Beyond death and taxes, a further list of life’s constants would have to include music, storytelling and, unfortunately, violence; perhaps we find murder ballads so thrilling because they cleverly mash them all together. Or maybe it’s just a relief to get away from the tired tropes of the love song — or at least to refashion them so that dashing suitors become angry, jilted lovers, abusive husbands and destructive obsessives. Either way, there’s perhaps no better way to improve an intriguing tale than with a great guitar part, and vice versa. Those two, at least, were meant to be together, even if the subjects of these songs were destined for unpleasant ends. Here are the 13 Grisliest Murder Ballads of All Time. You can also listen to the ballads on eMusic Radio and watch them on YouTube.
The Raconteurs, “Carolina Drama”
The Artist: Jack White is his generation's king of maniacal howling, for which there is perhaps no better place than a murder tale.
The Story: Billy never knew his father, so when he finds his mother crying as her despicable boyfriend chokes a priest and hits him with a hammer, he figures he has to step in and save his dad. The only weapon at hand is the bottle of milk, so Billy smashes it over the boyfriend's head and watches the mixture of red and white in morbid fascination. In a clever twist ending, we finally learn who the father is – and it's not the priest.
The Verdict: Extenuating circumstances, to say the least; Billy should probably be tried as a juvenile.
Tramps and Hawkers, “Twa Sisters”
The Artist: There are many versions of this intriguing British classic, but Tramps and Hawkers take it in a heartbeat with their fiery vocal trills.
The Story: A suitor divides two sisters when he falls in love with the younger one; the elder drowns her in a jealous rage, indifferent to her pleas for mercy. Passing musicians find the body and build a harp from her breastbone, stringing it with her hair. When they inadvertently end up performing for the mourning family, the instrument decides to reveal its provenance and thereby also the remaining daughter's crime.
The Verdict: The killer might face consequences enough from her angry family alone, honestly. But surely those macabre minstrels can be charged with something too, right?
Robin and Linda Williams, “Step It Out Nancy”
The Artist: This song comes from a collection of murder ballads by various artists. This Virginia duo's contributions are head and shoulders above everything else.
The Story: Nancy is madly in love with a cowboy from Colorado, but her father forces her to play along when some rich douchebag shows up to court her. Upon learning of his competition, moneybags gallops off and returns carrying the boyfriend's body in a bloody sack. (This all happens in the space of one line – aren't cowboys supposed to be tougher than that?) Nancy is still grief-stricken when their wedding comes around and shoots her husband-to-be in front of a small army of witnesses, but the jury inexplicably lets her go.
The Verdict: Vengeful urges might be understandable elsewhere, but it's really hard to sympathize with vigilantism when we never meet the boyfriend in any meaningful capacity, i.e. outside of the sack.
Doc Watson, “Tom Dooley”
The Artist: Many artists have tackled this over the ages – perhaps most notably the Kingston Trio – but the prehistoric flatpicking legend Doc Watson beats them all with his ragged, bluesy harmonica fills.
The Story: A Confederate soldier named Tom Dula was hanged in North Carolina in 1868 for murdering Laura Foster, his fiancÃ© and the cousin of his ex-girlfriend Ann Melton. Dula insisted until the very end that he hadn't harmed Foster, but also said he felt guilty anyway, prompting suspicion that Melton was actually responsible and Dula was merely complicit in the cover-up. The national furor over this case at the time led directly to the folk song, which is now a wildly popular standard.
The Verdict: Whatever your views on the death penalty, it does not seem unreasonable to demand proof of guilt before resorting to it.
Tom Lehrer, “The Irish Ballad”
The Artist: Lehrer was an Ivy League renaissance man, bouncing over the course of his life between the military, theater, television, mathematics and songwriting. He also may or may not have invented the Jell-O shot, which perhaps softened the blow a bit when he gave up on music in the '70s.
The Story: A demented young girl offs her unsuspecting family one by one through increasingly gruesome means – drowning the dad, burning the sister and slicing her baby brother in half and boiling him into a stew, which she then serves to the neighbors. When the police finally catch on, she cooperates and confesses everything; because lying would be a sin.
The Verdict: This might come down to a nature vs. nurture thing. Exactly how screwed up does your family have to be in order to produce a kid like this one?
Gillian Welch, “Caleb Meyer”
The Artist: The music of Appalachian folk fairy godmother Gillian Welch is breathtaking in general, but this might very well be the best thing she has ever recorded.
The Story: Caleb is a bootlegger who shows up drunk at Nellie Kane's house; as soon as he learns that her husband is away on business, he smashes his bottle of whiskey and tries to rape her. Nellie utters a quick prayer, then inches her fingers over to one of the glass shards and takes it to his neck.
The Verdict: Totally justified self-defense. That bastard deserved it.
The Byrds, “Pretty Polly”
The Artist: The aggressive take by the celebrated Dylan interpreters is probably the most rewarding, but you'd also be wise to seek out the sparser version by Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny and the collaboration between Emmylou Harris and Darol Anger.
