A Bluegrass Junction listener—we’ll call her “Laura” (because that was her name)—emailed me recently, pointing out that there are an awful lot of bluegrass songs in which women are murdered. After much thought and reflection, I gave her this subtly nuanced answer: “Yes.”
I’ve never felt it was useful to make moral judgments about songs written before there were horseless carriages and performance rights organizations, but I do have to admit that we can’t exactly claim the moral high ground over hip hop when it comes to the issue of violence and brutality towards women. The fact that our violence often sounds happy doesn’t really help our case at all.
Bluegrass artists writing songs like this today are on their own, but I can at least offer a reasonable excuse for murder ballads of the past: almost all of these heinous crimes were committed by the same man, a guy named either Willie, or often “Little Willie” (he appeared much smaller when viewed from a distance, and most people found there was no such thing as too much distance from Willie).
There has been a lot of speculation among folklorists, and other people who are paid to sit around and speculate, about the origins of the “Little Willie” songs. Dr. R.W. Reingold, in his book, Sociopaths and All-around Losers in American Folk Music, writes: “According to our best records, young women were killed by ‘Little Willie’ in a territory spanning several U.S. States, and over a period of at least 100 years. Either Willie was a fictional character, or he started his murderous rampage at the age of two and may have owned the first automobile.”
Dr. Reingold’s book wasn’t that helpful.
Others have suggested that these songs originated in the British Isles and were nothing more than stories designed to discredit King William III. William III, you may recall (just do as I did and pretend you recall), ruled over England, Ireland, The Netherlands, and several counties in North Dakota throughout either the early 17th or the late 18th century, depending on which calendar you were using. He was known as the “Orange King” because of his fondness for navel oranges and his love of University of Tennessee football. Apparently enough people disliked him, especially his brother Hank William III, that they saw fit to cast him as a murderous cad in a number of ballads, naming him “Little Willie.” They could never have known that a few centuries later, bluegrass bands would still be singing these songs (to a happy beat).
A minority of scholars (two, and one of them isn’t too sure) consider these ballads much newer, dating back only to the 1950s, when Brooklyn Dodgers fans composed many of these songs to taunt New York Giants fans and their star rookie at the time, Willie Mays. Giants’ fans in response wrote a number of murder ballads casting Dodger legend Pee Wee Reese in the “Little Willie” role. All of these songs have been lost, if they ever existed, making this theory harder to prove.
Regardless of the origin of these songs, the lyrics make it clear that his murderous ways were only the beginning of Willie’s faults; Willie was seriously insecure. He would ask various women to marry him, all of them turned him down (wouldn’t you?), and he clearly wasn’t the best at handling rejection. Once spurned, his only decision was which method of murder to use. He preferred poisoning in a glass of wine, but he often didn’t have the stuff on him, so he would resort to drowning, or stabbing, if the river was too far away.
It has occurred to me that the women in these tales didn’t learn much from history. If Little Willie had killed every girl who turned down his marriage proposal, a new strategy might have been advisable. Think how differently things would have turned out for Pretty Polly if she’d just told Willie “yes,” and maybe suggested a long engagement period, say, 80 or 90 years. When Willie was asleep, she could have slipped off and caught the first train out of town. Or perhaps to celebrate the engagement, she could have given him some of his own “special” wine.
The mystery to me has always been that Willie managed to escape the authorities all those years. He was not the brightest of bulbs in the chandelier. In his 1962 work, Really Really Dumb Criminals in Poetry and Song, Dr. Gerald Pomegranate theorized: “Little Willie may be the most intellectually deficient of all the villains of American music, as evidenced by the fact that just after burying ‘Pretty Polly,’ he went to the jailhouse, confessed to the murder, then announced that he was ‘trying to get away.’ My psychologist colleagues would use the technical phrase ‘dumb as a sack full of hammers’ to describe him.”
I suppose we could give WIllie the benefit of the doubt (not usually a good idea) and speculate that he was a really fast runner and just wanted to goad the local authorities into chasing him. On the other hand, maybe everyone at the jailhouse was extremely lazy and Willie knew it. In any case, Willie escaped time and time again and moved on to other girls in other songs.
The original point of all this is that if we simply eliminated this one serial killer from the bluegrass repertoire, we’d be back to having a relatively non-violent music form. It’s like some smaller cities that see their crime rate go down dramatically when they find the one guy who’s been holding up all the liquor stores in town. The fact is, that without our brainless (but speedy), insecure Willie, we’d all be forced to turn to opera or Irish music for our fix of blood and gore.