Murder, In Song

by karolinawaclawiak

As much as I crave a good book about murder or a crime scene photo to dissect, nothing compares to a musical ballad about murder and mayhem. One of my old favorites is a rendition of “Knoxville Girl” by the Louvin Brothers off the Tragic Songs of Life album (1956). These country brothers crooned about the violent riverside murder of an unnamed young woman by her suitor. Voices sweet and lamenting, the Louvin brothers obscured the shock of violence with their lullaby composition.

“I met a little girl in Knoxville, a town we all know well,

And every Sunday evening, out in her home I’d dwell,

We went to take an evening walk about a mile from town,

I picked a stick up off the ground and knocked that fair girl down.”

You can only imagine where it goes from there.  Listen here.

The Louvin Brothers can’t be credited with inventing the murder ballad. In fact, “Knoxville Girl” is based on an old Irish ballad, “The Wexford Girl”, which has a more elaborate warning against murdering your loved one. Murder Ballads can be traced back even further to England and to the broadsheet ballad “The Cruel Miller” and well, it’s anyone’s game from there.

Now, take the traditional murder ballad and mix it with the poetry of a notorious serial killer, with a nod toward Joyce Carol Oates, and you have Jon Derosa’s “Ladies in Love.” Based on a poem of the same name by Charles Schmid, Jr., DeRosa weaves some lines from Schmid’s prison writing into his evocative ballad and gives us a precise window into the macabre mind of The Pied Piper of Tuscon. For those of you who don’t know, Schmid was an odd character who wreaked havoc on  the city of Tucson in the 1960’s and served as the inspiration for Joyce Carol Oates’ short story, Where are You Going and Where Have You Been?

Photo courtesy of the Tucson Citizen.

He blurred his natural attractive features with cartoonish makeup and clothing, turning himself into a minstrel Elvis Presley – dark tan pancake makeup, white lipstick and the King’s jet black mane. He added his own touches too: a beauty mark on his cheek made from a mixture of putty and axle grease and oversized cowboy boots stuffed with detritus to make him seem taller, attempts at being a more appealing lady magnet to the disaffected youth of Tuscon.

Here, DeRosa has crafted a hauntingly beautiful murder ballad with flutes and woodwinds by Jon Natchez (of Beirut/Yellow Ostrich) and gentle violins and cellos by Claudia Chopek and Julia Kent, respectively.  Schmid’s chilling proclamation that “ladies should never fall in love,” is sung sweetly, like a lullaby by DeRosa. And Schmid’s poetic line about women’s voices “being like small animals waiting to be fed” is seemingly easier to take here, layered and somber. But, his complicated and perverse relationship with his victims isn’t celebrated here; instead, DeRosa’s tale of woe serves as a time capsule of terror that I believe, deserves a place in the history of disquieting murder ballads.

Listen to “Ladies in Love” exclusively on The Abbott Gran Medicine show:

http://soundcloud.com/jonderosa/jon-derosa-ladies-in-love

Jon DeRosa’s Anchored EP can be picked up on Itunes or here.

9 Responses to “Murder, In Song”

  1. I just love this piece, and the gorgeous DeRosa song. That Oates story has long been one of my favorites and this song captures its menace while also adding a lovely lyricism…

  2. The Oates story and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” were huge influences for me. I absolutely love the storytelling aspects of murder ballads. So fascinating.

  3. I love murder ballads but wonder why they seem to be mostly from the male point of view. I can’t think of one where a woman sings about killing a man.

  4. I’m actually finishing up a gig as the “with” guy on Charlie Louvin’s memoirs, most of it about his time with the Louvin Brothers. He said that even when they had big hits and were touring with Elvis and the like, “Knoxville Girl” was still their most requested song. People just couldn’t get enough of it.

  5. LF, that’s a good point. Ruth Gerson came out with an album of murder ballads earlier this year. She included a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Delia’s Gone” and “Knoxville Girl” as well. Not sure if her other songs tackle the reverse.

    Benjamin, I love the Louvin Brothers and really, their story is so tragic. I went to their museum in Tennessee and it was a trip. When are his memoirs coming out?

  6. I think it comes out on January 3rd. And, yeah, it’s such a great story. I was so happy to be part of it, just to sit on Charlie Louvin’s back porch and smoke cigarettes, swapping stories about country music in the forties and fifties. Nothing else I’d rather be doing, y’know?

  7. Benjamin, that sounds amazing. Can’t wait to read it.

  8. I was just reading about the inspiration of both THE BALLAD OF FRANKIE AND JOHNNY and STAGGER LEE in MOBS, MAYHEM AND MURDER: TALES FROM THE ST. LOUIS POLICE BEAT.

    Origin stories for STAGGER LEE seem to spread far and wide but the book claims two real-life events in St. Louis were inspiration. St. Louis resident Frankie of FRANKIE AND JOHNNY sued a motion picture studio in 1938 after a film version was produced.

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