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Murder Ballads
Secret London

Those nice people at Chrome Dreams have sent me five copies of their new double compilation CD Music to Die For: Death Discs 1914-1960 to give away as competition prizes.
It's a magnificently morbid melange of jazz, country, blues and comedy songs, all on the subject of our inevitable demise. You'll find many of the key recordings discussed on PlanetSlade there, including Lena Horne's Frankie & Johnny, The Louvin Brothers' Knoxville Girl and Lloyd Price's Stagger Lee. Among the other murder ballads represented, there's Ethel Waters singing Miss Otis Regrets, Stanley Holloway's rendition of Sweeney Todd the Barber, and Johnny Cash giving us Don't Take Your Guns to Town. There's quite a few songs there which are new to me too, but which I'm very much looking forward to investigating: Lord Executor's We Mourn The Loss of Sir Murchison Fletcher for a start, and Paul Hampton's Two Hour Honeymoon. There's a full track list at the link above.
All you have to do to win a copy of this comprehensively corpse-crammed collection is answer the following question:

      Tom Dooley's real surname was spelt:    a) Doola     b) Dula     c) Dulah     

Send your answers to PlanetSlade, using the e-mail link here.

I'll draw five entries at random from all the correct answers received by midnight on October 31, 2011 (London time), notify the winners by e-mail and get their CDs in the post next day. Chrome Dreams is a great little label - I bought all their old Buzzola compilations years ago - and you should definitely purchase as many of their CDs as you can.

Letters to Planet Slade: September 2011

August 11, 2011. Jamie Lee of Poultney, Vermont writes: "Dude. Thanks. I read every page of that Stagger Lee story, and can't wait to see the explanation for Knoxville Girl. Cheers!! What a great random find."

Paul Slade replies: You're very welcome, my man. Glad you're enjoying the site.

July 18, 2011. Nicola Andrew of North Wales writes: "I'm working on a play based on Oliver Twist at the moment and wanted to use some music and ballad material from the era. I wondered whether there was any indication of which tune went with Gallows Child? I would be very grateful for any info.
"This ballad seems so much like that Oliver Twist moment when the Artful Dodger leaves him with the books! I'm sure Mr Dickens must have heard it."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks for getting in touch - I'm glad you found that piece interesting.
If you click on the words "composite sheet" in my
Gallows Child intro, you should be able to bring up a PDF of the original sheet itself. I've just had another look at this, but I'm afraid it doesn't give any indication at all which tune should be used.
The words are in that classic four beat/three beat ballad format, though, which means pretty much any traditional ballad tune would fit them. Take
Barbara Allen, for example:

In Scarlet town where I was born,
There was a fair maid dwelling,
And every youth cried well away,
For her name was Barbara Allen.

Translate this to Gallows Child, and you get:

Pray give attention to this tale,
Of woe and misery,
To draw forth tears it will not fail,
From every mother's eye.

I'm not saying Barbara Allen's tune has necessarily got the right mood for Gallows Child, but you take my point. The people buying broadsheets in the street would have had dozens of traditional ballads already lodged in their brains, most of which follow this set format. All they had to do was pick a tune that seemed to have more or less the right feel to it, add the Gallows Child lyrics they'd just bought, and it was ready to sing.
I don't know the passage from
Oliver Twist you mention, but I'd love to see it. Could you send over the extract, or tell me exactly where it comes in the book? I see Oliver Twist made its first appearance in serialised form in 1837, while Gallows Child dates from 1820, so the dates certainly line up to support your theory.
Please do keep us posted on your play's progress, particularly if
Gallows Child makes its way through to the final draft. I'd love to hear it performed one day, and I'm sure many of my readers would too.

July 18, 2011. Nicola Andrew writes: "Wow! thanks for the prompt and helpful reply.
"I feared that the tune wouldn't be specified. As you say, people had the tunes in their heads, and used and reused them in different forms. I'm working on earlier ballads for my MA (17th/18th century) and it's fascinating how the tunes are noted, or not.
"I'm Head of English at a school in Chester. We're a performing arts school, and our drama productions are a big deal: we have a large number of drama students ranging in age from 11 to 19, many of whom are looking for a professional acting career (poor souls!)
"I tend to write an adaptation each year with our students in mind, to make sure it fits our bill as we just can't manage a play off the peg. This is my creative outlet for the year - I work with the Director of Theatre Studies to launch this baby - and I get to put all the music together as well as the projections. It's great fun! We did Goodnight Mr Tom last year to great acclaim.
"The bit in Oliver Twist that I'm thinking about is where the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates take Oliver 'prigging' for the first time, and he looks on horrified while they steal a handkerchief. When someone shouts, they scarper and he is left, looking on. A man calls 'Thief' and then the crowd chases Oliver, who runs and is caught by a policeman. The bit in the court room with Judge Fang is truly horrific and probably only slightly exaggerated! If the bookseller hadn't arrived as a witness, then Oliver would have been convicted, just like your Gallows Child.
"I'm planning to have a couple of songs in the play, so I will have a go at putting Gallows Child to music. I also provide a lot of material for the programme, I would be happy to acknowledge your site as a source, and to include the story of the real Gallows Child, if that would be OK with you.
"Cheers, and power to your elbow!"

