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Musical Space: Murder Ballads

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Jimi Hendrix was one of the first musicians I discovered as a pre-teen. Imagine, though, how my younger self was horrified by the song “Hey, Joe,” when he sings, “I'm goin' down to shoot my old lady, You know I caught her messin' 'round with another man.” Then there was Neil Young’s line,  “Down by the river, I shot my baby.” Why would someone sing a song about killing their girlfriend? It wasn’t until later that I figured out Hendrix and Young were continuing the ancient folk tradition of the murder ballad.

Murder ballads go back to at least the middle ages, recounting the sad deaths of wives, husbands, lovers, and children. They can be sweet and sad, underscoring the innocence of the victims, or chillingly matter-of-fact to show the cold-bloodedness of the perpetrator. Sometimes the songs are told from the point of view of the murderer. Lots of murder ballads are named after the victims or their killers: "Omie Wise," "Poor Ellen Smith", "Stagger Lee", and "Tom Dooley". All of these are based on true events, and go back to a time when songs conveyed current news to a largely illiterate population.

But there must be another reason for the enduring popularity of murder ballads. I think they’re a way for people to sort out the emotions around horrific events, just like with dreams or Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a safe way for someone to wrap their minds around something unimaginable.

You can find killing songs everywhere in modern pop music: “Mack the Knife” by Kurt Weill, “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash, and “Nebraska” by Bruce Springsteen. Since then, there is no better example than an entire album of them, called “Murder Ballads,” released in 1996 by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

Mark Foley is principal double bass of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and professor of double bass and head of Jazz Studies at Wichita State University.