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Facts behind the murder ballads


Paul Slade

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I've just posted a couple of long essays on my new website about the murder ballads Stagger Lee and Frankie & Johnny.

 

They tell the true stories behind these ballads, examine how their interpretations have changed down the decades and identify a few of the more interesting versions you may have missed. If that sounds interesting to you, please click here:

 

http://www.planetslade.com/stagger-lee1.html

http://www.planetslade.com/frankie-and-johnny1.html

 

NOTE TO MODERATORS: The site in question generates no income for me or anyone else. Therefore, I hope I may be allowed to mention it here. Thank you.

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Paul... you don't know how glad I am to see that note on your post because I (a mod in this very forum) was just thinking about this topic the other day (as I was preparing my own version of "The Ballad of Tom Dooley" -- an upbeat, acoustic punk pop little ditty -- for posting for DL) and thinking, Man, talk about your violent lyrics... my beloved folk/bluegrass/mountain/Brit folk music is practically made of murder ballads.

 

But, really, it makes sense when the music is the literature of the people. Not all that many rural folks could read or read well and precious few had access to more than a few scraps of literature outside the Bible. (Another set of stories often laced with outrageous violence.)

 

Today, most of us probably take most of our literature from video/movies and, to a lesser extent, from the printed word. (And by literature, I mean storytelling in the broadest sense, from musical or poetic ballads to plays to books to movies. [edit: I guess I should add video/computer games as well.])

 

 

It's long been my thinking that every song can and probably does tell a story -- whether it's a conventional story (a ballad) or a song of praise (whether divine or earthly/carnal -- a love song, IOW). Such a paean to the divine or the object of one's earthly affections, it seems to me, can tell us a lot about the person(s) who is the voice of the song --the singer, if you will.

 

 

And that begs one to look around... I think, before any of us start to look down our long noses (well, mine's long, anyhow :D ) at the 'violent' songs of one subculture or another, we should stop and take a look at the literature of our own mainstream culture. Think about how many murders and acts of violence most folks see a week on one screen or another, from murder mysteries to TV reenactments or just lurid news-at-11 sensationalism.

 

Most folks like big stories -- and love, life and death are the biggies for most folks. (I'm thinking of those three subjects in the broadest sense, here, so, obviously, love, life, and death are pretty pertinent when discussing devotional/religious music as well, I think.)

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Thanks for that blue2blue. Actually, Tom Dula's one of the songs I'm hoping to write about on my site in the coming months, so stay tuned for that!

 

Your comments made me think there might be some interest in my own attempts to write lyrics for a contemporary murder ballad, based on a real case here in London a few years ago. You'll find these in the "Song for a killer's victim" thread I've just started, and I'd be very interested to hear what you make of the story I tell there.

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Did you ever read this book?

 

 

I've read parts of Olive Woolley Burt's book - they've got a copy at the British Library here in London - and I agree it's got some interesting stuff in it. It's not been one of my major sources so far, but that may change as I add more songs to the site.

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