Murder Ballads Top 10

Posted in: Rock by Patrick Bernauw on October 20th, 2009 | 8 Comments

A murder ballad recounts the details of a true crime, often of an almost mythical nature. Many of these traditional ballads originated in England, Scotland and Scandinavia. Notable murder ballads, modern style, were written and performed by such artists as Nick Cave or Bruce Springsteen. Here is my Top Ten of Murder Ballads, both traditional and modern style.

A murder ballad tells us who is the victim, why this person was killed, how the murdered lured him or her to the murder site… and of course the act itself is recounted, followed by the escape or capture of the murderer. Usually the ballad ends with the murdered in jail, on his way to the gallows (or the electric chair), sometimes with a plea for the listener: “Don’t do the evil deeds I have done!”

Together with my brother Nando, I recorded a lot of French and Dutch murder ballads and also this very old English ballad May Colven, a song about a medieval serial killer. David Lanier aka “mysticdave” collected some really fine traditional folk songs on his Murder Ballads page, featuring “usual suspects” such as Pete Seeger (together with Frank Warner in Tom Dooley), Bob Dylan (The Ballad of Hollis Brown) or Woody Guthrie (1913 Massacre). Often murder ballads have also supernatural elements as in “The Gosport Tragedy”, originating in the 18th century, telling us about the vengeance on the murderer by the ghost of the murdered woman.

My Top Ten consists of both traditionals and modern style murder ballads.

Image via Wikipedia

1. Where the Wild Roses Grow (Nick Cave & Kylie Minogue)

In 1996 Murder Ballads was released as the ninth studio album by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. The album consists of modern and traditional murder ballads, and has two great duets: one with Kylie Minogue and one with PJ Harvey (in Henry Lee).

2. Nebraska (Bruce Springsteen)

The album Nebraska (1982) is an American classic, the title song recounts the “Starkweather and Fugate” killing spree. There are other chilling murder ballads on this record, like Johnny 99.

3. Henry Lee (Nick Cave & PJ Harvey)

4. Johnny 99 (Bruce Springsteen)

Live in the Born in the USA Tour.

5. Hurricane (Bob Dylan)

From the 1975 album Desire. With some other modern style murder ballads like Joey or Romance in Durango.

But here is the story of Hurricane,

the man the authorities came to blame

for something that he never done…

6. Powderfinger (Neil Young)

From Live Rust (1979), here is Powderfinger:

“Look out, Mama, there’s a white boat comin’ up the river… It’s got numbers on the side and a gun…”

7. Riders on the Storm (The Doors)

From the 1971 album LA Woman.

8. Tom Dooley (Frank Warner & Pete Seeger)

9. 1913 Massacre (Woody Guthrie)

10. May Colven

Live footage of Emily Smith, a Scottish folk singer, with this song from her album Too Long Away.

More Murder & Mystery here!

More Historical Mysteries here!

More SuperNatural ParaNormalities here!


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8 Responses to “Murder Ballads Top 10”
  • ken bultman October 20th, 2009 at 9:05 am

    Can’t argue with your list.

  • C Jordan October 20th, 2009 at 10:43 am

    Great choice Patrick. I have always loved the atmospheric Riders on the Storm by the Doors. “More mature” readers in the UK will probably know the Pete Seeger song as a Skiffle version by Lonnie Donnegan: hang down your Head Tom Dooley, from the late 50s early 60s
    Dylans Hurricane co-written with Jacques Levy, about the imprisonment of the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter is fascinating in that after being sentenced to 4 life sentences, all murder charges were dropped in 1988 against him (on the grounds of the original trials being racist), due mainly to the attention and publicity from the song.
    Trivia fact – Dylan has not played this live since 1976 ( the time of a first retrial when Carter was again found guilty).

  • historigal October 20th, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    Great list you have here. Such a unique concept for an article and timely, too. I love it.

  • Lucas DiĆ© October 20th, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    Fascinating and full of blood, as usual. :D

  • RS Wing October 31st, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    Great article. Always a Dylan and Springsteen fan. Pete seeger, another fine american folk legend true to his roots. Interesting piece regarding ‘murder ballads’.

  • XXElleXX November 1st, 2009 at 6:22 am

    Hiho Patrick Bernauw..an excellent write..and impressive choices too..Not many people would know this but The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” is a song about the serial killer Billy Cook who posed as a hitchhiker and then killed an entire family..it’s not really a traditional murder ballad..but I still love hearing it :-)

  • LightupCat February 24th, 2011 at 11:33 pm

    for those of you who still stumble across this despite it having died over a year ago i would strongly recommend the song “Westfall” by Okkervil River

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