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Letters to Planet Slade: 2015

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Murder Ballads
Secret London


September 25, 2015. Tricia Wilson of North London writes:
"I just read your article on Nasra Ismail. I knew Nasra pretty well. She was such a lovely, gentle girl and I always had to give her a hug because there was something very sweet and childlike about her. She had the quietest voice and I never saw her get angry or impatient with me.
"My heart broke when I heard what had happened to her, and reading your ballad to her made me cry for her again. But I can see her feeling proud that somebody took the time to tell her story in such a lovely way. She would be giggling her shy, embarrassed giggle but feel so happy. I think of her often and I want to say thank you for caring about her.
"I just wish she could have known that people did care. The last time I saw her she made me laugh and cry at same time, but I'm so glad I gave her a 'mum' hug that day and slapped her on the bum, telling her to behave herself. She really was a lovely, humble, timid girl."

September 26, 2015. Terry McGaughey of Northern Ireland writes:
"I just recently saw your post about Nasra Ismail. I've been trying for a few years now to track down information about this poor wee girl.
"I had just moved from rural Northern Ireland to London and was working night shifts for a media analysis company (my first 'proper' London job). I lived on the Caledonian Road and, for about six months between 2001 and 2005, I met Nasra every night outside that homeless shelter opposite the police station as I walked to work.
"She was always begging. When she was turned down, she would still smile and kind of walk off and it broke my heart repeatedly. Within a few weeks of meeting her, I noticed all her front teeth had been knocked out and I tried to take her to casualty one night but she wouldn't go.
"I gave her money and sometimes my packed lunches when I bumped into her, and gave her information for places where she could stay and be looked after. I tried Kids' Company but they wouldn't look after her, and I ended up doing what all other Londoners do and eventually started to pretend she didn't exist.
"This went on for a few weeks and then I stopped seeing her about that street, and saw the report in the Independent that she'd been picked up and taken away by some worthless piece of crap who murdered her. It's almost ten years ago but I am still tortured by this. I left London in March this year, partly because I could not handle the sight of desperate homeless people set against ultra-wealthy people.
"Thank you for your page. I still have dreams about talking to Nasra, and I'm so glad that this poor wee girl is remembered by someone."

Paul Slade replies: Thank you both so much for your letters. I've always had a nagging worry at the back of my mind that, by writing that piece, I was simply joining the list of men who'd exploited Nasra in life. It's a great relief to hear from two people who knew her and feel the way you do.
I've lived in North London on and off for over 25 years now and, much as I love the city, there's no denying that it hardens you. As you say, Terry, most of us end up simply "editing out" the desperate and the homeless glimpsed every day as we wander round.
Like most people, I give the odd begger a couple of quid now and again - as much to get them off my back as anything, if I'm honest - but whether I stop or not is really completely arbitrary. Often as not, I'll avoid their eyes and walk on. You've both done far more to engage with the individuals involved than I ever have, and I'm sure I won't be the only one here who finds your letters immensely touching.
I've just made some enquiries at Islington Council, which is responsible for the London borough where Nasra's death was registered. I was hoping to find out whether she'd been buried or cremated and, if the former, where her grave might be.
The council told me they have no record of Islington's coroner referring her case to them, nor any note of a payment from council funds to handle her funeral. This probably means a friend or relative of Nasra's was found to make these arrangements, which is a rare bit of good news in this whole sad tale. When our own time comes, I'm sure we'd all rather have someone who loved us take care of our remains rather than relying on a funeral - however kindly meant - arranged by the local authority.

[Tricia and Terry both chanced across my Nasra Ismail piece after reading September 24's news that Sebastiano Magnanini's body had been found in the same stretch of the Regent's Canal where Nasra's remains were spotted in 2004. Police have launched a murder enquiry. If you'd like to help vulnerable people in the same part of London where Nasra died, please consider donating to Shelter From The Storm.]


