This is a slightly edited version of what appears at the newly minted Smoke Music Archive, accompanied by two videos of a conversation I had with Charlie Louvin at the Louvin Brothers Museum in Nashville, in December 2007. Check the Smoke site for the videos at full-quality, as well as a playlist of murder ballads worth your ears’ time. (Thanks to Aron Conaway and Hallie Jones for the camera work; to editor Leslie McCleave; and to Smoke director Bob Moses for funding the shoot endeavor.)
Long before cable news, supermarket tabloids, and O.J. Simpson’s imaginary memoir stepped forward to sate our voracious and voyeuristic appetite for stories of jilted lovers and bloody retribution, Renaissance England teemed with broadsheet hawkers selling sex, death, and damnation for a shilling a page. Following a rarely deviating story line — from rendezvous to murder to cover-up to punishment (corporeal and/or divine) — many of these ballads were born of real events and were hurriedly composed (by hacks), printed (by third-rate printers), and rushed out into the cobble-stoned streets (by “patterers”) for rapid consumption by the citizenry. And that citizenry could sing them on the spot, provided it was familiar with the popular tune the ballad’s composer assigned it, or was able to pick it up from the singing of the patterer. Stabbings, bludgeonings, stranglings, drownings, victims stuffed with stones and pieces of iron — the ingenuity of the murderers put many of their contemporary counterparts to shame, and the high melodramatic syrup dripping from the broadsheets remains untouchable even by the most craven tabloid journalism.
But no matter how shocking the crime and its accompanying blood and gore, the ballads (written primarily in the first person — that is, from the perspective of the perp) never forsook the opportunity to conclude the story with an adult-sized cocktail of pious regret, gallows moralizing, and an entreaty to get right with God: “people take warning, not to do as I have done.” The Renaissance murder ballad gave the people the lowbrow sensationalism they craved — as we crave — with one God-fearing eye fixed on Hellfire. They were temporal and timeless, and they remain timeless today.
Charlie Louvin, in our video interview, gives the birth-date of “The Knoxville Girl” as 1723. There is some dispute as to when it first appeared in broadside form, which it did as, alternately, “The Bloody Miller” or “The Berkshire Tragedy; Or, The Wittam Miller. With an Account of his Murdering his Sweetheart,” although evidence suggests that the murder did in fact take place in 1683 or 1684. But it hardly matters much when, these 400 years later, the story’s core elements have been disseminated through dozens of sung descendants of varying degrees of textual, musical, and geographic distance. The lyrics of Charlie’s “The Knoxville Girl” would have been recognized by Irish, English, Maritime, Appalachian, Texan, and Midwestern singers over the past 250 years as cousin to “The Wexford Girl,” “The Oxford Girl,” “The Lexington Girl,” or “The Cruel Miller,” among a number of other variants. And, as Charlie makes plain, some small difference a handful of years makes when the ballad’s themes of jealousy, revenge, and punishment are nearly carbon-datable, and will certainly endure in perpetuity.
No listener of American folk music, no matter how amateur, will have missed the profusion of murder ballads in the tradition. Francis James Child’s landmark study of British vernacular song in the Southern mountains (1876-1882) shows that the murder ballads comprised a considerable portion of the enduring old country repertoire. Cecil Sharp visited in 1916 and documented, despite his primary interest in British origins, an increasingly American approach to the songs, such as, in one instance, the transformation of portions of “Pretty Polly” into “The Virginian Lover.” And come the heydey of the “hillbilly” recording era of the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, nearly every other artist was cutting a ballad learned from a parent, a grandparent, or a neighbor to shellac, picking up where the late Renaissance left off and providing the ballads with a new method of commercial distribution.
Charlie Louvin recalls his mother’s singing of “The Knoxville Girl,” and credits her for teaching it to him when he was young Charlie Loudermilk in Henegar, Alabama. Judging by extant recordings of other musicians from that part of the country, Mrs. Loudermilk’s version seems to have been the favorite of northern Georgia and Alabama, as well as of southwestern Tennessee. In fact, in 1925, two years before Louvin was born, a guitarist and singer from North Georgia named Arthur Tanner would record what would be the first commercially released “Knoxville Girl,” and one that is nearly identical to that which the Louvin Brothers cut at their first session in 1957, and that Charlie Louvin sings today. And five more “Knoxville Girl” sides would follow in the next ten years, as well as several other manifestations of the story from Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas.
But if a spelunking Kentuckian named Floyd Collins didn’t get trapped in a cave in 1925, the story of the Knoxville Girl might not have reached us at all. The entrapment, rescue effort, and ultimate death of Collins in Sand Cave are well known, precisely because they gave rise to one of the most hysterical media events America has ever experienced. Just as the country was held captive by the disappearances of Laci Peterson or Natalee Holloway, millions waited anxiously for a week in February of ’25 as riveting updates from the Barren County cave were delivered by nearly every American newspaper and radio broadcast. When the accidental celebrity finally expired of starvation and exposure, the nation mourned. And three months later, when a Columbia record of “The Death of Floyd Collins” hit stores, with opera singer cum country star Vernon Dalhart’s delivery positively dripping with melodrama, the nation devoured it. As Chris King writes in his notes to the Tompkins Square label’s boxed-set, “People Take Warning,” Dalhart “set in motion a rage for country-tinged exploitation event songs which made 78s and sheet music the broadside ballads of the post-Industrial Age.”
