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
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
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.