Gangsta rappers may not like to think that they have much in common with the fiddle – de –dee tradition of predominantly white English-language folk music, but glorifying violence and celebrating lawbreaking are common themes in the folk tradition. There are, perhaps, not so many guns as we would find in contemporary rap, and no drugs (or not until the early twentieth century, when sniffing things starts to sneak into the odd song), but there is just as much bad behaviour. In fact, in some ways, it is even more unpleasant.
Most unpleasant – and actually without obvious parallel even in gangsta rap – is the
frequently amoral murder ballad. Anglo-American tradition has a festering pile of these songs.
A number fall into the ‘I’ve murdered a woman for no apparent reason and, poor me, I’m going to be executed’ genre. Examples include Pretty Polly (Silverman I, 74), in which Willie has quite deliberately prepared to kill, bury and conceal the grave of Polly, his betrothed, after seducing her. Worse yet, she was apparently carrying his child. Cruelly, he told her he was going to kill her before he did it, and ignored her pleading for mercy. There is no sign of earthly come-uppance for Willie, though the final verse does say that he will have to pay ‘a debt to the Devil’.
Tom Dooley, quite a well known tune, is equally just plain nasty, Tom is condemned for the inexplicable murder of ‘his’ Laura Foster. After the deed, he concealed her body in a shallow grave. There is no trace of repentance.
There is also Banks of the Ohio (Silverman I, 76) which is a slightly more sophisticated song. Here, we see Polly and Willie again, Polly has, it seems, refused to marry Willie, or her mother has forbidden the match on account of her youth. Willie is not best pleased. First, he gets out a knife to stab her, but she pleads that she is not yet ready for eternity. So he throws her into the great river they are walking beside and she is drowned. At least he is sorry in the end that he has ‘murdered the only woman [he] ever loved’, though that is not really much consolation to Polly or her mother.
The Folkestone Murder (FBI no. 320) tells of the murder of Maria and ‘Sweet Caroline’ Beck by ‘Switzerland John’. John asks Caroline to walk with him. Her mother warns her against it, unless she takes her sister. Caroline agrees to take Maria, and off they go. John stabs them both, for reasons which are not given. They plead for mercy but he kills them anyway. Their bodies are found, he is caught and put in Maidstone, condemned. He laments that he has to die far from his native home. He hopes (bizarrely) to meet Caroline beyond the grave and asks listeners to remember his tale, but there is no real explanation. In fact, it is clear (FBI p. 727) that the story is based on a real murder, by Tedea or Dedea Redanies, a soldier who was British, though born in Belgrade (Switzerland, Serbia – what’s the difference? Must have been Johnny Foreigner, anyway). He murdered the sisters Caroline and Maria Beck, (19 and 16) in August 1856, the motive apparently jealousy, and was hanged at Maidstone in 1857.
The Oxford Girl (FBI no. 327 – versions noted referring to many different locations) tells a most unpleasant tale of the singer falling in love with an Oxford girl, but ending up killing her. The level of delusion or lack of insight is incredible. He went to take her out, and they fixed a wedding day ‘And little did I realise I’d show her any spite’. He tries to kiss her, she resists, he hits her with a big stick ‘and … gently knocked her down’. She bleeds, he throws her in the river – ‘gently’, of course. He takes a moment to note that she should have been his bride, then returns home to his uncle’s house. His uncle spots blood, but the singer says he has had a nose bleed. The body is discovered, he is convicted and condemned to hang for murder. Nothing moral is said.
Deeply unpleasant is the conduct of False Lamkin (Sharp no. 27) who, while the Lord is away, sneaks into the castle or mansion, and kills the babies and the Lord’s wife, and only the eldest daughter survives, because her father returns before Lamkin can go through with his threat to have her hold the basin to catch her blood while he stabs her in the heart (he’s a homicidal maniac, but he doesn’t mean to make a mess). Interestingly, the lord does not go out for personal revenge, but says he wants to see Lamkin hang.
