The murder ballad has a long history in folk and traditional music and there are so many great ones! Typically, the lyrics will tell a story of murder and infidelity, along with assorted other crimes. Some of these songs crossed over into Rock and Pop music over the years.
Maybe the most famous one in rock music is Hey Joe, which started out as a folk song, and was immortalized by Jimi. Another great one, from the country music side of things, is Long Black Veil, which tells the story of a falsely accused man who is executed for murder. He has an alibi but will not give it, since he was fooling around with his best friend’s wife the night of the murder. Who thinks this stuff up? I love it. Johnny Cash had a big hit with it and there’s also a great version by The Band from Music From the Big Pink.
One of my favorite murder ballads is Matty Groves as done by Fairport Convention, which tells another story of infidelity. A sword fight ensues and poor Matty bites it.
Check out these lyrics. Cold stuff!
And then Lord Donald he took his wife
And he sat her on his knee
Saying, “Who do you like the best of us
Matty Groves or me?”
And then up spoke his own dear wife
Never heard to speak so free
“I’d rather a kiss from dead Matty’s lips
Than you or your finery”
Lord Donald, he jumped up
And loudly he did bawl
He struck his wife right through the heart
And pinned her against the wall
“A grave, a grave, ” Lord Donald cried
“To put these lovers in
But bury my lady at the top
For she was of noble kin”
On the very same album, Fairport sing about Crazy Man Michel in yet another murder ballad. In this one, the main protagonist kills his own true love. In his madness he thinks he is stabbing a talking raven with his dagger, only to realize the truth when it’s too late. Here is Natalie Merchant giving the song a go.
Nice try Natalie. Tough to live up to the original though.
I’ll leave you with one more of my favorites, this one by The Cowboy Junkies. I confess that I’m not a huge fan of theirs but I’ve always loved this song, which tells the story of Mrs. Annabelle Evans, who had her throat cut out in the dark and of the man who did it. This is a surprisingly rocking, live version by the Junkies.
Okay, I lied, one more. I’ve always loved this song by David Gilmour. Murder, in which he sings about a crazy knife killer and wonders why he did it. The narrator then wonders how he will ever be free from the anger he feels and laments the fact that none of his feelings “Can make any difference, or turn back the page.” Murder, it’s today’s little distraction from real life. Oh wait…