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Knoxville Girl: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

It's not clear whether The Berkshire Tragedy was a simple rewrite of The Bloody Miller, with these changes brought in simply because its composer hoped they'd make the thing sell better, or whether they're facts imported from a real Berkshire murder at around that time. If it's the latter, then even this early version of the printed ballad may be an amalgam of two quite separate crimes. I can't explain why it's called The Berkshire Tragedy when neither of the main characters lived there, but perhaps The Oxfordshire Tragedy was simply thought too unwieldy a title.
So. Let's recap for a moment. We've got The Bloody Miller, collected by Pepys in around 1685, complete with an introduction giving the killer and his victim's names, plus an independent contemporary account of the crime itself. By 1744, this ballad had produced an alternative version called The Berkshire Tragedy, which adds many of the details we're familiar with in Knoxville Girl today, but which may also draw on a second crime quite separate from the one Pepys' ballad describes.
The ballad scholar GM Laws draws precisely this family tree for Knoxville Girl, linking it directly back to 17th Century England. “The ballad in all its forms preserves the same stanzic pattern, the same basic sequence of events, many of the same descriptive and narrative details, and even the same phrases and rhyming words,” he says. (4)
The clearest way to illustrate this point is to assemble a composite version of The Bloody Miller and The Berkshire Tragedy, using the two English ballads' original wording, but setting each verse against its equivalent in the American song. The result looks like this:

The Bloody Miller (c. 1685) /
The Berkshire Tragedy (1744)

“By chance upon an Oxford lass,   }
I cast a wanton eye,   }B
And promised I would marry her   }T
If she with me would lie.   }
“Thus I deluded her again,   }
Into a private place,   }B
Then took a stick out of the hedge,   }T
And struck her in the face.   }
“But she fell on bended knee,   }
For mercy she did cry,   }B
‘For heaven's sake don't murder me,   }T
I am not fit to die’   }
“From ear to ear I slit her mouth,   }
And stabbed her in the head,   }B
Till she poor soul did breathless lie,   }M
Before her butcher bled.   }
“And then I took her by the hair,   }
To cover the foul sin   }B
And dragged her to the river side,   }T
And threw her body in.   }
“Thus in the blood of innocence,   }
My hands were deeply dyed,   }B
And shined in the purple gore,   }T
That should have been my bride.   }
“Then home unto my mill I ran,   }
But sorely was amazed,   }B
My man thought I had mischief done,   }T
And strangely on me gazed.   }
“‘How came you by that blood upon,   }
Your trembling hands and clothes?’   }B
I presently to him replied   }T
‘By bleeding at the nose.’   }
“I wishfully upon him looked,   }
But little to him said,   }B
I snatched the candle from his hand,   }T
And went unto my bed.   }
“There I lay trembling all the night,   }
For I could take no rest,   }B
And perfect flames of hell did flash,   }T
Like lightening in my face.   }
“The justice too perceived my guilt,   }
Nor either would take bail,   }B
But the next morning I was sent,   }T
Away to Reading gaol.”   }
“So like a wretch my days I end,   }
Upon the gallows tree,   }
And I do hope my punishment,   }B
Will such a warning be,   }M
That none may ever after this,   }
Commit such villany.” (3, 6)   }
The nosebleed is a DNA ‘signature’ showing the song's branches all have a common trunk

The English ballads are a lot more long-winded than their American cousin, and tend to go in for a lot more moralising. But cutting all this out, as I've done above, still leaves all the key elements of Knoxville Girl in place. The private walk's there, and so's the stick, the plea for mercy and the fact that she's not yet made her peace with God. The sadism of the killing itself is present too, as are the hair, the river, the forestalled wedding, the return home, the nosebleed, the candle, the restless night, the trip to jail and the bad end.
One element which was lost when the English ballads started to be shortened was an unambiguous statement of what caused all the trouble. The Bloody Miller has:

“She did believe my flattering tongue,    
Till I got her with child”.3    

And The Berkshire Tragedy says:

“The damsel came to me and said,    
By you I am with child,    
I hope dear John you'll marry me,    
For you have me defiled”.(6)    

Whoever put the earliest versions of Knoxville Girl together retained the source ballads' scansion, and that means the composite version above can be sung to Knoxville Girl's modern tune. Any musicians out there are looking for a novel take on the song might like to see the verse-by-verse comparison I've put together here (PDF).
Set out like this, The Berkshire Tragedy looks much more significant than The Bloody Miller, accounting for 40 lines against the Miller's ten. But it's worth remembering that, without The Bloody Miller, there'd be no Berkshire Tragedy in the first place. It's The Bloody Miller which is most directly connected to the real Anne Nichols' death, and which first coined this whole family of songs' most distinctive and enduring image. Here's how The Bloody Miller puts it:

“My bloody fact I still denied,    
Disown'd to the last,    
But when I saw this for my fact,    
Just judgement on me passed,    
The blood in Court ran from my nose,    
Yea, ran exceeding fast.”    

Every later version, starting with The Berkshire Tragedy, shifts this scene to the killer's return home, where he uses the nosebleed excuse to fob off questions about his blood-stained clothes. The Berkshire Tragedy verse above has him holding this conversation with a servant, but that would hardly have been a credible circumstance for the early Scottish and Irish settlers who first brought this song across the Atlantic. Knoxville Girl sets the conversation in simple family surroundings, having the killer confronted by his worried mother:

“Saying ‘Son, what have you done,    
To bloody your clothes so?’    
I told my anxious mother,    
I was bleeding at my nose.”    

This idea recurs in almost every version of Knoxville Girl, and it's the single most reliable DNA “signature” establishing that all the branches of this song's family tree lead back to The Bloody Miller's trunk. In its first usage, the nosebleed in court may have been intended as an omen of the killer's ill fortune – in this case, his imminent execution.
This is a belief from English folklore which goes back at least as far as 1180, when Nigel de Longchamps' Mirror for Fools has a character interpreting his nosebleed as a sign of bad luck to come. The same idea appears again in John Webster's Duchess of Malfi from 1614 and in Samuel Pepys' 1667 diary. On July 6 that year, Pepys writes: “It was an ominous thing, methought, just as he was bidding me his last Adieu, his nose fell a-bleeding, which run in my mind a pretty while after.” (6, 7)

Banks of the Ohio: KG's distant cousin?

There's no mention of the crucial nosebleed in this 1971 Olivia Newton John hit, but its resemblance to Knoxville Girl's plot is still striking.
     A couple go for a private walk by the river, one of them produces a knife and ignores the other's protest about being unprepared for eternity. After the stabbing, the victim's body is dragged into the river and the killer returns home protesting true love.
     But there are differences too. This time, it's the murderer who wants to get married, and the victim who refuses. When the knife appears, the victim seems almost eager to die, pushing on to the blade as it pierces flesh.
     The fact that this song's so often sung by a woman produces some twists too. Newton John casts herself as the murderess (“I killed the only man I love / He would not take me for his bride”), but Kristen Hersh plays the victim (“He drew his knife across my breast / And in his arms I gently pressed”).
     Snakefarm's Anna Domino seems to be singing as a male killer (“I asked your mother for you dear / And she said you were too young”), but the more I listen to her carefully ambiguous lyrics, the less certain I am. Couldn't that “lily hand” she mentions equally belong to a young man killed by a besotted older woman?
     Olivia Newton John took her version of Banks to number 6 in the UK charts back in 1971, and it stayed in the top 50 here for 17 weeks. This remains Knoxville Girl's closest claim to major chart success, and one which later Banks covers by Johnny Cash, The Handsome Family and Otis Clay have been unable to match.
     Song scholars trace Banks back to an older song with an identical plot called The Banks of the Old Pee Dee, first collected in 1915. The best-known river of that name originates in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, a region where we know Knoxville Girl's source songs had been adapted for American use since the early 1800s. Somewhere along the way, Banks discarded its telltale nosebleed, but the family resemblance remains unmistakable.