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.