Sing Murder

by Nathan Salsburg

Long before cable news, supermarket tabloids, and O.J. Simpson’s imaginary memoir stepped forward to sate our voracious and voyeuristic appetite for stories of jilted lovers and bloody retribution, Renaissance England teemed with broadsheet hawkers selling sex, death, and damnation for a shilling a page. Following a rarely deviating story line — from rendezvous to murder to cover-up to punishment (corporeal and/or divine) — many of these ballads were born of real events and were hurriedly composed (by hacks), printed (by third-rate printers), and rushed out into the cobble-stoned streets (by “patterers”) for rapid consumption by the citizenry. And that citizenry could sing them on the spot, provided it was familiar with the popular tune the ballad’s composer assigned it, or was able to pick it up from the singing of the patterer. Stabbings, bludgeonings, stranglings, drownings, victims stuffed with stones and pieces of iron — the ingenuity of the murderers put many of their contemporary counterparts to shame, and the high melodramatic syrup dripping from the broadsheets remains untouchable even by the most craven tabloid journalism.

But no matter how shocking the crime and its accompanying blood and gore, the ballads (written primarily in the first person — that is, from the perspective of the perp) never forsook the opportunity to conclude the story with an adult-sized cocktail of pious regret, gallows moralizing, and an entreaty to get right with God: “people take warning, not to do as I have done.” The Renaissance murder ballad gave the people the lowbrow sensationalism they craved — as we crave — with one God-fearing eye fixed on Hellfire. They were temporal and timeless, and they remain timeless today.

A pattererA pattererCharlie Louvin, in our video interview, gives the birth-date of “The Knoxville Girl” as 1723. There is some dispute as to when it first appeared in broadside form, which it did as, alternately, “The Bloody Miller” or “The Berkshire Tragedy; Or, The Wittam Miller. With an Account of his Murdering his Sweetheart,” although evidence suggests that the murder did in fact take place in 1683 or 1684. But it hardly matters much when, these 400 years later, the story’s core elements have been disseminated through dozens of sung descendants of varying degrees of textual, musical, and geographic distance. The lyrics of Charlie’s “The Knoxville Girl” would have been recognized by Irish, English, Maritime, Appalachian, Texan, and Midwestern singers over the past 250 years as cousin to “The Wexford Girl,” “The Oxford Girl,” “The Lexington Girl,” or “The Cruel Miller,” among a number of other variants. And, as Charlie makes plain, some small difference a handful of years makes when the ballad’s themes of jealousy, revenge, and punishment are nearly carbon-datable, and will certainly endure in perpetuity.

Watch & Listen

Guitarist, writer, archivist and Smoke producer Nathan Salsburg spends time with one of our heroes, Charlie Louvin, at the Louvin Museum in Nashville. Charlie recalls his first radio shows and how audiences called for the old songs, including "The Knoxville Girl."
On choosing not to forget, Nashville, the Opry these days, opening for rock bands, and his beloved brother, Ira.
A new live performance - a Smoke original!
A new live performance - a Smoke original!
A new live performance - a Smoke original!
Brooklyn's Copper Kettle perform a murder ballad variant of The Knoxville Girl.
Sung by Sheila Kay Adams at Burton Cove, Sodom Laurel, Madison County, NC on September 5, 1982. Shot by Nick Doob and directed by Alan Lomax. Courtesy of the Alan Lomax Archive.
Murder ballad playlist by Nathan Salsburg

Buy

Louvin Steps to Heaven Charlie Louvin - Charlie Louvin Charlie Louvin Live at Shake Records Charlie Louvin 80th Birthday EP