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The Great Murder Ballads Of Appalachian Folk Music. - |

The Great Murder Ballads Of Appalachian Folk Music.

The Devil and Preston Black (Murder Ballads and Whiskey)


Lift Up Your Head, Tom Dooley: The True Story of the Appalachian Murder That Inspired One of America’s Most Popular Ballads

Murder (Dig)

There is no doubt about it, there has been many a broken heart that wound up becoming a broken person in prison.  Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, sure, but it is most often the male that makes the mistake of murder.

It is said there is duplicity in all things, and many a life ended badly wound up transcending itself via a celebration in song.  I use the word “celebration” rather loosely here.  There is something dark in human nature that draws us all to horror films, murder mysteries, and ….songs of love gone sour, and sometimes ending in timeless Appalachian murder ballads!

As old as the Appalachian mountains may be, the Celtic heart brought the English Language and the same sense of stoic despair  and fatalism it had within it before over to the new world , and then new permutations of the timeless embodiment of the bard set to music made the Appalachian murder ballad what it already was , is still, and will be again.


The Louvin Brothers and “The Knoxville Girl”

Tragic Songs of Life


There is really no finer example of an Appalachian murder ballad that actually isn’t, than the ”Knoxville Girl” by The Louvin Brothers.  The song is actually an update of “The Wexford Girl” from the 1700′s in Ireland.

There is very much a form to the modern Appalachian murder ballad, and of course it is the same form as it was prior to “the modern era” over in Scotland and Ireland.  Always but always there is a set up of innocence, a bit of a jilting, and then a murder followed by the aftermath, typically awaiting execution.  The Knoxville Girl is the most perfect and pure of the examples that I can think of for this particularly grim but irresistible performance.


The Banks Of The Ohio

Tony Rice

This song has been recorded by these artists: New Lost City RamblersThe Wolfe TonesHenry WhitterErnest StonemanClayton McMichenThe Carter FamilyBlue Sky Boys Johnny CashPorter WagonerPete SeegerMonroe BrothersJoan BaezOlivia Newton-John,  Doc Watson,and many more still.

My opinion, however,  is that none of those are the artist with the best rendition.  I’m also disappointed that Wikipedia’s entry on this timeless Appalachian murder ballad didn’t include Mr. Charley Pride on it’s list – that omission is truly an indication of needed improvements on their part, but never mind that, Tony Rice practically owns this song.

Of course in the extensive list of artist to cover The Banks Of The Ohio is one of my favourite artist, Johnny Cash – but Johnny’s version of the song isn’t so traditional.  In fact, it is probably a bit more emotionally intense. and remorseful.  I also feel a bit miffed that Johnny Cash’s version of this tune didn’t wind up on his awesome collection of murder songs, titled, of course, Murder.

I find The Banks Of The Ohio to be a more mournful song than The Knoxville Girl, as the song gives more details concerning the relationship that has gone wrong.  Another name for this tune is On the Banks of the Old Pedee.  Still another song exists that most likely was penned upon the incident of the exact same murder, and that song, Pretty Polly - I really don’t much like.  There is one version that I’ve come to respect though, and you can find it on The Byrd’s album Sweetheart Of The Rodeo.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo: Legacy Edition


Tom Dooley

Tom Dooley” is probably one of the first Appalachian murder ballads that come to mind for persons in my particular age and other cultural particular’s demographic, and The Kingston Trio is the band it is mostly associated with, but their version is very poor, in my not at all humble opinion, when compared to that of the great Doc Watson, who is an absolute monolith of Americana folk traditions, and besides, expanded on the theme in a much more traditional Appalachian manner.

Tom Dooley is a bit different in that we can date it exactly, and to North Carolina is it credited, in the year of 1866.  Legendary Folk historian Alan Lomax said one thing, but the truth is quite another thing.  He was wrong.

In any event, Tom Dula, a Confederate Veteran of the United States Civil War – was hanged on the day of May the first, 1868.  He’d murdered Laura Foster…in the eyes of the law, but without any sort of evidence.  In fact, there was another suspect, and Dula stated whilst on the gallows that he deserved to die, but that he’d not harmed Ms. Foster at all.  The second suspect in the murder, one Anne Melton, died insane in an asylum just a few short years after, most probably, two individuals died innocent due to her machinations.

Is that a great story or what?  Don’t answer….  You can trust me on this – the song Tom Dooley has a plot even thicker than I’ve alluded to, stated, or hinted at – all historical records, and much speculation.

The Essential Doc Watson


Gillian Welch and Caleb Meyer

Okay, I don’t know about you – but at this point I’m sick of songs about some woman getting killed.  I’m rather fond of women, and though I recognize they can be perfectly evil, and the meanest critters this side of hell – I’d imagine that most often when some lunatic with testosterone dual production organs murders one…that there is an idiot living between his ears.

Of course my skewed reality is also coloured by the same biochemical paradigms.

In any event, when discussing music, there is nothing so important as the energy released during the performance of it.  I’m here to tell you that nobody releases such energy as does the lovely Ms. Gillian Welch when she and her partner perform Caleb Meyer, a song about a would be sexual assailant that …managed to get his throat cut, and deserved such quite thoroughly.

Nobody ever said that a murder ballad had to be an actual “murder,” based on actual occurrences, or very old to fit into the genre.  If anyone did state such limitations – I don’t care, and their limits and definitions do not apply to me, as they’d not asked me first.

I love this song, and I think Gillian Welch is one of the finest talents in all of folk music. If you think that you don’t know who Gillian Welch is, then I’m willing to bet that you’ve seen and heard her, but maybe without knowing so.  She was actually a minor actress in Oh Brother Where Art Thou? – while also providing a lot of vocals on that same film, and it’s outstanding folk music sound track.


Hell Among the Yearlings


While this bit of a review or essay was in no manner meant to be comprehensive, I enjoyed producing it, and hope you’ve enjoyed reading it.  I own all these fine tunes and they’ll pass down through digital posterity quite nicely.

Enjoy music, enjoy love – but …please, don’t become the next subject in an Appalachian Murder Ballad


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  • Article by Wesman Todd Shaw

    avatar A Texas native, I love music, history, science, and good food. More than any of that, I love good friends and good conversation. I'm a bit overly into debating on the web, it's just irresistible to me sometimes. I have a long history with acoustic guitars, and love those things above most others. If you also love acoustic guitars, then I am a resource you should enjoy, but I also would like to prove myself useful to you, and in other ways still.
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