Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Murder Ballads and Songs About True Crimes by Robert A. Waters

Back in the day, my wife and I used to take my old Gibson acoustic and meet with friends to pick and sing. The songs we played were a mix of old-time country, classic rock, bluegrass, folk songs, and anything else that struck us.

Among the staples of those jam sessions were murder ballads and songs about true crimes. “Tom Dooley” was easy to play, easy to sing, and always popular. Made into a mega-hit by The Kingston Trio, it’s actually an old folk song about a Confederate veteran who got caught in a love triangle and murdered one of his two girlfriends. In the song, as in real-life, he was hanged for his crime. “Knoxville Girl” was another one of our favorites. It derives from an English folk song and is about a suitor who murders his presumably pregnant girlfriend. “Banks of the Ohio” tells the story of a man who asks his lover to marry him—when she refuses, he murders her. Joan Baez did an outstanding version in the 1960s.

The Lloyd Price rendition of “Stagger Lee” was another favorite. It’s still played on classic rock stations. “Stagger Lee went home and got his .44,/said I’m going to that barroom to pay that debt I owe.” Great song! I still love this line: “Stagger Lee shot Billy, he shot that poor boy so bad/that the bullet went through Billy and broke the bar-tender’s glass.”

Hillbilly music in the 1950s and 1960s was gritty and hard and decidedly politically incorrect (unlike today's sanitized pseudo-country crap). Tanya Tucker’s classic, “That Georgia Sun Was Blood Red and Going Down,” describes the thoughts of a small child as she watches her father kill her cheating mother and boyfriend. It could apply to hundreds of cases of murder each year. Bill Anderson's "Miller's Cave" tells the story of a man who murders his cheating wife and boyfriend, then hides their bodies in Miller’s Cave. Porter Wagoner's song, "The Cold Hard Facts of Life," tells still another tale of a cheating wife and boyfriend getting their just rewards. In fact, it’s been called the ultimate cheating song. Here’s the last verse: “Man, you should have seen their frantic faces/She screamed and cried, ‘Please put away that knife.’/I guess I’ll go to hell or rot here in this cell/but who taught who the cold hard facts of life?”

One of my all-time favorite true crime songs is called “White House Blues.” It tells the story of the assassination of President William McKinley in a raucous, irreverent manner. The song was first recorded by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers. Like many country artists, Poole lived fast and died young. But he left behind a legacy of old folk songs that are still played.

White House Blues

Say, Mr. McKinley, why didn’t you run?
You saw that man a-coming with an Iver Johnson gun
From Buffalo down to Washington.

Doctor comes a-running, takes off his specs,
Says, “Mr. McKinley, you done cashed in your checks,
You’re bound to die, you’re bound to die.”

McKinley he hollered, McKinley he squalled
The doctor said "McKinley, I can't find that ball,
You’re bound to die, you’re bound to die.”

Roosevelt’s in the White House, he's doin' his best,
McKinley’s in the graveyard, he's takin' his rest,
He's gone a long long time.

Mrs. McKinley's in Brooklyn dressed all in red,
Weeping and a-mourning cause her husband was dead.
He’s gone a long long time.

Hush up little children, now don't you fret,
You'll draw a pension at your papa's death
From Buffalo to Washington.

Jailer said to Czolgosz, “Whatcha doing here?”
“Done took and shot McKinley, gonna take the electric chair.”
From Buffalo to Washington.

Czolgosz told the jailer, “Treat me like a man,
You know that when I die I’m gonna go to Dixieland.”
From Buffalo to Washington.


PFC Waters said...

"Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley" was the first song I ever learned on guitar.

Zack said...

zackGreat column. I loved every word. My grandfather taught me another song about another early presidential assasination. "My name is Charles Giteau - my name I'll never deny - for the killing of James A. Garfield - I'll swing on the scaffold high." Also, don't forget another old country classic - "The Long Black Veil." A man goes tol the gallows for a murder he didn't commit rather than betray the woman he was cheating with. There must be a thousand of them.