Re-imagining murder ballads in the age of social media

Chris JonesLast week we attempted to blame bluegrass music’s violent side on one man: Little Willie, the Scapegoat, we’ll call him. It works as a theory too, because without all the girlfriendicide (the technical term) committed by Willie, bluegrass songs would be dominated by sad love songs, happy train songs, and the occasional snake encounter in the woods.

The subject prompted some interesting reader comments that got me thinking about murder ballads in a different light.

Lisa Sorrell, my favorite bootmaker, wrote that if bluegrass girls had just learned to swim, there would have been a lot less premature death in our music (note: for those over 40 and reading this without their glasses, that was “Bootmaker,” not “Bootlegger.” My favorite bootlegger shall remain nameless). She makes a very good point. It would have been a good idea for all of Willie’s potential fiances to become Olympic-level swimmers. A black belt in some form of martial arts wouldn’t have hurt either.

Bluegrass music radio host Dennis Jones suggested that we think of how Little Willie might fare in the era of social media.

I guess we all like to play out the “what if . . .” scenarios in our minds:

What if the Footprints in the Snow turned out to be those of Bigfoot instead of the lovely Nellie? That song would certainly have ended much differently.

What if the daddy in Dream of the Miner’s Child decided to answer his daughter’s pleas and not go to the mine, but then nothing bad happened in the mine that day after all, and he just lost a day’s pay for no reason?

In Bringing Mary Home, what if Mary’s parents, after the twelfth time, were so tired of people knocking at their door and asking about their daughter, that they just told their visitors to “buzz off” instead of thanking them for their kindness?

Like these songs, the murder ballads referred to last week would certainly have very different outcomes, especially if we incorporate Dennis and Lisa’s ideas.

I really hate to mess with our classic murder ballads. It’s a genre of song that is very difficult to write in this era without giving it a CSI flavor, which is something we really don’t need any more of. And face it, it’s hard for modern songwriters to pull off a line like, “But her brother stabbed me for some unknown reason.”

For now, though, let’s just place ourselves in a parallel murder ballad universe for a moment, and picture this alternate version of Banks of the Ohio with a girl who had better swimming skills:

I took her by her lily-white hand
And I dragged her down that bank of sand
There I throwed her in to drown
But then she never floated down

She swam around an hour in all
She did the backstroke and the crawl
She never once did cry for help
She’d learned to swim like Michael Phelps

Only say that you’ll be mine
Or staying single’s also fine
Just don’t make me with you go
On down the banks of the Ohio

How quickly Willie’s attitude changed once he realized he was dealing with no delicate flower here.

By the way, to be historically fair, I realize that this song was written in the first person, and so we don’t really know if it was Little Willie in this case. However, the fact that he asked her to marry him, she turned him down, and he immediately thought that killing her was the best course of action, makes it more than likely to be the work of our sociopathic friend William.

Adding Dennis’ social media idea, we can give this song a thoroughly 21st century makeover in the final verse:

Returning home in quite a rage
She posted on her Facebook page
Calling me a psycho slob
Now I’ll never get a job.

I suppose we could write a revised Pretty Polly too, in which Polly pulls out some of her best Steven Segal moves, makes WIllie drop the knife, breaks his arm, then deposits him, whimpering, to the jailhouse.

Her tweet later that night: “Just try opening up my bosom as white as any snow again, @Willie-boy!! #loserBoyfriend”