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Murder Ballads: an introduction

Murder Ballads
Secret London

So, why murder ballads? First and foremost, I think it's because they're essentially a form of journalism. Most of the songs you'll find discussed here were written very soon after the real-life crimes they describe, and sold in the streets within hours of the killer's capture or execution. Cheerfully vulgar, revelling in gore, and always with an eye on the main chance, these songs were tabloid newspapers set to music, carrying news of all the latest 'orrible murders to an insatiable public.

People get stabbed, bludgeoned or shot in every verse, but the songs telling their tale never die

Then there's the fact that murder ballads never stop mutating, morphing to suit local place names as they cross and re-cross the Atlantic, and changing with the times as they move down the decades to fascinate each generation's biggest musical stars. Victims are bludgeoned, stabbed or shot in every verse and killers are often hanged, but the songs themselves never die.
For all this mutability, the core facts of the story in each song are surprisingly persistent, and give us just enough information to follow a trail through the clippings library to the real individuals whose short lives and brutal deaths have become an indelible part of popular culture. No-one's going to care how you or I met our ends 100 years from now, but they'll still be singing Billy Lyons' tale and recalling his fatal encounter with that bad man Stagger Lee.

Follow PlanetSlade on Twitter @MoshpitMemories

PlanetSlade’s second Twitter stream runs daily extracts from my diaries as a young music fan. These cover the years from 1975-1981, a period which included the glory days of UK punk. Between the ages of 16 and 23 I saw most of that era’s best bands play live in tiny clubs, bought more than my share of their wonderfully invigorating records and drank an ocean of beer.

Added in Feb 2013: Gallows Ballads “album”

We’ve now got at least one brand-new modern recording of all 16 Victorian gallows ballads I started researching here back in 2010. To mark this milestone, I’ve assembled all the tracks so far into a single 87-minute Soundcloud set, which you’ll find here.
      Contributors include Tim Radford, The Jetsonics, Pete Morton, Mary Humphreys, South County, Big Al Whittle, Sedayne, Fred Smith, Doc Bowling and Kim Caudell. Three continents are represented in all, and the styles used range from full-blast rock trio, via traditional folk to jazzy soul.
      Each track represents a collaboration across more than 100 years, as today’s musicians add their own tunes and performance skills to the 19th Century ballad sheets’ original lyrics.
      You can find the true murder stories behind all the songs here. If it’s individual song links you’re after, or the contributing musicians’ own comments on their tracks, head for PlanetSlade Music.


PLUS: Longform lists PlanetSlade in year's Top 10 scours the web for new and classic non-fiction articles of 2,000 words or more, and points its readers towards the three or four best examples it finds each day.
      Just before Christmas the editors there ranked my Andy Capp piece as one of the ten best articles they’d seen in the whole of 2012 – not too shabby when you consider the rest of that Top Ten is filled by prestigious magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s and GQ.
      For more details on my Top Ten placing and of Longform’s free service, please click here.
      The same page has a batch of new letters to PlanetSlade - including one from Reg Smythe’s niece - plus several new sightings of the “woman dressed in red” motif which we’ve considered here before in Stagger Lee. Mississippi John Hurt fans will find that discussion particularly interesting, I think.
      Finally, the past couple of months have brought some significant rulings in the Siegel and Shuster families’ Superman lawsuits. I’ve added a couple of brief updates explaining these to the final page of my Superheroes in Court piece.