Murder Ballads - 10 Awesome Songs About Murder
These are all great songs in themselves. I was looking for songs that told the story of a murder, not just songs that mentioned or intimated that one had occurred.
A common theme for a murder ballad is the killing of a lover; love can be a dangerous game. However, there are plenty of motives for killing, and just as many songs about it.
I Just can't let you say Goodbye – Willie Nelson
I could have included a song from The Red Headed Stranger. That album was, pretty much, all about murder. However, I decided on one of Willie’s lesser-known songs. This creepy tale is a perfect lead in for an article on murder ballads. "I Just Can't Let You Say Goodbye" uses a common theme; a man kills his lover to keep her from leaving. It is unusual that the narrative is spoken by the killer, addressing his victim.
“I Just can't let you say Goodbye” was released as a single in 1965. I first heard it on his Willie Nelson Live album, recorded at the Panther Ballroom in 1976. It's an album I enjoyed very much.
A new recording of “I Just can't let you say Goodbye” was included on Willie's album Teatro in 1998. Emmylou Harris sings backup on that version.
Send me to the 'Lectric Chair – David Bromberg
George Brooks wrote this jazzy, gleeful murder ballad. Bessie Smith and Her Blue Boys first recorded it, in 1927. Other musicians have covered it, but the version I love best is this one by David Bromberg. Who knew a murder ballad could be so much fun?
This song can be found on the album Best of David Bromberg: Out of the Blues, released in 1977. It also includes a great live version of "Mr. Bojangles." It's one of my favorite Bromberg albums, and he is one of my favorite musicians. If you don't know him, check him out.
Fleetwood Mac – Blood on the Floor
This song is off of Kiln House, the fourth album by Fleetwood Mac. It was released in 1970. This was their first album after Peter Green left the band, and the last one to include Jeremy Spencer. Spencer is responsible for this tongue in cheek parody of a country western song.
This was before Fleetwood Mac's Christine McVie, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks period. Christine did sing backup on some of the songs, and draw the picture for the album cover.
El Paso – Marty Robbins
Written and and originally recorded by Marty Robbins, “El Paso” made its debut in 1959 on Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. The single was a crossover hit, charting at number one on pop and country charts.
Most people are familiar with this great old song. It tells the tale of a cowboy who shot a romantic rival in a fit of jealousy.
It has been covered by many artists. It was a concert favorite of the Grateful Dead. Their version of it can be found on Dick's Picks Volume 11. It was recorded at the Stanley Theater in Jersey City on September 27, 1972.
Me and My Uncle – Grateful Dead
John Phillips originally wrote this chilling tale of cold-blooded murder in 1963. It tells the tale of a young cowboy and his uncle traveling on horseback together. After an incident at a barroom poker game their seemingly tight relationship takes an unexpected turn.
"Me and My Uncle" was first recorded by Judy Collins in 1964 on her album, The Judy Collins Concert.
The Grateful Dead began playing the song in 1966. They soon incorporated it into their standard lineup. It was one of their most often played songs throughout their "long strange trip."
Johnny Cash – Delia's Gone
This is a great murder song, but I think I would have had to include it here for the video alone. I think this is the creepiest murder ballad video I've ever seen.
A traditional song of the southern US that dates to the early 1900s, The earliest recording date back to the 1920s. A pair called Karl Silbersdorf and Dick Toops copyrighted "Delia’s Gone" in 1959. It is unclear whether they actually had anything to do with writing or modifying the song, but many covers of it give them the writing credit.
The song is said to be inspired by the Christmas murder of 14-year-old Delia Green by her 15-year-old boyfriend Moses Houston. The killing took place in Savannah, GA in 1900.
Johnny Cash first recorded the song for his the twelfth album The Sound of Johnny Cash in 1962. He recorded this new version for his 1994 album American Recordings.
Duncan And Brady – New Riders Of The Purple Sage
The song was originally recorded by Wilmer Watts & his Lonely Eagles in 1929, it has been covered many times since then. The story told in the song is based on an actual shooting in St. Louis, Missouri. It took place in 1890. Police officers, including James Brady were called to the scene of a bar fight.
During the confrontation, shots were fired, and Brady was killed. Harry Duncan, the bartender, was arrested for murder, but he claimed it was the bar owner Charles Starkes who had really pulled the trigger. Duncan was convicted and hanged.
The New Riders of the Purple Sage began as a spin-off from the Grateful Dead. It was Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart along with John Dawson and David Nelson. In the beginning they were considered a warm-up for the Grateful Dead, they soon developed their own following.
“Duncan and Brady” was on their 1976 album Powerglide. By then, the Dead members had left the group. The lineup consisted of, Buddy Cage, David Nelson, Michael Falzarano and Stephen A. Love.
Staggolee – Pacific Gas & Electric
"Stagger Lee", or "Staggolee" is based on the true story of "Stag" Lee Shelton and William "Billy" Lyons. Stag Lee shot Billy during an altercation, and was convicted of murder. Although he was later pardoned, Stag Lee died in prison for another crime.
The story soon became American folklore; the song was first published in 1911. Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians made the first recording in 1923. The song has been covered by many, including Ma Rainey, Mississippi John Hurt, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Woody Guthrie. In 1959, Lloyd Price had a number one hit with it.
The song persisted into the 1960s, when Pat Boone recorded it. Other versions were offered by such notables as Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown, Wilson Pickett , Johnny and the Hurricanes and Tom Rush. The Youngbloods included a version of the song on their 1971 album, Good and Dusty.
The Grateful Dead recorded a version focusing on the fictionalized hours after the death of Billy, when Billy's wife takes revenge on Stagger Lee. A 1985 version by the Fabulous Thunderbirds is featured on the Porky's Revenge soundtrack.
This is only a partial list of the many artists who have covered this song. With so many to choose from, it was hard to pick which one to share here.
In the end, I chose this version of the song performed by Pacific Gas & Electric. It was originally released as a B side to their their hit single "Are You Ready?" in 1970. It is included on the soundtrack for Quentin Tarantino's 2007 film Death Proof.
Robbie Fulks – Coldwater Tennessee
Most people would describe Robbie Fulks’ music as alternative country or folk, it’s hard to pin down. He is notorious for his humorous or silly songs, but he is also a gifted songwriter and musician.
With “Coldwater Tennessee,” Fulks shows a serious side. An unusual ballad, it tells the tale of a struggling country artist, with a poor but loving home and family. He abandons his family and finally makes it big in music. That rejection is too much for the young son left behind.
“Coldwater Tennessee,” can be found on Robbie Fulk's 2005 album Georgia Hard.
Ralph Stanley and Patty Loveless – Pretty Polly
"Pretty Polly" is probably the quintessential murder ballad. It is a traditional English folk song found in the British Isles, Canada, and the Appalachian mountains of the US. It tells the tale of a young woman whose lover lures her into the forest to her doom.
In some versions of the story, the killer promises to marry Polly but murders her when he learns that she is pregnant. Often, in American versions, that part is left out.
Pretty Polly has become a popular banjo tune. Here, it is sung by the amazing Ralph Stanley one of the first generation of bluegrass players, and Patty Loveless, a darling of neotraditional country music.
© 2017 Sherry Hewins