Paul Slade replies: I've just looked up that passage in Oliver Twist, and the parallels with Gallows Child are quite striking. Here's the ballad sheet's own account from 1820:

"Charles Elliot, a boy aged nine years, was indicted capitally for stealing six handkerchiefs privately, from the shop of Mrs Martha Blakeman, on the 8th of Feb inst.
"The prisoner set up the defence usually adopted by the most hackneyed thieves. He was going along, he said, rather quick down Oxford Street, and saw another boy, exactly of his own size, run very swiftly before him. Immediately, he heard the cry of 'Stop, thief,' when the boy dropped a parcel; he (the prisoner) picked it up and cried out 'You have lost your handkerchiefs'. The boy instantly turned around, and desired him to keep them, when at the moment an officer came up and took him into custody."

And here's Charles Dickens' scene from 1837, which we join as the Dodger and Charley spot a likely mark at a Clerkenwell book stall:

"What was Oliver's horror and alarm as he stood a few paces off, looking on with his eyelids as wide open as they would possibly go, to see the Dodger plunge his hand into the old gentleman's pocket, and draw from thence a handkerchief! To see him hand the same to Charley Bates; and finally to behold them, both running away round the corner at full speed!
"In an instant the whole mystery of the handkerchiefs, and the watches, and the jewels, and the Jew, rushed upon the boy's mind.
"He stood, for a moment, with the blood so tingling through all his veins from terror, that he felt as if he were in a burning fire; then, confused and frightened, he took to his heels; and, not knowing what he did, made off as fast as he could lay his feet to the ground.
"This was all done in a minute's space. In the very instant when Oliver began to run, the old gentleman, putting his hand to his pocket, and missing his handkerchief, turned sharp round. Seeing the boy scudding away at such a rapid pace, he very naturally concluded him to be the depredator; and shouting 'Stop thief!' with all his might, made off after him, book in hand."

Everyone around joins in the chase in a mad pell-mell, including the Dodger and Charley who are now posing as concerned citizens. Oliver's finally knocked to the ground by a man hoping the handkerchief's owner will reward him for it.

"The fellow touched his hat with a grin, expecting something for his pains; but, the old gentleman eyeing him with an expression of dislike, looked anxiously round, as if he contemplated running away himself: which it is very possible he might have attempted to do, and thus have afforded another chase, had not a police officer (who is generally the last person to arrive in such cases) at that moment made his way through the crowd, and seized Oliver by the collar.
"'Come, get up,' said the man, roughly.
"'It wasn't me indeed, sir. Indeed, indeed, it was two other boys,' said Oliver, clasping his hands passionately, and looking round. 'They are here somewhere.'
"'Oh no, they ain't,' said the officer. He meant this to be ironical, but it was true besides; for the Dodger and Charley Bates had filed off down the first convenient court they came to."

Incidentally, the other thing Gallows Child always makes me think of is Christopher Brookmyre's 2001 crime novel A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away. Brookmyre explained his title by saying it's an excuse heard so often in the Scottish courts that it practically counts as a third official plea: does the defendant plead Guilty, Not Guilty, or A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away?
Charles Elliot chose the third option, but it didn't help him any more than it helps most defendants today.
I might try and get up to see your play in Chester if I get the chance. If you're game for it, maybe I could even make a little field recording of you or the cast singing
Gallows Child in its new setting and post it on-line as I did with Pete Morton's Nasra Ismail performance here.
July 1, 2011. David Reeves of Northampton, writes: "I just came across your article about the Knoxville Girl/Oxford Tragedy/Bloody Miller ballads, and wanted to say how interesting I found it.
"My grandparents used to own a small farm next door to the Hogstow Mill mentioned in The Bloody Miller. As a small child I used to walk past the mill from the bus stop when visiting my grandmother. The wind used make an eerie whining noise in the power cables, and I always thought it was haunted. When I first encountered this ballad and realised that it was the same mill - and therefore that the murder may well have happened on my Grandfather's fields - it did send a tingle down my spine.
"It had always been my intention to investigate this further, and to see if there was any evidence of an actual murder. I got as far as the local history library in Shrewsbury but no further, so I was very pleased to see you had found details for Anne Nicholas and her son. I wonder if there is any record of the trial of Francis Cooper? Being a murder trial, this would have been in the assizes court (rather than the sessions) and so any records would be at the public records office in Kew. Did you look at this at all?"
"Thanks again for a fascinating study."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for that - I'm really glad you enjoyed the piece. I did do a bit of research on Francis and Anne out at Kew, but I'm not sure I ever thought to ask for the assizes records there. If you should ever decide to investigate them for yourself, please do drop me a line again, as I'd love to see any new information you might uncover.
May 22, 2011. Roberta Wood of Chicago, Illinois, writes: "Hi, I enjoyed reading your story about The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll. I remember hearing about that case when I was growing up in Baltimore. Roy Wood was my uncle and it was interesting to see the role his story played.
"My uncle Roy was a righteous, crusading man, in a very difficult period of our country's history. I'm forwarding this to my cousin, who might be able to send you more info about him. He made not only great political contributions, but musical ones too."