“The Death of Floyd Collins,” penned by the Reverend Andrew Jenkins, sent A&R executives of the major American recording companies into a frenzy trying to cash in on the success of Dalhart’s record. Although, to again quote King, songs like it were “old and familiar, yet fresh as the morning headlines,” it seems that management was also willing to gamble on older news. Not more than a month after “Floyd Collins” was released, Columbia brought Arthur Tanner into their New York studio to re-cut his “Knoxville Girl.” Yes, re-cut. He had recorded a version just shy of three weeks before the death of Collins, but evidently someone at Columbia was unimpressed and the master was lost or destroyed. Its commercial viability had yet to be revealed. In fact, Tanner wasn’t the only one who had submitted a version of “Knoxville Girl,” only to have the Columbia brass find it uninteresting or unusable. In fact, the blind singer and guitarist Riley Puckett — who would go on to become one of the most popular and prolific old-time performers, both solo and with the super-group the Skillet Lickers (led by Arthur’s brother, Gid Tanner) — had visited New York nearly a year earlier, in March of 1924, where, of his five sides, the only one rejected was “The Knoxville Girl.” (Puckett, however, never re-recorded it.)
Thus the Renaissance murder ballads met their 20th-century descendants in the catalogs of the American record companies and on the Victrolas of American homes. Though dance tunes (“Turkey In the Straw”) and sentimental numbers (“Little Old Log Cabin In the Lane”) were the old-time era’s morning-line favorites, the event ballad — whether pulled from memory or newly composed — quickly became an indispensable element of the early country-music repertoire. Local murder ballads became an especially popular item, fusing some of the language of the British varieties with the people and places of current headlines. (See our playlist for examples: Nana Wray’s “Ballad of Charlie Lawson” and the Floyd County Ramblers’ “Story of Frieda [or Freda] Bolt.”
The 1930s brought with them many changes for hillbilly music, not the least of which was the Great Depression’s effect on the previously high-flying record companies’ bottom lines. Many performers found their contracts expiring and not renewed, and the satellite recording operations that captured the local music of so many Southern backwaters were no longer profitable to maintain. Top artists in the late 1920s, song-crafters like Rev. Jenkins and Fiddlin’ John Carson, were among the casualties of the Depression years, as their big-selling ballads of the 1920s had literally become old news. Motion pictures were giving rise to a Western craze, and the record companies, as Bill Malone points out in his Country Music U.S.A., were refocusing their attention from the Southeast to the Southwest. And hugely popular programs like the National Barn Dance out of Chicago and Nashville’s Grand Ol’ Opry were shifting the very medium of country music from the phonograph to radio receiver.
Despite these modernizations, however, the traditional aspects of many popular artists’ repertoires held firm, as did many listeners’ preference for them. The “old-time songs” provided succor for millions of Southerners scratching out livings on rented parcels in Georgia, slaving in the cotton mills in North Carolina or the coal mines of Kentucky. Those who migrated north to Midwestern factories or followed the Joads west to the migrant labor camps in California tuned into the radio barn dances or the continent-sweeping programs broadcast by the powerful “X” stations across the border in Mexico. As Mark Zwonitzer writes in his biography of the Carter Family, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?, “radio could cut against the loneliness of the country’s age of dislocation, could find the homeless wanderers who had escaped the rural South for dreams of better lives, and then lost their own sense of where they belonged.”
Between advertisements, rural listeners strewn across the country could hear the Carter Family, who spent the late ‘30s in Del Rio, Texas, playing border radio shows like XERA’s “Good Neighbor Get-Together,” pick out murder ballads such as “Young Freda Bolt,” “The Fate of Dewey Lee” (a ballad based on a 1935 murder in Wise County, Virginia, and written by A.P. Carter), or “Never Let the Devil Get the Upper Hand Of You,” a Southwestern Virginia variant of “The Knoxville Girl.”
Bill Malone has written that hard-scrabble existences combined with a rigorous Calvinist faith naturally disposed Southerners towards ballads of a mournful variety. And hearing those ballads sung by parents, grandparents, and neighbors no doubt instills a keen sense of the tragic in a child. Perhaps that’s why so many family bands, especially the brother duos — the Monroes, the Stanleys, the Delmores, the Blue Sky Boys (whose “Story of the Knoxville Girl” from 1937 is virtually identical to that of the Louvins) — trafficked in such material. It’s no surprise that when the Louvin Brothers began their radio career in the 1940s, as Charlie remembers, the most requested song was “The Knoxville Girl.”
Surely it’s more than voyeurism that keeps us returning to murder ballads. We have more than enough contemporary violence in sound and image to hold our attention. Their enduring relevance might have something more to do with humanity’s perpetual, ineluctable high-wire walk between the worst of our bestial natures and the best of our aesthetic capacities. These songs, full of beauty and bathos (they couldn’t have lasted so long without them), are stories of animal responses to human emotions; they’re frank portraits of our species, and unsettling in their familiarity. Charlie Louvin scoffs at those who wonder at how the murderer of the Knoxville girl could commit such a crime. “Why would this dirty guy do this?” they ask. “Unattended love,” obviously, replies Charlie. “You didn’t listen to the song good: ‘Go down, go down, you Knoxville girl, with a dark and roving eye.’ There are still those idiots out there who will say ‘if I can’t have you nobody can.’ “ The crime itself is all that separates us from those idiots. Who among us hasn’t felt such a pang? Thus, as for the murder ballads: “I think they’ll always be here.”