Murder Ballads are ballads which detail a crime (either fictional or true) and tell of the victim, murderer and of the crime itself. Most murder ballads also tell of how the murderer was brought to justice and often end with the murderer either at the gallows or awaiting trial.
Murder ballads are a subgroup of traditional folk music and their history dates back centuries. While much of the research on Murder Ballads places their origins to Scandinavia, the British Isles and Europe, the exact origins of the murder ballad are difficult to pin-point.
Whatever the case Murder Ballads have inspired great music and remain an important sub-genre of music today. This article counts down the top 5 murder ballads. This is my opinion only and as such is completely subjective. The list purely subjective so feel free to disagree, agree or rubbish the article in the comments.
5. Stagger Lee
‘Stagger Lee’ is a song which dates back over a century and has several variations on the name. The song is also known as Stackerlee, Stack-a-Lee, Stagolee, and a few more variations. The song was first published in 1910 by folklorist John Lomax. Stagger Lee is one of the great traditional American murder ballads. The song tells the tale of the killing of William Lyons by Stagg “Lee” Sheldon on Christmas Eve 1923. The origins of the song are unclear, however various versions of ‘StaggerLee’ were well-known in the Black community of the lower Mississippi around the early 20th century.
Stagger Lee has been recorded by over 400 including Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Grateful Dead, Mississippi John Hurt, Fats Domino, Nick Cave and more. The song was a big hit for Lloyd Price in 1959 and reached number 1 on the Billboard chart, here is that version.
4. Henry Lee
Number 2 murder ballad is another song with Lee in the Title, this time the song is 'Henry Lee'. ‘Henry Lee’ is an old Scottish murder ballad which dates back to some time in the 18th century. Like many traditional folk songs 'Henry Lee' has many variances and the original version of the song is called ‘Young Hunting’. The ballad also goes under the names ‘Henry Lee’ or ‘Love Henry’. The first written version of the song was contained in Francis J Child’s five volume works The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-1898).
'Henry Lee' tells of the story of “Young Hunting” who is drugged and then stabbed to death by a woman (who may be carrying Hunting's child) who learns of Hunting’s love for another. The woman is tormented by a Bird and racked with guilt she later confesses to the murder and is then burnt at the stake.
‘Henry Lee’ has been covered by numberous artists but one of the standout versions of the song is by Nick Cave. The song was covered by Nick Cave on his 1996 album Murder Ballads who performed the song with his then wife PJ Harvey.
3. Whiskey in the Jar
‘Whiskey in the Jar’ is a song which has transcended musical era's. Recently the song was introduced to a new generation of listeners by Metallica and before that Thin Lizzy had a big hit with the song. Whisky in the Jar is a Traditional Irish Song, the origins of which are unclear but it is believed the song is derived from another ballad called "Patrick Flemming" which recounts the story of an Irish highwayman who was executed in 1650. ‘Whisky in the Jar’ is about a Highwayman who, after robbing a military or government official, is betrayed by his wife or lover. During subsequent years 'Whiskey in the Jar' found its way to America where it became a favorite due to its irreverent attitude toward British officials.
‘Whisky in the Jar’ has been covered by a great number of artists including Peter Paul and Mary, The Dubliners, Jerry Garcia, The Seekers, , Thin Lizzy and Metallica. The Thin Lizzy version of the song became a hit reaching number 6 in the UK.
2. Gallows Pole
‘Gallows Pole’ is a murder ballad dating back centuries which tells the story of a woman condemned to die who is pleading for someone to buy her life from the executioner. It is believed the song originated in a language other than English and over 50 versions of the song have been reported in Scandanavia.
One of the first early recordings of the song was by Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. Leadbelly first recorded the “Gallis Pole” in the 1939. The Leadbelly version of the song was influential and brought the song to a larger audience. The song has been covered by many artists since including Steeleye Span, Odetta and maybe the most famous cover of this great murder ballad by Led Zeppelin.
Here is a version from the Zeppelin duo Plant and Page from the No Quarter Tour.
1. Tom Dooley
'Tom Dooley' or 'Tom Dula' is a murder ballad which tells the story of the murder of Laura Foster in Wilkes County. The writer of the song is not known for sure however in the folk music documentary Appalachian Journey (1991) renown folklorist Alan Lomax describes the “Original source” for the song to be a Banjo player called Frank Proffitt. The song tells the story of Tom Dula (Dooley), an impoverished confederate veteran who was convicted of murder of his lover and possible fiancée Laura Foster. Dula was hung on May 1, 1868. A man named “Grayson” is mentioned in the song who was behind Dula's arrest.
The song was a big hit in 1958 for ‘The Kingston Trio’ and went to number 1 on the billboard charts selling in excess of 6 million copies, the Kingston Trio version of the song is perhaps the most famous. In 2012 the song was given a garage rock bent by Neil Young and Crazy Horse from their traditional covers album Americana. Here is Young's garage grunge version of the song.
That concludes the top 5 countdown of murder ballads.