There is a long history of murder ballads in folk music and its offshoots. These are songs in which people get killed – deaths born of rage, drunkenness, avarice, mistaken identity… The list goes on.
One sub-set of murder ballads deals with relationships. Aside from some exceptions (more on that here), the victims are almost always women. Amongst the better-known in this category is Down in the Willow Garden, a.k.a. Down in the Willow Gardens, Rose Conley, Rose Connelly, and so on.
The first known recording of this song appeared sometime in 1927 or 1928, when fiddler G.B. Grayson and guitarist Henry Whitter put down a version for the Victor Talking Machine Company.
Don’t let the jaunty pace and feel distract you: about a minute-and-a-half in, the narrator poisons and stabs “poor little woman” Rose Connolly and, putting down his "bloody knife", throws her dead body in the river.
A friend remarked to me that what makes this particular murder ballad stand out from many others is that the killer faces justice, which comes as something as a surprise to the song’s bloodied protagonist - and his father too:
My father often told me
That money would set me free
If I would murder that poor little girl
Whose name was Rose Connelly
Now he stands at his cabin door
Wiping his tears from his eyes
Gazing on his own dear son
Upon the scaffold high
Justice, however, is not so unusual in murder ballads – there are numerous others in which the killers find themselves pondering, and perhaps even regretting, their misdeeds whilst behind bars (for example Knoxville Girl, Delia's Gone and Pretty Polly). But in any case, none of this does anything to detract from the misogynistic nature of these songs.
Most obviously, the songs are almost always from the perspective of, or sympethic to, the (male) killer – presumably because those who wrote the lyrics were better able to empathise with a murderous man than a murdered woman. Even if the killer is punished in one way or another, it's still their story being told and their point of view that is reflected.
More fundamentally, rather than saying “don’t commit violence against women (or anyone else), because it’s wrong,” the message would seem to be “don’t commit violence against women, because you might end up in prison,” or even strung up on the scaffold, as Down in the Willow Garden has it. That the father suggests to his son that he has no need to worry about committing murder because he's got some cash in the bank could no doubt spark reams of academic discourse about the intersection between wealth, power, class and gender (maybe it already has - I've not looked).
The question of whether people should still be singing songs that have such clear misogynistic underpinnings, meanwhile, is a whole other can of worms. The issue of racism and US old time music was examined recently in an interesting article, which quotes the musician Ben Hunter:
"I’m not the first to say this, but it’s important for white people to be uncomfortable... One of the beautiful things about American folk music is that it very vividly and honestly faces those truths.”
In this context, perhaps "white people" could be replaced with "men".
The point of all this blurb about murder ballads is that Lankum (formerly Lynched) have put out a rather fine version on their latest album. I did have a poorly-recorded version from a gig at Kings Place in London back in May 2017, which seems to have misplaced itself. But it doesn't really matter, because there's a better recording below, and you can also listen to the version they've recorded for the album ‘Between the Earth and Sky’.
Woman and child image via Thomas Shahan.