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(Diversions, a new feature on Aquarium Drunkard, catches up with our favorite artists as they wax on subjects other than recording and performing.  We’re kicking the series off in style with the incomparable Rennie Sparks, of The Handsome Family, as she lists and discusses her ten favorite murder ballads. Look for the new Handsome Family LP, Honey Moon, out everywhere April 14th)

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To enjoy a murder ballad you have to be willing to see it as art and not newspaper reporting. These songs are about life and lust not about death and dust. They make your heart beat fast and your skin flush. They are, perhaps, the remnants of ancient pre-Christian blood/sex rituals and are designed to make you want to roll in fields of blooming heather, not to become the next Ted Bundy. Here are some of The Handsome Family’s favorite examples of this centuries-old form of nature-worship. – Rennie Sparks, The Handsome Family

1. Banks of the Ohio :: A young man turns to murder when his fiancé refuses to marry him, but the way he carefully leads her down to the rolling water’s edge, slits her throat and then tosses her to the waves feels much more like a sacrificial offering to an angry water god than a simple homicide.

2. Knoxville Girl :: Originally titled “The Wexford Girl”, this is the true 16th-century story of a pregnant girl done away with by her reluctant boyfriend that somehow was transformed into a blood ritual designed to fertilize a barren land. The Knoxville Girl is dragged round and round so that her blood scatters like seeds into the mud. No doubt a field of violets will spring up as soon as her roving eyes are closed.

2. Knoxville Girl :: Originally titled “The Wexford Girl”, this is the true 16th-century story of a pregnant girl done away with by her reluctant boyfriend that somehow was transformed into a blood ritual designed to fertilize a barren land. The Knoxville Girl is dragged round and round so that her blood scatters like seeds into the mud. No doubt a field of violets will spring up as soon as her roving eyes are closed.

3. The Long Black Veil :: A song sung from the point of view of a ghost in which his still-living lover actually seems to be the lifeless one. She would not confess they were together the night a murder was committed and so the narrator is falsely accused and put to death. He is free now to sing and love and forgive, but she is trapped on the hilltops walking in circles in a long black veil. She is a vampire, the undead. She is like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard trapped in a hell of her own making and doomed to destroy all who try to love her.

4. Katy Dear :: You might call this story a suicide pact, but we call it sex with knives. Two lovers inexplicably choose death when their parents refuse to let them marry. Strange illusions to lust abound: the parents are lying in their beds when Katy goes to ask if she can get married. Immediately after visiting her parent’s bed Katy plunges a silver dagger into her lily white breast then hands the bloody dagger to her boyfriend. When he uses it to puncture his own heart you can almost hear them moaning with pleasure as they fall into each other’s bloody arms.

5. The Willow Garden :: Poisoned burgundy wine in a dark garden with a sleeping girl named Rose.  Everything in this song is blood red or twining green leaves. What could be sexier?

6. Henry Lee :: Oh, to live in the days when the forests were full of witches and talking birds! Beware a beauty who asks you to get off your horse among the pines. She will have a golden dagger and/or a magic well. There’s always a parrot to help her steal your wallet.

7. The Fatal Flower Garden :: Here the witch lives in a gingerbread house and offers a golden ring to a little boy she lures inside. Of course, like most witches who live in candy houses, she really wants to drink his blood and throw his body down a well. Unlike Hansel and Gretel, though, this story does not end well and so it serves better as a metaphor for the day when we must all see our parents as devouring spirits and flee for our lives.

8. Barbara Allen :: Like “Katy Dear”, some might consider (it) more a suicide pact than a murder ballad. We, however, see Barbara Allen as a murderer. She kills Sweet William with her cold, cold heart, but he pulls her with him into the grave where she is forced to endure his rose thorns twining and twining around her thorny briar for all eternity.

9. Pretty Polly :: Polly’s boyfriend hates her so much he digs her grave before even murdering her, but somehow this makes him seem more like a gardener than a homicidal maniac. And, the jokes on him because planting her corpse in the ground only transforms this lily-white virgin into a flock of singing birds. In some versions of the song Polly becomes a Harpie, a bird with razor sharp teeth and ravenous appetite that swoops down to torment him no matter where her lover tries to flee. The moral here is clear: be careful what lusts you awaken when you stab a virgin with the dagger of love.

10. Polly Vaughn :: Taking the Polly/bird connection even further this song involves a man who shoots a swan in the forest only to discover it is actually his true love with her apron over her head. Hunting and death are interchangeable here with love and lust. The forest is better off for it.

Download:
MP3: The Handsome Family :: When You Whispered
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Amazon: The Handsome Family – Honey Moon

+ Download The Handsome Family via eMusic’s 25 free MP3 no risk trial offer
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11 Responses to “Diversions :: The Handsome Family/Murder Ballads”

  1. Aw c’mon… where’s “Knoxville Girl” by The Louvin Brothers?

  2. Great bumper sticker I saw the other day:
    If you are in a folk song DONT GO TO THE RIVER!

  3. Click on my name Maddy Mud to hear one of my favorite killin’ songs: In a Scent Man. It’s the true story of a smalltown murder where the evil-doer gets away, and his son knows he did it and it eats at him. 90s band called “hee hee hee” …

  4. Knoxville Girl is #2 on the list. The Lemonheads do a great version of Knoxville Girl (although nothing beats Charlie and Ira). This is a great post. I’ve always been a fan of the murder/death ballads. Something in these traditional songs speaks to something deeper in me, despite their bygone times, and certainly more than the sex and violence lyrics of ‘contemporary music’, if you will. The condemned man ballads would also be a great source of songs to cover, i.e. Green, Green Grass of Home, Life in Prison, etc.

  5. Violent Femmes, “Country Death Song” the lead-off track from their vastly underrated second album, “Hallowed Ground” released 25 years ago in 1984. Though based on a true story, the tale plays out like a haunting early ballad with the frantic confusion, panic & resolve of any contemporary acoustic & punk song.

    “You know your papa loves you/good children go to heaven”

  6. Johnny Cash – Murder is a great collection of these tunes too.
    also I bet down the line I would not be surprised if Blitzen Trapper’s Black River Killer starts to make some lists like this.

  7. c greeen, note #2, I inadvertantly left it off when I was copying Rennie’s list from email

  8. The earlier version of Banks of the Ohio by the Blue Sky Boys is way creepier (read: waaaaay better)

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Blue-Sky-Boys/dp/B000QKP3HY

  9. Sir Drunkard, fine job with Ram On LA. There may be a comfortable spot for you in Hades after all.

  10. H is spot on w/Hallowed Ground (side one holds up w/anything they ever did in my book).
    Also: obvious but worth shouting out is Nick Cave’s ‘Murder Ballads’!

  11. […] songs. The Handsome Family’s Brett and Rennie Sparks last checked in with AD in 2009, discussing ten of  their favorite murder ballads, on the cusp of the release of their album Honey Moon. Last month duo returned with its follow-up, […]

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