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Knoxville Girl: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

Philip Henry was a non-conformist clergyman living about 20 miles from the Shropshire town of Shrewsbury – then also called Salop. On February 20, 1683, he wrote this in his diary: “I heard of a murther in Salop on Sabb. Day ye 10. instant, a woman fathering a conception on a Milner was Kild by him in a feild, her Body laye there many dayes by reason of ye Coroner's absence.” (2)
Under the Julian calendar, which then prevailed in England, February 10, 1683, was indeed a Sunday. Henry is a contemporary local witness describing something that happened very recently, so there's good reason to take his account seriously.
The next piece of the puzzle comes from the third volume of Samuel Pepys' collected ballads, which covers the period from 1666 to 1688. Pepys was a keen collector of the printed broadsheet ballads which were then sold on every London street corner, and amassed over 1,800 examples in his personal archive. Somewhere around 1685, he added one called The Bloody Miller, which came complete with this introduction:

“A true and just Account of one Francis Cooper of Hocstow near Shrewsbury, who was a Miller's Servant, and kept company with one Anne Nichols for the space of two years, who then proved to be with Child by him, and being urged by her father to marry her he most wickedly and barbarously murdered her.” (3)

The wording and scansion establish The Bloody Miller as Knoxville Girl's earliest ancestor

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Hocstow, is a 17th Century spelling of Hogstow, a village about 12 miles south-west of Shrewsbury, so the place, the killer's profession, the date and the deed itself all match Henry's account. It's fair to conclude that both documents are describing the same crime, and now we can put a name to each of the main players. The murderer was called Francis Cooper, his victim was Anne Nichols, and he killed her because he'd knocked her up and didn't want to marry her.
The lyrics of the ballad itself give us the remaining details. A young miller spots an attractive girl in his home village and, despite her virtuous nature, persuades her to sleep with him. She discovers she's pregnant, and her father sends her round to the miller's cottage to demand he marries her. The miller suggests they find a quiet country spot where they can discuss the matter in private. He then murders her horribly and is eventually hanged for the crime.
The similarities with Knoxville Girl's plot are striking enough, but it's the wording and scansion of the two songs that really establishes The Bloody Miller as Knoxville Girl's earliest ancestor. Before we come on to that aspect, though, we need to look at another old English ballad too.
Gallows ballads like The Bloody Miller were a popular form in Pepys' day, and often claimed to be an authentic record of the killer's last confession or his dying words on the scaffold. These were composed by workers in London's print shops, run off the presses the night before the execution and sold at the base of the gallows itself while the hanged man's body was still swinging. The goriest ballads tended to sell particularly well, and would be endlessly rewritten and adapted to extend their shelf life, often incorporating local details or adapting themselves to new atrocities as time passed and the sellers travelled from town to town.
The Bloody Miller spawned other ballads very quickly, and the most significant of these is The Berkshire Tragedy. The National Library of Australia has a copy printed in 1744, but it's probably a good deal older than that. The ballad tells the same basic story as The Bloody Miller, but sets its tale in Wytham, just across the border from Berkshire in the next-door county of Oxfordshire. It also adds several new elements to the tale which are not present in The Bloody Miller, but which crop up again half a century later in the first versions of Knoxville Girl. Most significantly of all, The Berkshire Tragedy's narrator describes his victim as “an Oxford lass” - Oxford's about four miles from Wytham - and that's a development we'll return to later.

Loved so well: continued

The Oxford Girl, by Waterson:Carthy (2004). That's Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy, of course, who give us this rare recording of Knoxville Girl's ancestor. Tim van Eyken's melodeon sets an appropriately mournful tone as Norma sings her way to the gallows. Available on: Fishes & Fine Yellow Sand (Topic, 2004).

Knoxville Girl (Parting Gift), by Jennie Stearns (2005). Not a version of the original song, but Stearns' meditation on the Knoxville Girl's fate and the baffling cruelty of men. The gift, it turns out, is Stearns' song itself, placed like a gentle flower on the victim's grave. It's every bit as sweet as it sounds. Available on: Sing Desire (Blue Corn, 2005).

Knoxville Girl, by Sheila Kay Adams (2005). Sheila learned this song as a child in the evocatively-named town of Sodom, North Carolina, and her a cappella version is one of the loveliest I've heard. Clear, steady and tuneful, it's a little gem. Available on: Song Links 2 (Fellside, 2005).

Knoxville Girl, by Charlie Louvin & Will Oldham (2007). Young bands often revel in the brutality of Knoxville Girl, but Louvin's sombre solo reading is a chastening reminder of what violence really means. Make way for a grown-up, children. Available on: Charlie Louvin (Tompkins Square, 2007).

Knoxville Girl, by Rachel Brooke (2008). Brooke coats this recording with surface noise to mimic the 78s she so obviously loves, which creates a pleasing old-time feel. She gives a clever twist to the lyrics too, turning the story into one about a girl murdering the woman her true love prefers. “I murdered that Knoxville Girl,” she boasts at the end. “That girl he loved so well”. Available on: Rachel Brooke (Rachel Brooke, 2008).