When true crime was sung

By Michelle Sacks

While listening to a podcast the other day, I learned a new term, murder ballad.   I immediately thought of popular songs that have elicited controversy due to their depiction of murder and domestic abuse.  That initial thought made me wonder about the antiquity of this genre.  I searched online, ordered dated books from third-party Amazonians, listened to more podcasts and alas I have more questions than answers and I am thrilled to share my findings. 

Musical depictions of heinous crimes date back to the Egyptians. Before then, cavemen would paint stories of murder on cave walls to tell the tales.  Answering the question of why these were created and used was the easiest to find.  Let’s face it, people are drawn to anything crime related. Not just crime but gruesome crimes of the murderous kind.  We are fascinated! We read True Crime blogs, we watch Dateline, we listen to entirely too many crime centered podcasts and read too many true crime novels.  Media goes bananas over a salacious crime because they know that viewers will eat it up.   From a necessity standpoint, they were used to relay information and to inform the community.  Singing the stories were done to reach illiterate citizens.  They made the songs catchy by incorporating rhyme which would lead listeners to mindlessly hum along to a story of someone’s grisly demise.  Many of these ballads were written in first person and sung in public spaces and streets, where most of the townspeople would gather.  These songs were then passed along to subsequent generations and would carry to other towns.  This is where these ballads shifted from a way to convey information to mainly entertainment.  

Songs were not only being sung depicting murders but also the executions of the murderers.  These were used as both cautionary tales and entertainment.  This is not shocking considering the substantial number of locals that would gather to view a public hanging or beheading.  Let's say you were condemned to your home with the plague and unable to attend a public execution.  Fear not, I can recount every gory detail with a catchy tune that you will not be able to get out of your head therefore you will sing it to your children at bedtime.  Your children will then go on to sing it to their children and so on and so forth.  This is assuming you survived your illness. 

Murder ballads can be found around the world for example, Mexican corridos.  Look up “Corrido De Arnulfo Gonzalez” by Antonio Aguilar for a depiction of a deadly encounter with a police officer.  In Finland there is a singing duo appropriately named Murder Ballads, that sing songs about murders. 

There is no shortage of songs sung about murders, murderers and songs that some say encourage murder and there is also no shortage of songs sung by murderers.  Prison life seems to bring out the musical talents in many.  To think they could have been law-abiding citizens earning a respectable living using these talents for good.  

The most infamous might be Charles Manson who released roughly twenty albums and a handful of singles. Nineteen of the albums were recorded while he was in prison serving time for murder.  Notable song titles: “Don’t do Anything Illegal” and “People Say I’m No Good”. 

The Prisonaires were an R&B group from Nashville made up of five prisoners, two of which were serving time for murder. This group was granted day passes to tour! 

Huddie William Ledbetter, AKA Lead Belly, was serving time for murder.  This murderer was granted early release, from prison, for a murder sentence, by singing a song for the governor of Texas in 1925.  Lead Belly’s occupations are listed as singer, songwriter, murderer.  I was not aware that murder was an occupation, could be a future blog topic.  

Corey Miller, AKA C-Murder, is an American rapper who has released nine albums in and out of prison.  I know this may be shocking to read nevertheless C-murder was convicted and currently serving time for…murder.  Let this be a lesson when choosing your stage name.  Self-fulling prophecy maybe?  Notable song titles: “Murder and Daz” and “Murder Suicide”.  

Lastly, one of the oldest examples I discovered was Carlo Gesualdo, a prince of Venosa, who viciously murdered his first wife and her lover.  He was a prolific composer during the 16th and 17th centuries, despite being a murderer.  It appears that his ghastly past and graphic music led to his popularity and was referred to as a “badass”.  As a side note, he was not held accountable for the murders due to his princely status. Notable songs titles translated from Italian: “You are Killing Me, o Cruel One” and “If You Desire My Death”.

There you have it, this brings a whole new meaning to “singing like a canary”.  Humor aside, let us not forget the victims of these crimes.  

I’ll leave you with a few featured in the book American Murder Ballads by Olive Wooley Burt:

Lizzie Borden took an axe

And gave her mother forty whacks.

Then she stood behind the door

And gave her father forty more. 

 

‘Twas in the morning very cool,

As Josie started for her school;

Then on her body marks did show,

Some skilful hand had dealt the blow. 

The wretch who did this wicked deed,

Was one Lelage, a chopper by trade.

He often had outraged other young maids,

And took the life of Josie Hangmaid.

 

Six miners went into the mountains 

To hunt for precious gold;

It was the middle of winter,

The weather was dreadful cold.

Six miners went into the mountains, 

They had nor food nor shack-

Six miners went into the mountains,

But only one came back.

Copyright 2019 by Michelle Sacks. All Rights Reserved.

Michelle Sack is the former Director of the Safe School Institute at Crime Stoppers of Houston

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