October 16, 2015. Dexter Kerr of Amsterdam University writes:
"Great website! Very much looking forward to getting your book Unprepared to Die. Do you have any idea when the ebook of it will be released? And will it be available in the iBooks store as well as Kindle?
"I am at my first year at university doing a bachelor's degree in musicology. I decided to do my first major piece on murder ballads of the American South. So, you can imagine that your website has been a fountain of useful information to me. What I am struggling with at the moment is finding a concise definition of the term 'murder ballad'. Somewhat bizarrely ye olde internet, as well as the many books and articles I have been sourcing, have been somewhat lacking on that particular front. What are your thoughts? How do you define it? Any ideas would be mucho appreciated."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for getting in touch, Dexter. I'm glad you're finding PlanetSlade useful - and even gladder you're planning to buy my book! There will be a Kindle edition, but not an Apple iBooks one I'm afraid. "Kindle is the dominant player," my publisher explained when I passed on your query. "Apple users can download the free Kindle reader app and our books always look very impressive on the iPad."
It sounds like a fascinating degree you've chosen there. I hope you not only learn a lot while you're studying the subject, but remember to have some fun with it too. I'm not sure how much help I'm going to be in providing a definition of murder ballads, but here's a few thoughts for what they're worth.
A murder ballad is really any song that tells the story of a murder (real or fictitious). Some follow the formal structural rules of a ballad as a specific poetic form, but others don't and that's fine. Although "ballad" originally appeared in the term in that particular structural sense, it's now used much more loosely to mean something like "story song".
Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family (who I interviewed for the book) would add that a true murder ballad needs to have been through the folk process for a few decades (ideally a century or more) and be repeatedly polished and refined by every singer that performs it. That's how all of the host culture's unspoken fears get incorporated into the ballad, often showing through as much in the lines people delete from it as in those they retain. That's when the lyrics start getting weird and much more interesting as a result. It helps if no-one's quite sure who wrote the song in the first place, as people then feel more free to muck about with it in imaginative ways.
That doesn't mean a song written yesterday afternoon can't be a murder ballad, just that it will need long years of marinating in the folk process if it's ever to reach the absolute top rank of the genre. Dylan's
Hattie Carroll, I think, is just entering that process now.
The only other thing I'd say is that you might want to fence off your own area of murder ballads to study and drill down as deeply as you can in that one particular spot. The danger of trying to look at such a wide area as "Murder Ballads" generally is that you'll have so much ground to cover you can only scratch the surface, and end up with little of interest to say as a result.
In my case, for example, I've restricted myself to songs based on a real murder which are long-lived enough (or simply famous enough) for people to want to read about. That second requirement also means they'll have been widely covered by many different artists, which gives me a lot of different approaches to the song to consider. You'll want to choose your own area, of course, but the principle remains the same.
I hope that's some help. We're relying very much on word of mouth to promote my book, so if you get the chance to mention it on social media for me, that's be much appreciated.


October 18, 2015. C#Merle of Central Scotland writes:
"Man that's good timing, releasing your book as I've just got back into listening to the Gallows Ballads Project. I'm off to Amazon to order a copy as thanks for your efforts in arranging the whole idea.
"I've also recorded a bunch of tracks from PlanetSlade's British Broadsides list with The Unnatural Murder's up-tempo 12 bar blues treatment probably the pick of the bunch. Please feel free to use it if you like but credit it to meh229 as it was a collaborative effort with some friends. The other GBP tracks are still to be mixed, but I should have a take of The Gallows Child finished soon. I'll let you know when it's done."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks, C#. That's a nice muscular blues you guys have got there, and I've posted the audio on Soundcloud so everyone can hear it for themselves. I see meh229 has also tackled Jealous Annie from my list, so I hope people will visit the band's own Soundcloud page and check that out too.

October 23. C#Merle adds:
"Here are the last two murder ballads I managed to get finished up. The Gallows Child sets the lyrics to easy listening music as a counterpoint to the more serious efforts. The Liverpool Lodger (man what a creepy little tale that is!) has more of a spoken word style of delivery built upon a simple piano riff. As always, if you can use these songs please feel free. Thanks again for the inspiration.

Message board round-up

The source threads for our latest collection of PlanetSlade blurbs can be found below. Sometimes there's quite an interesting discussion attached.