Perhaps most heart-rending is Sweet Fanny Adams (FBI no 333), a song put into the mouth of a parent of the murdered child, Fanny,‘scarcely eight years of age’ when she was killed by Frederick Baker. There is an uneasy coupling of the parent’s torment – ‘Shall I never hear thee more, my dearest Fanny’; ‘My poor Fanny’, ‘I love her the more when I miss her/My sorrow I shall never drive away’ and ‘Supposing he so cruelly violate her’. and flat conventional words of what is supposed to be felt – ‘now from all trouble she is free’, ‘now she’s in Heaven above’. The grisly crime is given in detail. Frederick, a solicitor’s clerk, son of well-to do parents from Alton, Hampshire – gave the other two girls, Fanny’s sister and a friend, money to buy sweetmeats, and dragged poor crying Fanny to a hollow. There was a search when the children returned without Fanny, the neighbours joining in. Pieces of her dismembered body were found in pieces in the hop ground. Some satisfaction seem s to be derived by the last line that ‘now he’s lying in the silent grave’, though equally, this may not be any comfort, since it means that there can be no answers to the haunting issue at the start of the last verse ‘Supposing he so cruelly violate her’. The story is (FBI p. 734) based on a real murder, in Alton, Hants in 1867. The killer was sentenced to be hanged, and the case made a strong enough impression for ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’ to pass into slang.
Perhaps we may find The Cruel Youth (Silverman II, 332) a refreshing change from all this easy victimisation-as-entertainment. In this one, and its variants, the seaside-dwelling youth has bumped off (for, as usual, no apparent reason) six women. When he tries doing the same with Sally Brown, however, she turns the tables on him, and pushes him into the sea. The last verse notes that only the willow tree mourned the youth. It is a version of the popular English folk song The Outlandish Knight which uses a similar story, but gives greater detail. The knight (in for the youth) entices the maiden away by promises of a fine life abroad, then plans, as before, to throw her into the sea. His fatal complication is that he tells her to take off her clothes – not because he wants to rape her too, but because they are silken and too fine to be rotted away in the sea (he is a homicidal maniac, but not wasteful, and with a fine eye for fabric). She tells him to turn away while she strips, and he is enough of a knight to do so. Then she tells him to cut away the brambles from the edge, so that they won’t tangle on her curly locks. As he does so, however, she pushes him over the edge. He hangs on, and pleads with her to pull him up. If she does, he says, he will marry her. She is having none of it, though, and tells him to go and join the six maidens he has already drowned, before the song goes off into an inexplicable few verses about a king and a parrot.
There are other murder-songs which give some explanation of the crime, however feeble it may be. Bruton Town (Sharp no.2) features a girl’s brothers murdering her lover, because he is a servant and therefore beneath her. Their father, a farmer, is curiously uninvolved in the action. The young man loved by the daughter is killed while the brothers have lured him out into the woods for a hunt. They threw his body in a brake. The body is discovered by the sister after her true love appears to her, gory, in a dream. She vows not revenge, or reporting of her brothers, but that they shall both be buried together.
Shame is presumably the motive for infanticide in the hideous tale of The Cruel Mother (Sharp no. 13; Silverman I, 182-3). A lady who lived in York fell in love with her father’s clerk, took a rather active role in having sex with him, fell pregnant, trussed her twin babies up, stabbed them with ‘a wee penknife’, buried them and went back to pass herself off as a maid. However, conscience and consciousness of her own damnation struck when she met two small children, or childish ghosts, who confronted her with her crime. Mary Hamilton (Child 173) is another infanticide case, this time, the mother is to be hanged.
A fine example of the ‘killing rival in jealous rage’ song is Lily of the West, in which the singer, whose mind has been ‘sore distressed’ by the two-timing ‘faithless Flora’ stabbed his rival whilst ‘mad to desperation’. He is condemned to die, but still, bizarrely, loves Flora. (Silverman I,178). Joan Baez does a virtuoso version of this, but it is certainly best not to listen too closely to the words.
