Zack Harold Published

Traditional Murder Ballads Reveal A Dark Truth About 'True Crime' Media

Guitar in blue room

I got really into bluegrass when I was in college. And it didn’t take long before I ran into my very first murder ballad — “The Knoxville Girl,” as performed by Jim and Jesse McReynolds.

I’d never heard anything like it. Bleak, disturbing lyrics set to such a lively major-key melody. And as I learned more about the bluegrass canon, I kept running into more songs like this. Like “Pretty Polly” and “Katy Dear.”

The more of these songs I discovered, the more I noticed odd similarities in the stories. Almost every time, a jealous lover takes his girl out to the woods or down by the river. She, evidently sensing something is amiss, begs him not to hurt her. Then he kills her — usually with a knife.

And for some reason, the guy’s name is usually “Willie.”

After years of pondering the subject, I decided to get to the bottom of this murder ballad mystery. That’s how I ended up on the phone with Mark Charles of Louisville, Kentucky. His band Vandaveer recorded a whole album of murder ballads — called fittingly enough, “Oh Willie Please.” Having spent so much time with these songs, I wondered if Charles had gained any insights into their creepy similarities.

“Certainly you start noticing thematic similarities and overlapping details,” Charles said. “Some of that’s to be expected because so much of the ballad tradition is storytelling and passing down stories from one generation to another or from one town to another.”

Folk music, by its very nature, takes elements from old songs and transforms them into something new. Many murder ballads such as “The Knoxville Girl” have roots in the British Isles, where they were printed in broadsides — cheap pamphlets that were the 17th century version of tabloid newspapers.

For this reason, early musicologists dismissed American murder ballads as rip-offs of their English forebearers. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

According to murder ballad scholar Christina Blanton, the American tunes are trying to telegraph something very specific about 19th century white American society.

“There were absolutely warnings to women about what happens when you are not well behaved, when you fall in love with the wrong guy, when you are not abiding by the accepted moral code,” she said.

The songs were a way of reinforcing society’s standards for women. It’s no mistake the murders typically take place in the woods or by the river.

“She’s always lured away from that Appalachian town that represents codified society, a place of safety,” Blanton said.

It’s also not a mistake that the songs’ drownings evoke images of old-time river baptisms.

“After they’re dead they do finally attain that perfect feminine nature,” Blanton said.

The songs clean up their victims in other ways, too. The stories are strikingly similar and, if you pay close attention, so are the victims.

“A woman needs to be pure and good and she’s misled by this mean, mean horrible man. And this mean, mean horrible man doesn’t want the responsibility of fatherhood, in a lot of cases, or to provide financially — so he offs her,” said Madison Helman, a graduate student at West Virginia University who is currently working on a dissertation about murder ballads.

Helman has dug into old court records and newspaper reports about the crimes that inspired several famous songs. She’s found interesting disparities between what actually happened and what made it into the lyrics.

Take the ballad “Omi Wise,” for example. It’s based on a real murder in north carolina from a few hundred years. In the song, a guy named John gets Omi pregnant out of wedlock. He lures her into the woods, promising to elope, and instead drowns her in the river. Toward the end of the song, the whole town goes out to look for her body and bring John to justice.

In real life, Omi already had kids with other men, and was likely meeting with John so he would sign some paternity papers.

“And there’s not really this angelic virginal maiden who was led astray by love. It’s a woman who was doing her own thing, living her life kind of on the outskirts. And when she went missing, not that many people went looking for her,” Helman said.

It seems murder ballads only interesting in telling the stories of women who fit a particular profile. If victims didn’t fit the profile, like Omi Wise, sometimes their stories got changed. Other times, the stories don’t get told at all.

It’s something we still see in true crime podcasts, documentaries and books.

“The cases that still get the most press are a pretty white well-off blonde girl,” Helman said. “And I’m not saying they shouldn’t also get sympathy and elicit support, but there are hundreds of women who don’t fit that profile and are in that same situation, and we don’t hear about it.

“That happened back then, too.”

So why do we continue singing murder ballads? Or consume any other kind of true crime media, for that matter?

“People are fascinated by pretty dark stuff,” said Mark Charles of Vandaveer. “It’s fitting and telling that in the ballad tradition, the more heinous the story, the more memorable it might become.”

Folks might be drawn to these dark stories, but when Vandaveer went on the road to promote their murder ballad album, they found audiences had a limited appetite for the songs.

“We quickly found that on stage a couple of murder ballads go along way,” Charles said. “Put three in a row in a set, and you can feel the air escape the room.”

Of course, Vandaveer knew it was dealing with dark stuff when it decided to make the album.

That’s why they also decided to give a portion of the proceeds to a womens’ crisis center in Louisville, Kentucky.

“It was important to us that we have some perspective and make sure that the audience was aware of that side of the project too,” Charles said.

Because as grim and disturbing as these stories can be, they are also depressingly familiar.

“The victims in the songs were women. And you know, stories of domestic abuse have not abated and instances of domestic abuse have not abated,” Charles said. “It’s a little bit like shining a light on a problem that’s been around for hundreds and hundreds of years.”

This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, which is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to Inside Appalachia to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.

This Folkways story originally aired in the May 20, 2022 episode of Inside Appalachia.