Thanks to PlanetSlade reader Rebecca Goldman, I have news of a vintage cartoon based on Frankie & Johnny. It's called Rooty Toot Toot, it was made in 1951, and you can watch it in YouTube here.
"I thought you might want to check it out and include it in your list of Frankie & Johnny films," Rebecca said. I didn't even know this cartoon existed until her letter arrived, but I'm very glad to have seen it now. It's a really stylish piece of work, with its own unique and witty take on the story. As she suggested, I've added an entry about it to my Frankie & Johnny movie guide.
Looking up its background now, I see the seven-minute short was directed by John Hubley - best known as the creator of Mr Magoo - for UPA's Jolly Frolics series. Frankie's singing voice is provided by Annette Warren, who did the same job for Ava Gardner in Show Boat earlier that year. Rooty Toot Toot was nominated for an Oscar as Best Animated Short Film in 1951, but lost out to Tom & Jerry's The Two Mousketeers.
Its title, of course, comes from the original ballad's description of the noise Frankie's gun made as she pulled the trigger. Frank Crumit's 1927 version puts it like this: "Frankie drew back her kimono / Took out her little forty-four / Rooty-toot-toot, three times she shot / Right through that hardwood door".
Elsewhere on the Frankie & Johnny front, I've also heard from Diane DeMuth of Albany, New York. "When I was growing up in 1950s Brooklyn, my Mom and Dad frequently held parties for the neighborhood that would go on most of the night," she told me. "One of our neighbors, at every party, stood up and not only sang Frankie and Johnny, she acted out all of the lyrics - always to much applause and to many encores. Whenever it was time for Sara to sing, I would sit on the steps overlooking the party and listen to the words. I remember her words to this day, and I love the song and the memories it brings to me."
The DeMuths' parties, I think you'll agree, sound like a lot of fun. I'm imagining Sara's turn as something rather like that West Wing episode where C. J. does The Jackal - but with Mad Men quantities of booze consumed! "We've just put a recording of The Kirkburton Tragedy, a local (to us) murder ballad up on our Soundcloud page. Here's the info:
"On Tuesday, 9 March 1830, the broken body of 22-year old Rachael Crossley was found at the bottom of a coal pit near her home village of Kirkburton, to the south-east of Huddersfield in West Yorkshire. She was unmarried, but pregnant with her second child. Suspicion immediately fell on William Shaw, father of both children, who had repeatedly promised to marry Rachael, but failed to do so and was now faced with the requirement to pay a further sum of maintenance.
"Shaw was committed to stand trial at York Assizes, where he pleaded not guilty to Rachael's murder but was convicted, sentenced to death and hanged outside York Castle on 5 April 1830, less than one month after the murder. His sentence included surgical dissection after death, a legal provision abolished in 1832. Checked against newspaper reports of the crime, trial and execution in the Leeds Mercury and elsewhere, the broadside ballad recounting the story is extraordinarily accurate. We have edited the original text for performance and set it to a tune associated with the earlier and more famous 'Red Barn' murder.
"Spookily, we once sang this on a public stage in Halifax Piece Hall, and were afterwards approached by a young woman who said that she was a descendent of the murder victim!
"By the way, we're excited to hear about your forthcoming book and will certainly buy a copy for ourselves and a couple of Xmas gifts too."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for that, and for the press clippings about Shaw's trial you sent me too. I enjoyed your recording, which has a nice authentic 19th Century feel to it, so I hope everyone will check it out at the link above. One day, I'd love to catch your Crime, Sex & Retribution show, which sounds like it's just my cup of tea. Incidentally, I see the National Library of Scotland has a copy of your song's ballad sheet here. They call it The Yorkshire Tragedy, but it's clearly the same case. The sheet must have been quite a big seller to make it all the way up to Scotland.

May 10, 2015. Steve Harrison adds:
"Thanks for the NLS link - I hadn't seen that (it's only recently that NLS has put this material online, I think). There's also a sheet in the Bodleian Library, printed by William Walker in Otley, near Leeds. It's not the same sheet as your NLS item (printed by G. Walker in Durham), though the texts are similar. I don't know if the two Walkers were related.
"I first found the ballad ten or eleven years ago in Robert Collison's Story of Street Literature, published in 1976, which uses Kirkburton Tragedy as the title. But Collison's referencing is poor, presumably as he had access to private owners' collections. At the time, I managed to find index references to the sheet (as Kirkburton) in libraries at UCLA and at Kent State University in Ohio, but without access to the sheets themselves, which aren't digitised. Funnily enough though, the Kent State web page carries a woodcut from the sheet, purporting to show Shaw on the gallows. The item reference is number 42 in that list."