The famous story of Frankie and Johnny (Silverman II, 370-1) has the same sort of thing in gender-reverse. Johnny goes off with Nelly Bly (though here, unlike ‘Lily’, Johnny is see by Frankie ‘loving up’ Nelly Bly, who is clearly a good-time, easy rhyme sort of gal). (Flora, on the other hand was merely talking, however suggestively, to the ‘man of high degree’). Thus provoked, Frankie shoots Johnny. She then turns herself in at once, confessing her crime. There is sympathy for Frankie, who goes to the scaffold in something of a state of grace, saying ‘Nearer my God to thee’, and the last verse remarks that ‘a man’s been the cause of all trouble ever since the world began’ [You go, girl!] The repeats of ‘He was her man, but he done her wrong’ also serve to put us rather firmly on Frankie’s side.
Poison in a glass of wine (FBI no. 329) is set in Oxford. Here, A young man loves a fair maid. Another man dances with her at a dance house and the jealous first young man poisons her. He seems to take some too so that they can die in each other’s arms.
A man drowns his wife most amusingly in The Old Woman of Blighter Town (FBI no. 208) but she has tried to blind him, and loves another man, so that is OK.
I will confess to some sympathy for the unnamed ‘little brown girl’ in Lord Thomas and Fair Ellinor. Thomas and Ellinor are in love. Ellinor is blonde, beautiful, but, tragically, not rich in land. The ‘little brown girl’ is rolling in it, but ‘brown’ and ‘little’ and so terminally undesirable. It is, however, the little brown girl that Lord Thomas is ‘made’ (by his mother – wimp!) to marry. After the wedding, Ellinor taunts Thomas’s wife with being ‘wonderfully brown’, while Thomas tells Ellinor not to worry, because he loves Ellinor’s ‘little finger [more] than all her whole body’. This not surprisingly annoys the brown girl, who stabs Ellinor in the heart with her penknife. Thomas then beheads her and flings her head against the wall, then falls on his sword. Before expiring, he is able to give directions for his burial: he is to be buried by the side of Ellinor, with the brown girl at his feet. Naturally, a red rose grows from Ellinor’s bosom and entwines with Lord Thomas’s briar. There is no further mention of the poor brown girl.
It is rarer to find a ‘miscarriage of justice’ song, but we have one in Poor Ellen Smith (Silverman I, 57). The singer’s lover, Ellen, has been shot dead, not, he claims, by him, but he is in jail, about to be tried for murder. and he fears that the jury is eager to convict him – ‘The jury will hang me, that is if they can, But God knows I die as an innocent man’. Some sympathy is lost for the man, however, in the previous verse, when he, charmingly, says ‘I didn’t love little Ellen to make her my wife, but I loved her too dear than to take her sweet life’. A broadly similar theme is found in Long Black Veil, a modern ballad by M. Wilkins and D. Dill (JB 110), in which a man is convicted of murder because he will not confess that he was in fact with his best friend’s wife at the relevant time. More fortunate is the hero in Polly Vaughan, (FBI no. 330) young Jimmy, who accidentally shoots his love, Polly Vaughan, mistaking her for a swan, when out hunting. He is to be tried for murder and thinks of running away, but his uncle tells him he will not be hanged for it. True enough, his love appears at the trial (a ghost, one presumes) and explains that she had her apron wrapped around her , explaining why he took her for a swan. Juries will believe anything in folk songs.
Conclusion to Part One
Homicide, then, has been a disturbingly popular subject for folk singers. Its treatment says some very interesting things about ‘folk’ attitudes (an indistinct and amorphously blobby idea, yet nonetheless one of some worth in balancing ‘official’ mentalités) to the taking of life, to motives for killing, to good and evil, and to punishment. The idea which seems to me to emerge most strongly from the murder ballads is that we don’t need to explain killings too carefully: some people are just inexplicably and unalterably bad – or perhaps there is some idea that we all have it in us.
Homicide is, however, not the only area of legal historical interest seen in Anglo-American folk song, and other aspects will be discussed in future parts of this series.
Silverman – J. Silverman, Folk Song Encyclopedia, 2 vol.s (New York, 1976).
JB – The Joan Baez Songbook NY 1964.
Child – F.J. Child The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-98) 5 vols.
Sharp – C..J. Sharp (ed.) One Hundred English Folksongs (New York 1916)
FBI – P. Kennedy (ed.) Folksongs of Britain and Ireland (London, 1975).