The murder ballad has been a part of bluegrass, old time, and folk music in the US since the beginning. Drawing on the British or Celtic heritage of so many of the people of the Appalachian region, many of the songs we see as traditional stories actually reach back to those roots, telling young people of the dangers of wandering away from town, or of men full of flattery.
In the bluegrass world, songs like Pretty Polly, Knoxville Girl, Banks of the Ohio, Down in the Willow Garden, Little Sadie, Omie Wise, Poor Ellen Smith, and I Hung My Head are just a few examples of songs of murder and mayhem that have lasted into modern times. And interest hasn’t flagged in these songs, despite their clearly being of an earlier time.
Now Steve L. Jones has compiled a scholarly look at this specific sub genre in a new book, Murder Ballads Old & New: A Dark and Bloody Record, set for release on November 12 from Feral House. Jones traces the lineage of many of these familiar ballads and considers their musicological, psychosocial, and genealogical impact on the culture, both now and then.
A former instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Jones is a Kentucky native, and an artist, writer, and musician. He has contributed articles to a number different publications, but Murder Ballads is his first book.
Look for Murder Ballads Old & New on November 12 from your favorite booksellers. Pre-orders are enabled now from several of them online.