Thursday, May 26, 2011

Folk Music and Murder Ballads

Elizabeth Zelvin

My blog sister Sharon Wildwind recently posted a blog about folk music, and a lot of people chimed in, including the rest of us Deadly Daughters, suggesting that there’s still a lot of interest in traditional music and nostalgia for the heyday of its popularization in America in the 1960s. Of particular interest to mystery lovers is the subgenre of murder ballads, which began centuries ago in England and Scotland, was brought to America and preserved in the Appalachians, added to by modern songwriters, and still sung with great relish by today’s aficionados of traditional music.

I was introduced to folk music in the late 1940s, when Oscar Brand, the “shoeless troubadour,” had a radio show on WNYC and Appalachian ballad singer Jean Ritchie was his frequent guest. (I saw them perform, both in their eighties and still singing up a storm, as recently as 2003.) In the early 1950s, I went to a “progressive” summer camp, where I heard the legendary Pete Seeger, already a hero in those circles as the successor to Woody Guthrie, long before the Weavers burst onto the scene. In high school, I was already one of those kids who partied by sitting on the floor with our guitars rather than going to dances or drinking in cars.

I was a college freshman the year Joan Baez’s first album came out. She sang the true crime song, “Mary Hamilton,” in that one—well, maybe an apocryphal true crime song, in which one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting gets pregnant by the king (one of the Stuarts, reign unspecified), gets rid of the newborn by sending it out to sea in a little boat, and gets hanged for it. The second album included “The Silkie,” a ballad from the Orkneys of which I already knew and sang a more traditional version: the legend of the seal turned human (to which I added a serial killer twist in a short story many years later), and “Banks of the Ohio,” one of many in which a man kills his pregnant girlfriend so he won’t have to marry her. (Others are “Pretty Polly” and “Down in a Willow Garden.”) On the third album was “Pretty Boy Floyd,” a true-crime song about a bank robber who may or may not have had Robin Hood-like ideals. (The song says yes: “As through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve met many kinds of men/Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.” The recent movie Public Enemies shows a different side of Floyd.) On the same album was “Matty Groves,” about a man who sleeps with a lord’s wife and gets killed when the husband catches them in bed together. The Irish group Planxty had a version I like even better, in which the doomed lover is “Little Musgrave.”

Somebody is always dying in folk music and its contemporary counterparts as modern songwriters continue the tradition. One of my favorites is “Long Black Veil,” written in 1959 and performed by everybody from Johnny Cash to the Chieftains. That one’s a paranormal murder mystery with a twist: the first person protagonist tells the story from beyond the grave, having been hanged for a crime he didn’t commit with an alibi he couldn’t use: he was “in the bed of my best friend’s wife.” In the 2000 film, The Songcatcher, a collector of Appalachian ballads in 1907 finds the local folks playing out the themes of true love betrayed and two-timing husbands murdered as well as singing the ballads brought over from England and Scotland two hundred years before. In my folksinging days, my mother always used to say, “Can’t you sing something cheerful?” She didn’t live to see me a published mystery writer (she’d have been 105 when the first book came out), but if she had, no doubt she would have asked, “Why does somebody have to be murdered?”

19 comments:

Sheila Connolly said...

Love and death are the constants (and combinations thereof).

And don't forget politics. As I've probably said before, Irish music, from which Peter, Paul and Mary borrowed liberally and then popularized, commemorates many injustices perpetrated by the British oppressors (gee, maybe I'm biased).

Interesting how much social history is passed down through popular music, isn't it?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

That's especially true of the music I grew up with, Sheila. Besides the love and murder, there was Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and all those songs from the People's Songbook.

Sharon Wildwind said...

I love Jean Richie! And I'm wont to sing Long Black Veil around the house. My husband's reaction is the same as your mother's, Liz.

He's a fine one to talk. He courted me by singing Irish rebel songs. Apparently he learned many of them when Will Miller was on a local children's show in the 1960s. Apparently, the show's producers had no idea what Will was singing about.

Sandra Parshall said...

I love this music, still have all the old Joan Baez and Judy Collins albums (although I've upgraded to the CD versions). Some of the characters in the book I'm writing now are mountain music singers who appear at the regional music festivals and shows in the southern mountains. And yes, some of them are murder victims and at least one is a murderer.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sharon, my husband loves all the Irish songs about becoming a mercenary and dying in a foreign land. The less said about the offkey earworms transmitted the better.

Leslie Budewitz said...

I loved the singing scenes in the movie Winter's Bone -- people gathering to sing and play, and enjoy the music. The primary vocalist was wonderful. We have a musical gathering at our house about once a year -- should be more often.

lil Gluckstern said...

Oh the memories. I have been lamenting that the music of today just doesn't have power of the songs of the past-and the staying power. There was a wonderful article in the NYTimes about the singers of southeastern Virginia. These ballads are so poignant and say so much about the culture where they were born.

Julia Buckley said...

I love spooky folk songs; they reflect so much about the cultures from which they sprang.

Cool post, Liz! I am still haunted by the idea of sending a little child out to sea in a tiny boat (shades of THE TEMPEST)!

JJ said...

There's a ballad called "Young Charlotte", one of my favorites, that just gets down and wallows. I took a wonderful class from Sam Hinton once, and he taught it to us but wouldn't sing it again so we could get the words because he said it was too depressing. I found it by Googling so now sing/hum it sometimes. Love this subject and everyone's memories.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Google is the best when it comes to lyrics--the old ones you don't remember and the new ones recorded by singers with lousy diction. I just looked up "Young Charlotte," JJ. Eww. And the moral is: Vanity be hanged--wear your down coat and mittens! Seriously, though, the language of the ballad was rather elegant.

Jerry House said...

FYI, an interesting book on this subject is AMERICAN MURDER BALLADS by Alice Wooley Burt (Oxford University Press). It won a Special Edgar in 1959.

Coco said...

Oh, Liz, you brought back such wonderful memories of so many songs I love. I wonder if you ever heard Deborah Barrable sing, "The Great Silkie?" I first heard it in 1986 and it still haunts me. Wonderful post! Thanks for the memories!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Coco, the version of The Great Silkie that I sing (minor key, Orkney dialect which I probably garble, very different from the Joan Baez version) I learned from a fellow counselor at Girl Scout Camp who learned it in a course at the University of Florida. We used to call that kind of song transmission "the folk process."

area rugs cheap said...

Folk music is tradition of any particular culture. Every culture have their different folk songs and dances. Your blog gives such a incredible information about it.

motorcycle chains said...

Every culture and tradition have their own folk dances and folk musics. Folk music is very interesting listen. It is really enjoyable visit for me.

Motorcycle Gloves said...

Every culture have their different folk musics and traditions. Now days it becomes trend to use folk musics in movies.

mobile signal booster said...

Your thoughts about folk music is really great. Folk music has it's own identity. Your thoughts about folk music is really great.

Cheap International Flights said...

Over here you have shared about the folk music and classical music.Every country and village have their own traditions and folk music.

Cheap Flights to Thailand said...

Over here you have described about the folk music and tradition, every country and state has their own tradition and culture. Over here you have described really a great thoughts.