The Story: Willie hits on Polly repeatedly with gems like "The first time I saw you it wounded my heart" and "My mind is to marry and never to part." Eventually she gives in, at which point he walks with her to the grave he'd dug the night before and stabs her in the chest just as she starts to realize what a pickle she's in.
The Verdict: Lock him up forever; those pickup lines are totally unforgivable.
Reynardine, “Bruton Town”
The Artist: You'll find even more versions of this song if you search using its alternate title, "The Bramble Briar" – after the bush, of course. Espers singer Meg Baird had a perfectly serviceable reading on her 2006 debut Leaves From Off The Tree, which even gets its title from a line in this song, but the Irish folk quartet Reynardine wins out thanks to the deft interactions between their fingerpicked guitar and cello parts.
The Story: Two brothers are infuriated when a servant boy starts flirting with their sister, so they kill him in the woods nearby. She asks after him for a while, then finally goes looking herself, eventually finding his body crammed into a thorny bush.
The Verdict: Interrogate the brothers separately and cut a modest plea bargain for whoever squeals first.
Nick Cave & Kylie Minogue, “Where The Wild Roses Grow”
The Artist: It starts with a strong and startling turn from top shelf Australian pop starlet Kylie Minogue, but then Cave comes along and steals the show with quivering syllables twisted around the beats and vocals that seem almost as unhinged as the lyrics.
The Story: "Why do they keep calling me the wild rose?" she keeps asking. "My name is Elisa." You know the drill – boy meets girl, boy kills girl, boy plants rose between girl's teeth. But what makes this so fascinating are the dueling accounts whereby both killer and victim describe in parallel each of the three days leading up to the murder. He says, "I kissed her." She says, "He hit me with a rock."
The Verdict: You can do as much gardening as you want in the prison yard, buddy.
The Artist: Eminem is indisputably one of hip-hop's best wordsmiths, and this is him at his finest.
The Story: Maybe hip-hop stretches the limits of the term "ballad," but this might also be the most technically adept of the bunch, since the chilling storyline is also delivered entirely through letters that are read aloud. The titular troubled youngster writes a string of increasingly disturbing fan mail to Eminem. As his obsession peaks, he eventually elects to send a package instead, and records his final missive onto an audio tape, a deranged rant which he records while drunk driving down the freeway before launching his car off a bridge – with his pregnant girlfriend locked in the trunk.
The Verdict: Em can't reasonably be expected to answer all his fan mail, but someone certainly should have noticed Stan escalating and guided him to the help he needed.
Natalie Merchant, “Golden Boy”
The Artist: After she departed from acoustic folk-rockers 10,000 Maniacs in 1993, Merchant's astounding voice made a strong showing on her first three solo albums.
The Story: There's actually not much by way of a plot here; it's more like a fly-on-the-wall perspective as a promising young man devolves. Then it's time for crushing lines like "Meteor rise from obscurity/ all it took was a killing spree/ and the whole world was lying at your feet." He's the golden boy for all the wrong reasons, but we never actually find out exactly what he did.
The Verdict: Depends on the specifics, but if the phrase "killing spree" is at all accurate then we're probably going to have a problem here.
Nickel Creek, “The Lighthouse’s Tale”
The Artist: Whenever you start to think the bluegrass-pop trio Nickel Creek was merely a launchpad for mandolin prodigy Chris Thile, give this one a spin to set yourself straight.
The Story: Your narrator is a lighthouse who makes it his mission to keep the local sailors safe. He hits it off famously with his new lighthouse keeper, and their bond grows ever stronger over many years of working together. But when the keeper falls head over heels in love with a girl and eventually proposes to her, the lighthouse feels threatened. There doesn't seem to be anybody to blame when she dies out in the harbor during a storm that smashes her body against the rocks, but when the miserable keeper hurls himself to his death from the tower, the lighthouse can't do anything but stand motionless forever and sing this song of regret.
The Verdict: Put it on a postcard, declare it a national treasure, load it up with whatever other accolades you can think of. I mean, holy shit – a talking lighthouse!
Robert Earl Keen, “Jesse With The Long Hair”
The Artist: The remarkable Texas songwriter opens a window into the hillbilly honor code with squawking major-key steel guitar warbles that momentarily spirit you away from the violence.
The Story: Sheriff Paul is dismayed to learn that he has to go arrest the outlaw hooligan Jesse, who was once his friend and a fine upstanding citizen to boot. The nefarious banker Mr. Brown, who competes in vain with Jesse for the lovely Luann's affections, is about to leave town with the money he pocketed from repossessing Jesse's land under false pretenses when a furious Luann shows up with a pistol. Jesse shows up moments later as well, and when the surprised Luann turns to look at the doorway, Brown overpowers her, grabs the gun, and points it at her head. So who was it that shot him through the window? Nobody seems to know. Hmm.
The Verdict: Huh? What are you talking about? I didn't see nothin'.