Paul Slade replies: Looks like it was an even better seller than I thought, then - and I can see why. The 1830s press clipping you were kind enough to send contain enough gory information to show the NLS sheet's description of the crime was no exaggeration:

He broke her skull and bruis'd her frame,
And in her gore she lay,
The babe he murder'd in her womb,
So took two lives away.

Her body fair he mangled sore,
But still she was alive,
And down a pit full sixty yards,
To hide her did contrive.

Almost every aspect of this is confirmed by the papers. Freeman's Journal tells us "her body and head were bruised in a dreadful manner". The Newcastle Courant adds it was "shockingly mangled" and the Leeds Mercury quotes Shaw's own testimony that "she was alive when she went into the pit". All three point out that Rachael was pregnant when he killed her.
If any other musicians out there feel like tackling a similar gallows ballad from their own neck of the woods, I'm always happy to point people towards the recording here. Murder ballads only though, please!


June 11, 2015. Barry O'Brien of Dover Tales in Kent writes:
"I found your website today while looking for additional material on Switzerland John/Dedea Redanies. We've developed this story into a radio play and also performed it on stage.
"I came to the story after a gig in town when a guy said I should do a story about 'that tree where the girls were murdered'. And so began a bit of an obsession. Our stage presentation was done at the Tom Thumb Theatre in Margate in April to good effect. I'm talking to a theatre festival at the moment and also quite like the idea of taking the play to pubs. Many of the pubs relevant to the story still stand and are in use.
The radio play, called A Bunch of Thyme, went out earlier this year on Dover Community Radio. You can hear it at"

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for letting me know about that, Barry. That's the same case which I called The Foreigner's Downfall in my British Broadsides section, of course. As with Steve and Annie above, I hope I get a chance to see your stage show one day.
I love the way you and your colleagues have dramatised the court testimony from Redanies' trial - much as BBC Radio 4 does in its own
Voices From The Old Bailey - and mixed this material with the various songs telling his tale. There's a great opportunity there for other community radio stations to adapt their own local crime ballads in the same way.


Message board round-up

The source threads for our latest collection of PlanetSlade blurbs can be found below. Sometimes there's quite an interesting discussion attached.


American Folklife Center

Blindman's Blues

Living With Insects




Perhaps you'd care to inspect my testimonials?

On Stagger Lee
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"An outstanding article." - Lighter, Mudcat.

On Knoxville Girl
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On U2D Bonus
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"Cool stuff." - Ipecucci, Mojo.

"Terrific discussion." - J, Twitter.

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On Treasure Hunt Riots
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On Spotify Playlists
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On PlanetSlade
"Very interesting and cool stuff." - Jerry Lankford, The Record, via e-mail.

On Murder Ballads
"Lots of interesting stuff." - Northern Displayers, Twitter.

On Knoxville Girl
"A fascinating account of research into the ballad." - American Folklife Centre, Facebook.

On Pearl Bryan
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On Treasure Hunt Riots
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On Borough Mystery
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On Necropolis Railway
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A fascinating piece of railway history." - JourneyDevon, Twitter.

On Black Swan Blues
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"Excellent." - Bluesrearcher, Blindman's Blues Forum.

"Great reading." - Kinghendrix, Blindman's Blues Forum.

On Andy Capp
"Great work." - Jim Nelson,

On Moshpit Memories
"Cool piece."- PunK-and-StuFF, Twitter.

"Fuckin' great. Love it!" - Usedtabef'n'b, Mojo.

"This is awesome."- ChuraChura, Metafilter.

"Nice start to 2015." - Punxvillan, Twitter.

"Top read." - Fingerprince, Mojo.

"Fan-freaking-tastic." - El Brendano, Metafilter.

"This is great stuff." - Diarmid Mogg, via Twitter.

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On Mother's Day
"Conveys the facts and adds an edgy anthropogenic emotional horror to make a compelling story." - Professor Jonathan Neal, Living With Insects.