I'm not altogether sure I want to know what it says about me that on a gorgeous day without a cloud in the sky, I have murder ballads running through my head. Yesterday's electric folk post may have gotten me started, and the truth is that some very fine music has been made that is steeped in lyric gore. This is especially true of those traditional songs that come from northern Europe, and those bluidy Scots and Scandis whose folk songs often tell of vengeful revenants and cruel mothers. Cleaned up and taken out in polite company, such stuff went gold for the Kingston Trio and lauched the modern folk movement.
There are many songs, not strictly in folk ballad form, which could rightly fall in the genre. Some of them are elevated to exquisite heights by one particular performance. Others are simply classic no matter who does them.
Here are my picks for the top Ten Murder Ballads, based on one or the other of these criteria. No doubt you could add a few of your own, as indeed I struggled mightily over which would make the cut (and cleverly stretched to fit in an eleventh, as you shall see).
Be on my side
I'll be on your side
There is no reason
for you to hide
It's so hard staying
here all alone
You could be taking
me for a ride
She could drag me
over the rainbow
Send me away...
I'm goin' way down south, way down south
Way down to Mexico way, yeah
I'm goin' way down south, way down south, baby
Way down where I can be free
Ain't no one gonna mess with me there, baby
Ain't no hang-man gonna
He ain't gonna put a rope, a rope around me, yeah
"Crazy Man Michael" Dave Swarbrick/Richard Thompson. Richard wrote the lyrics for a traditional tune that was later replaced by a new one of Dave's composing.
O where is the raven that I struck down dead
And here did lie on the ground o
I see that my true love with a wound so red
Where her lover’s heart it did pound o
"Matty Groves", traditional, arranged by Fairport Convention: A lady seduces her servant, and taunts her husband who slays them both:
"A grave, a grave!'' Lord Darnell cried, "to put these lovers in.
But bury my lady at the top for she was of noble kin."
"Pretty Polly" various. Joan Baez did a classic rendition, and another by Hilary Burhan was used in the closing credits of an episode of HBO's "Deadwood". It is related to many older ballads, including Childe #90, and the best melange of these is another arrangement by Broadside Electric entitled Jellon Grame:
"Lie you there, oh father dear
My mother's curse to rue
The place that she lies buried in
Is far too good for you."
"Tom Dooley " The Kingston Trio. The one that got the ball rolling in the late 1950s. My aunt learned this song while in college around this time and it is a standard at family sing alongs.
"Bruton Town" various artists. I am partial to the 1972 Sandy Denny version, as wel as that by Broadside Electric on their album "With Teeth":
"Now welcome home, my dear young brothers,
Our serving man, is he behind?"
"We've left him where we've been a-hunting,
"We've left him where no man can find."
"Childe Owlet": Childe #291 performed by Steeleye Span. This one breaks all the rules. A man is condemned by false witness to be torn apart by horses because he spurns the advances of his kinsman's wife, who gets away with it.
Lady Erskine sits intae her bower
A-sowing a silken seam
A bonny shirt for Child Owlet
As he goes out and in
His face was fair, long was his hair
She's called him to come near
“Oh, you must cuckold Lord Ronald
For all his lands and gear.”
"Where the Wild Roses Grow" Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, from an album of nothing but Murder Ballads:
On the third day he took me to the river
He showed me the roses and we kissed
And the last thing I heard was a muttered word
As he stood smiling above me with a rock in his fist