Sunday, October 18, 2009

Murder Ballads

image source

Murder ballads are a notable portion of recorded medieval ballads from Scandinavia and Great Britain. In those, the victim overcomes the murderer, tricks him and stabs him to death while sleeping. Thus, justice is fulfilled, and the murderer is punished. Many of those ballads mention a row of dead brides, from seven and up to ten, until the final surviving heroine.
Often the details and locales for a particular murder ballad change as it is sung over time, reflecting the audience and the performer. For example, "Knoxville Girl" is essentially the same ballad as "The Wexford Girl" with the setting transposed from Ireland to Tennessee - the two of them are based on "The Oxford Girl", the original murder ballad set in England.
American murder ballads are often versions of older Old World ballads with any elements of supernatural retribution removed. For example, the English ballad "The Gosport Tragedy" of the 1750s had both murder and vengeance on the murderer by the ghosts of the murdered woman and her unborn baby, who call up a great storm to prevent his ship sailing before tearing him apart. In contrast, the Kentucky version, "Pretty Polly", is a stark murder ballad ending with the murder and burial of the victim in a shallow grave.
A murder ballad typically recounts the details of a mythic or true crime — who the victim is, why the murderer decides to kill him or her, how the victim is lured to the murder site and the act itself — followed by the escape and/or capture of the murderer. Often the ballad ends with the murderer in jail or on their way to the gallows, occasionally with a plea for the listener not to copy the evils committed by the singer.

"Knoxville Girl" at the Museum of Appalachia:
"Knoxville Girl" is an old murder ballad that originated not in Tennessee, but in the British Islands, where it was known by such names as "Wexford Girl." Murder ballads were the tabloid press of centuries past made into a song. Singing it was a spur-of-the-moment act.

The Oxford Girl~Shirley & Dolly Collins:
I fell in love with an Oxford girl...


Doc Watson - Tom Dooley:

El Paso - Marty Robbins:

1913 Massacre~Woody Guthrie:

Related Post:
Woodbox Gang @ Mystic Hot Springs ~ Poor Jesus


  1. Great post, I blogged it on the Murder & Mystery Game Blog!

  2. My wife is a folk singer, so I've heard many of these ballads over the years. There were some news ones here, so thanks.