horrors.
Although ballads chronicling the violent deaths of men are less common, they are equally dramatic. In “Wild Bill Jones”—which Lomax describes as a “fight between two mountain bravos”—the singer tells of shooting young Jones simply for “walking and talking” with the singer’s “Lula girl.” The last verse reflects the condemned singer’s desperate bravado.
O pass yore jugs an’ yore bottles around, Let’s all get on a spree! Today was the last of Wild Bill Jones, And tomorrow sees the last of me.
Occasionally, the tables are turned and the ill-treated woman kills her lover. The most famous account is known as “Frankie and Albert” or “Frankie and Johnny.” Apparently based on an incident that occurred in either St. Louis or Kansas City, Mo., in the 1890s, the song is a no-nonsense account of betrayal and retribution. Confirming that her man is being unfaithful, Frankie charges into a barroom and shoots him several times with her “big .44.” The mortally wounded paramour dies in agony, but not before acknowledging his transgression.
Roll me over on my left side, Roll me over so slow. Roll me over on my left side, Frankie, Them bullets hurt me so. I was your man, But I was doin’ you wrong.
In some versions, Frankie is imprisoned; in others, she’s set free. Either way, she justifies her actions in one of the more entertaining verses in the murder ballad genre.
Frankie says, Judge, I’m sorry, This thing that has come to pass; I never shot him in the first degree, I shot him in his trifling ass! ’Cause he done me wrong, ’Cause he done me wrong.
American murder ballads are not ethnically exclusive. While not as prevalent as their counterparts of European origin, African-American songs of murder and mayhem lack neither detail nor drama. They are frequently devoid of female involvement, telling of lethal confrontations between bloody-minded men. Mississippi John Hurt, the gifted blues and ballad singer and guitarist who enjoyed popularity in the 1920s and was rediscovered in the early ’60s, sang a version of “Louis Collins” that—while spare in describing the quarrel that’s the subject of the song—is quite specific regarding its result:
Bob shot once and Louis shot two, Shot poor Collins, shot him through and through. Angels laid him away.
Arguably the most popular and adaptable murder ballad to come out of late-19th-century America was the African-American song “Staggerlee” (sometimes “Stago-lee” or “Stackalee”). It has been reinvented as blues, rag, jazz, field holler, rock tune, folk ballad and rap. It surfaces as the theme of a poem by James Baldwin, and is the subject of a recent book, Stagolee Shot Billy. Author Cecil Brown tells the real-life story of “Stack” Lee Shelton, a small-time pimp living and working in the African-American section of St. Louis’ red-light district known as Deep Morgan. His nickname almost certainly derived from a local riverboat christened the Stack Lee. On Christmas Eve 1895, Shelton became embroiled in a political quarrel with an acquaintance, William “Billy” Lyons, who snatched Lee’s Stetson hat from his head. Shelton threatened to shoot Lyons unless he returned the hat forthwith. Lyons refused, and Shelton hit him on the head with his pistol. When that failed to produce results, Shelton carefully aimed and fired. Reportedly, Shelton then walked up to his prone adversary, and retrieving his Stetson, said, “Nigger, I told you to give me my hat!” He turned and calmly walked home. In short order, he was arrested, tried and sentenced to a term in prison.
In the song “Staggerlee,” the argument stems from Billy winning at a game of craps.
Staggerlee says to Billy, I can’t let you go with that. You done won my money, You can’t have my Stetson hat!
And Staggerlee gives Billy a chance to run.
Staggerlee come a-running All up that northern track, Said, I ain’t gonna kill you now, But don’t be here when I get back.
Billy refuses to take the hint, and Staggerlee makes his intentions clear.
I got a brand new razor, Got a big old .41. If you stay, I’m gonna cut you down, Gonna shoot you if you run.
The real-life Staggerlee went to jail, but the song sends him to the gallows.
Staggerlee goes to meet his maker, only to be rebuffed by St. Peter (“We don’t allow no gamblers here!”). On entering hell, he orders the devil, “Get up on your shelf,” insisting, “I’m gonna run this place myself!”
It is impossible to determine what gives a ballad like “Staggerlee” such longevity, while other equally dramatic songs are doomed to obscurity. The year before Staggerlee shot Billy, a New Orleans bartender, “Bull” Martin, shot and killed an “octoroon” prostitute. The resultant song, “Ella Speed,” has all the elements of a classic murder ballad—the shooting (with a .41, the same caliber used by Staggerlee), arrest, trial and moral lesson. Its pedigree is flawless. It has been sung by Texas bluesman Mance Lipscomb, as well as by incomparable blues master and self-professed “king of all the 12-string guitar players” Huddie Ledbetter—better known as Leadbelly. The song was included, in different iterations, in the trailblazing 1934 Lomax anthology American Ballads and Folksongs and in Carl Sandburg’s 1927 American Songbag. More recently, Mungo Jerry of “In the Summertime” fame recorded his version, replete with horns and banjos. And yet, it remains virtually unknown today, outside traditional music circles.
Other African-American murder ballads such as “Delia’s Gone” and “Duncan and Brady,” while enjoying some popularity, have had none of the long-term appeal of “Staggerlee,” which has been recorded by such diverse luminaries as Ma Rainey, Cab Calloway, Jimmy Dorsey, James Brown, Fats Domino, Peggy Lee, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, Wilson Pickett, the Grateful Dead and the Clash. Lloyd Price topped the hit parade in 1959 with his snappy, horn-drenched R&B version. Referred to by one writer as the “original gangsta song,” Staggerlee has become an icon to generations of African Americans, who see in the folk hero a defiance of authority, pride of self and strength in the face of adversity. At its best, the murder ballad is a dark and haunting revenant from a time when the oral tradition was vital. In isolated and non- or semi-literate communities, songs passed along in parlors, on front porches, in the fields, at socials—and at executions—were sources of news and moral instruction. Verses were added or subtracted according to the impulses of the singer or the values of the audience. An almost Darwinian form of natural selection ensured that those with the greatest popular appeal survived, while others fell away.
Composed to satisfy the most prurient appetite, a murder ballad gave its listeners the same chills as does the latest cinematic crime thriller. It resonates today, as it did in its own time, beyond the realm of mere curiosity because the themes are familiar to us all. Not everyone has been driven to murder, but love, loss, jealousy, fear and anger—and the sometimes irrational deeds that are fueled by such powerful emotions—are universally understood.
This goes far toward explaining why a ballad such as “Tom Dooley,” which combines a lilting melody with a riveting tale, holds massive appeal nearly 150 years after it sang its “pocked” subject to his grisly death. As Tom Waits so eloquently explains, “People stay alive in the stories we tell about them….So, as the [phonograph] needle drops into the groove, the dead take that same needle and together we are knitting them all a new suit of flesh. And while the song plays, we believe these dry bones can live.”
Ron Soodalter is a historian, musician and longtime collector of folk songs. Here he performs his arrangements of four traditional murder ballads: “Tom Dula,” “Staggerlee,” “Rose Connolly” and “Louis Collins.”
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