Tag Archives: Johnny Cash

Ten Murder Ballads That’ll Slay You

‘Tis the season of ghosts and goblins, trips to the pumpkin patch and apple orchard, lots of candy and a reminder to visit your dentist. While some live in a climate without benefit of experiencing the change of seasons, this year in New York the leaves of the trees have been offering us a kaleidoscope of colors. With thoughts of skeletons, ghosts, and goblins in my head, it wouldn’t seem right to miss an opportunity to share some of my favorite songs about monsters and murder. Such a happy time of the year.

Back in the day before there were television networks that pumped in homogenized programming 24/7, local stations had to fill up morning and late-night slots with their own productions. My town had characters like Bertie the Bunyip, Chief Halftown, Sally Starr, and John Zacherle. The latter had a long career in hosting horror films in both Philadelphia and New York. He went by two names, either Roland or Zacherle. Maybe some might recall his 1958 recording of “Dinner With Drac.”


I suppose most people associate Halloween with “The Monster Mash” and Bobby “Boris” Pickett, but personally I prefer another song by Round Robin. An American songwriter and musician whose real name was Thomas Baker Knight Jr., he had quite a career writing hit singles in the ’50s such as “Lonesome Town” for Ricky Nelson, which was followed by decades of creating an impressive catalog that has been recorded by a long list of singers: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Paul McCartney, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis, to name just a few. He spanned multiple genres, from early rock to psychedelic to country, but my favorite is this 1965 novelty number he performed himself. It’s darn scary.


Transitioning back to roots music, if you have any interest in learning about the history of American traditional ballads, the Library of Congress offers an excellent article. But murder ballads are a different beast, a subgenre, and Wikipedia offers this simple definition:

A broadsheet murder ballad typically recounts the details of a mythic or true crime — who the victim is, why the murderer decides to kill him or her, how the victim is lured to the murder site and the act itself — followed by the escape and/or capture of the murderer. Often the ballad ends with the murderer in jail or on their way to their execution, occasionally with a plea for the listeners not to copy the evils committed by them as recounted by the singer.

One of the things that make murder ballads so interesting to me are that they show up in so many styles, including folk, bluegrass, country, pop, rock, blues, and hip-hop. Some are old, some are new, and I enjoy them all, especially on a cold, dark night. Running the gamut from the traditional to some fresh blood, I put together some songs and performances that are guaranteed to take you down the road less traveled. Seriously: Lindsay Lohan and Nirvana on the same list? Boo.

Johnson Mountain Boys – “Duncan and Brady”


The Wilburn Brothers – “Knoxville Girl”


Kate and Anna McGarrigle – “Ommie Wise”


Wilson Pickett – “Stagger Lee”


Joni Mitchell and Johnny Cash – “Long Black Veil”


Vandaveer – “Pretty Polly”


Lindsay Lohan – “Frankie and Johnny”


Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds with PJ Harvey – “Henry Lee”


Sufjan Stevens – “John Wayne Gacy Jr.”


Nirvana – “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”


This article was originally published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column over at No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music.

Hillbilly Music Straight Outta Compton

I would imagine most people know Compton as the epicenter of late ‘80s hip-hop and a city dominated by crime and gang violence. Smack in the middle between Long Beach and Los Angeles, just south of Watts, back in the ‘50s and ‘60s it became a suburban destination for middle class blacks attracted to both its location and the affordable single-family homes that were available after a Supreme Court case knocked out segregation laws. But with a small commercial area, a shrinking tax base, and a corrupt government, by 1969 Compton held the distinction of having the highest crime rate in California.


There’s another side of musical history from Compton that pre-dates local gansta rap and g-funk. Town Hall Party began in 1951 as a radio broadcast and eventually became a television show that lasted for almost ten years before going off the air. The old Town Hall building at 400 South Long Beach Boulevard was being booked occasionally for country-and-western “barn dances” when it was taken over by promoter William B. Wagnon Jr. It was his idea to get the dances broadcast live on local radio, and the success soon led to a television show concept that started and stopped, but didn’t really become cohesive until August 29, 1953.


The website Hillbilly-Music Dawt Com has done a great job in researching the history of Town Hall Party, which I would encourage you to check out, but here’s an excerpt:

“The lineup on that first show was to be Tex Ritter, Les (Carrot Top) Anderson, Wesley and Marilyn Tuttle, Jack Lloyd, Joe Maphis, Rose Lee Maphis and Texas Tiny (a disc jockey at KFOX who had a three hour a day show). Tex Williams and his band were to provide the musical backing for performers. Jay Stewart was to be the announcer.”

There were a number of country stars that either joined the cast for short periods or were simply guests, including Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves, Sons of the Pioneers, Smiley Burnette, Patsy Cline, Eddie Cochran, George Jones, Wanda Jackson, Carl Perkins and Gene Autry. The Collins Kids, Larry and Lorrie, became show regulars with their rockabilly beat and harmonies. Just two years apart, by age ten Larry was a guitar whiz, playing a double-neck Mosrite guitar like his mentor, Joe Maphis.


According to Country Song Round-Up in August 1954, “the 10-piece Town Hall Party band featured Joe Maphis, Merle Travis, superb steel guitarist Marian Hall, Billy Hill and Fiddlin’ Kate on violins, PeeWee Adams on drums, Jimmy Pruitt on piano, and other excellent musicians who created a Town Hall Party sound also heard on many country sessions produced by Columbia Records in Hollywood in the 1950s.”


In 1957 Screen Gems filmed a series of 39 half-hour shows that they syndicated and re-named the Ranch Party. The Collins Kids were given co-star billing with host Tex Ritter. In his  book Reflections, country performer Johnny Bond, who was also involved in the program, wrote that “traditional country entertainers, singing cowboys and rock singers never shared the spotlight in a more harmonious manner than on the Town Hall Party and syndicated Ranch Party shows.”


Columbia Records released a Town Hall Party album in 1958 that included many of the regular cast members who soon departed the show because NBC decided to discontinue the Saturday night radio broadcasts. In late December 1958, the newly opened Showboat Hotel in Las Vegas began to put on Town Hall Party shows featuring Tex Ritter, The Collins Kids, and Town Hall regulars, thus drawing them away from the Saturday night telecasts on Los Angeles station KTTV. In December 1960 they were dropped from the lineup, and the final performance at the old Compton Town Hall was on Jan. 14, 1961.



Beginning in 2002, the Germany-based Bear Family Records began to release a series of Town Hall Party DVDs that now includes 25 titles. Most feature various artists, but they’ve also brought out an artist spotlight series that includes Joe Maphis, The Collins Kids, Johnny Cash, Eddie Cochran, Merle Travis, and others. There are a few dozen clips and also complete shows available to view on YouTube, with some posted from Bear Family and others from private collectors. It was a great time period for country music in California, and it came straight outta Compton.


This article was originally published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column over at No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music.