Murder Ballads, Dolly Parton, the Southern Gothic, and I


As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up exposed to lurid horrors of American Southern Gothic folklore in school. Even now, I can remember snatches of songs like this from a version of the circa-1650 ballad “The Twa Sisters:”

He made a bridge of her bone-ridge.
Oh! the dreadful wind and rain

This ballad finds its source in Northumbrian folk tradition. As the English departed England for homes in Appalachia, these ballads traveled with them. As the colonists staked their new homes, they stitched into the American folk songbook these songs of dismembered, disemboweled, drowned, or imprisoned women (usually with a fiddle and mandolin accompaniment).

Recently, a friend from my childhood neighborhood recalled on Facebook seeing David Holt spin his ghastly yarns (that I recounted before) with an incredulous “Does anyone else remember this?” I think there was also some implicit “Couldn’t do that today.” Her post was a prompt to review my post on this material.

With those thoughts refreshed, the tradition of the murder ballad was discussed in an episode of the podcast “Dolly Parton’s America” (a podcast series that I heartily recommend). I’d like to connect my baptism to that tradition here. I also wanted to make a note of the vibrancy of this tradition by noting its influence in the Anglo-Scots folk tradition of Australia, courtesy of Nick Cave.

The Murder Ballad in the Australian Folk Tradition: Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue

This video reawoke my Gothic gene from a decade of slumber:

I hadn’t thought of murder ballads much in the ten or so years since my baptism into the Southern Gothic until one fine day when the music of two Australians found me on the cobblestone streets of Holland.

I can’t claim to have been cool enough to have known of Nick Cave when he was a young, furious, antipodean punker screaming with The Birthday Party. But the first time I saw the video to “Where the Wild Roses Grow” and heard its luscious strings and saw the male-gazy-y, erotic-corpse photography of the heretofore dewy pop princess Kylie “The Locomotion” Minogue, my eldritch Southern Gothic gene shook from its slumber and predicted the ineluctable, tragic fate that was awaiting the damned beauty onscreen. When the video’s credits rolled, I confirmed what my Gothic gene had recognized: the song featured on an album called “Murder Ballads.”

The song, written by Cave, owes its genesis to that same Anglo-Scots tradition that colonized a different land: his native Australia. The song, in analysis, owes some influence to “Down in the Willow Garden.” But on that day, closer to the lands that were the origins of these ballads than the land where I learned to feel them, I immediately was reconnected to my baptism in the Southern Gothic.

Despite having Cave’s record as an exemplar, it never dawned on me to ask “how could our cultures both have this totemic type of ballad.” Sometimes answers find you when you don’t know which questions to ask. In my case, it came from a Lebanese-American man talking to Dolly Parton.

Dolly Parton as an Heiress to the Southern Gothic

Another prompt to remember this music came through the podcast “Dolly Parton’s America.” Early in episode 1, Dolly recounts hearing songs about “the murdered Knoxville girl in the river” at which point first-generation Lebanese-American host Jad Abumrad asks, “What!?.” As a child of Lebanese refugees, the murder ballad was not mother’s milk to him and his stunned curiosity reminded me of just how odd a tradition it is.

It’s a fascinating digression in the first episode:

Skip to 21:57 to jump into the discussion about the murder ballad tradition. Frankly, the entire series is amazing and you should do yourself a favor and listen to the whole thing.

Jad’s research turns up that murder ballads were often composed by minstrels on the day of the punishment of the accused. They would “seed” the populations with these songs and sell sheet music to their ballads. In time, many of the more famous (surely, the more lurid) of these ballads were put to music, performed, and passed down. In the case of the Knoxville girl, it seems to be a relocating of a crime that occurred in England to Knoxville, Tennessee. The crime and the song recall the perennial tale of a rake getting a girl into “the family way” who prefers to commit (double-)murder than to commit to her. It’s ghastly, grisly, tabloid and timeless.

I’m amazed that this ghastly and grisly part of the American folk tradition made it into my elementary school curriculum. That said, as it gave me an early taste of the heavy metal music I would bathe in, the Gothic stories I would treasure, and the fire-and-brimstone imagery I now savor in Milton, Dante, 16 Horsepower, and Cotton Mather, I’m thankful that it happened.

…But it wouldn’t happen today.