Murder ballads are a little like the true-crime reports of the folk music world, though the way their stories tend to transform and take on new shades and shadows depending on the storyteller may place them closer to campfire ghost tales. They are elastic, though they often begin with an actual tragic incident. Paul Slade pulls murder ballads further from the campfire and closer to the periodical rack with his new book Unprepared to Die: America’s Greatest Murder Ballads and the True Crime Stories That Inspired Them. The author goes back to the original newspaper stories and crime reports to detail the true stories behind such often-crooned legends as “Pretty Polly”, “Tom Dooley”, “Frankie and Johnny”, “Stack-o-Lee”, and “Poor Ellen Smith” as accurately as possible.
As each story becomes a musical source, Slade begins folding the ballads into the tale, analyzing their faithfulness as journalism and what they say about the culture of their times. This is particularly fascinating when race is an issue, as it is in “Frankie and Johnny”, “Stack-o-Lee”, and Dylan’s deeply chilling “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, which becomes far more horrifying the more we learn about the loathsome “man-slaughterer” William Zantzinger. Slade also tracks how the songs develop from rendition to rendition, sometimes becoming completely distinct from the originals over time, as when “Knoxville Girl” morphed into “Banks of the Ohio” or “Stack-o-Lee” became the pop hit “Stagger Lee”. Sometimes these songs inspired answer or referential songs, such as Billy Bragg’s “The Lonesome Death of Rachel Corrie” or Fred Burns’s “Pretty Polly’s Revenge”.
Slade ends each chapter with his picks for the ten best renditions/reinventions of its featured song, and seasons his narratives with testimony’s and interpretations from artists such as Bragg, Mick Harvey of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, who recorded one of the more celebrated later-day collections of murder ballads, and Kristin Hersh, whose Murder, Misery, and Then Goodnight is one of the finest and most underappreciated ones. As for our author, he editorializes sparingly, mainly maintaining a journalist’s critical distance in his telling, so his book rarely reads luridly or morbidly. Nevertheless, the horrifying nature of these crimes—so often perpetrated against women, and at the height of repugnance, an entire family—and the beauty of the songs they inspired delivers an emotional wallop that will only hit harder if you listen to some of these timeless, troubling ballads as you read.