Paul Slade replies: I always love to hear from relatives of the people I write about on this site, Roberta, so I'm delighted you enjoyed the piece and that you thought I did your uncle justice. As a PlanetSlade correspondent, you join an elite list which already includes Harry Pace's great grandson, Martin Bates' great great niece and JV Quick's great great great grand-daughter. Not bad.
That news story of your uncle's which Broadside reproduced was Bob Dylan's biggest single influence when he wrote
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, and I hope Roy took great pleasure and pride in the fact that he'd inspired such a masterpiece of a song. Anyone curious to read more about his role can find the details in my article.
May 23, 2011. Calla Smorodin, of St Louis, Missouri, writes:
"My cousin Roberta Wood forwarded your article to me. Roy Wood is my father, and I would be happy to share information about him. In 1963 I was not living on the East Coast and I am sorry to say I did not know about the Hattie Carroll event. My father did a lot of important things in his life, but was not one to brag about himself or his accomplishments.
"He would never have described himself as a 'righteous' man, but rather a patriot. He and most of us in our family were proud of our ancestors' participation in the American Revolution, the Civil War (on the side of the north of course, his family being abolitionists), and World War II. Even though he had a wife and two small children during WW II and could have possibly avoided the draft, he served in the US Merchant Marine bringing supplies to North African ports.
"His personal first commandment was that all people are created equal [and] the thing that distressed him most about his beloved Baltimore was the deep-rooted racism among its white population. Among the organizations he was affiliated with during his life, all had in common an egalitarian theme: The Communist Party of the USA (for which he served a jail sentence), The New Democratic Coalition, and a seniors' group in Baltimore County, the name of which I do not remember.
"His music was his interior life, where he found joy and solace. He celebrated (and played) all the new music as it came into being from Fats Waller to Rock 'n' Roll. When he was home, he practiced Chopin's Polonaise every day. He played nothing else! I grew up thinking that was how everyone lived.
"The piano was his instrument - an upright piano. I believe he didn't see any point in bothering with any other. He sang as he played whenever the piece had words. And like most of our family -- he loved people."

Paul Slade replies: Thanks so much for your letter, Calla. Roy really does sound like a lovely man, and the family's love for him is palpable in everything you and Roberta have said here.
May 11, 2011. Dr Kieren Pitts of the Amateur Entomologists' Society writes:
"Thank you for the email and the information on the comic. I've forwarded it to the various editors of our publications.
"One thing: this could just be artistic licence as it fits the story better, rather than you aiming for 100% entomological accuracy, but worker ants are always females. Male ants only appear seasonally and leave the nest to mate with new queens and then die. Males never forage around the nest so it would always be a female worker that finds the butterfly caterpillar."

Paul Slade replies: I must admit, I didn't know that about worker ants, but I'm going to plead artistic licence anyway. There's so many females elsewhere in the story that making the ant a "she" as well would have rendered the captions hopelessly confusing.
Practical considerations like these aside, it just seemed instinctively right to cast the story with a male ant and a female catapillar - perhaps because the catapillar remains effortlessly three steps ahead through their entire duel. That sounds like a woman running rings round her poor befuddled man to me!
Message board round-up

The truly obsessive among you can find the sources for my latest collection of blurbs (Nineteen nimble netsters...) here:

Down The Tubes (May 9, 2011 entry).


Lorne Blair



Scott McCloud (June 29, 2011 entry).

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On Murder Ballads
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On Murder Ballads
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“I haven't been able to tear myself away for the past two hours. [...] Absolutely fascinating stuff.” - Deborah Maskin, fRoots.

“A very interesting project.” - Charley Noble, Mudcat.

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“Fantastic collection.”- Spiderhill, Tumblr.

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