riffraff
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Misogyny
Music

Why do we love to sing murder ballads? Tradition, feminism and bluegrass

Johnny Cash slowly strums the opening chords and begins to sing ‘Delia, oh Delia …’ The crowd claps and whistles in recognition. Cash stops singing, scratches his forehead casually, smiles knowingly at the audience: ‘It’s not an anti-woman song, it’s just an anti-Delia song.’ The performance gains momentum. Delia is judged to be ‘cold’ and ‘mean’, the type of woman who makes the narrator ‘want to grab his sub machine.’ He shoots her, and implies she is responsible for her own death. The only sign of remorse on the narrator’s part is a momentary admission that it was tough to watch her suffer. He concludes:

So if your woman’s devilish
you can let her run
or you can bring her down
and do her like Delia got done

Delia’s gone
one more round
Delia’s gone

Like many murder ballads, ‘Delia’s Gone’ is thought to be based on an historical crime, in this case the murder of Delia Green in 1900 in Savannah, Georgia. Other murder ballad conventions present in ‘Delia’s Gone’ include the lack of motive or remorse on the part of the killer, his desire to control the woman, the enduring popularity of the song, and the gender of the victim. Cash liked the song so much he recorded it not once but four times.

Murder ballads are common fare along the spectrum of music that encompasses bluegrass (think rolling Deliverance-style banjos and fast fiddle solos), old-time (the back-porch ancestor of bluegrass music), and alt-country (think Steve Earle or Gillian Welch). While these musical forms have their roots in the US, all have committed followings in Australia and other countries, not least due to the popularity of films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? At any given gig, perhaps at an inner-city pub or a folk festival, the murder ballad typically appears three-quarters of the way through a set: the band might have played some originals, some fast instrumental tunes, some uplifting or nostalgic gospel numbers. They’ve warmed the crowd and established rapport. The lead singer (generally a man, but certainly not always) asks, ‘who here likes a good murder ballad?’ The crowd claps and cheers. The singer makes a joke that bluegrass is all about death, religion, and trains. The band begins to play ‘Poor Ellen Smith,’ ‘Little Sadie,’ ‘The Banks of the Ohio,’ or ‘Down in the Willow Garden.’ Audience members sing along. Nobody mentions the women, or more explicitly, gendered violence.

My orientation to and affective relationship with murder ballads comes from my position as a bluegrass and old-time fiddle player, and as a feminist killjoy. At times these two positions appear to be mutually untenable: misogynistic sentiment is rife in these musical traditions. When women are not being violently killed, they are lying or cheating, or alternately, waiting patiently, virtuously, anxiously at home for beloved sons. To be a feminist killjoy, as theorised by Sara Ahmed, is to cause discomfort and tension by casting cherished or naturalised behaviours and traditions in a critical light. The killjoy, through drawing attention to a problem, is judged to be creating a problem, and in turn she is understood as the problem herself. She is a wet blanket, taking things too seriously, not comprehending the distinction between material reality and fiction. This is my killjoy exploration of murder ballads, and the ways in which their violence and misogyny is obscured, ameliorated, or excused by musicians and audiences. It is also an exploration of the work already being done by musicians to resist casual acceptance of uncritical reiterations of dead-girl songs.

The musical scene that I am talking about (and to) is one that I am involved in, and one that gives me a great deal of joy, support, and creative satisfaction. While it is a small scene, the burgers-and-beards Americana hipster fashion of recent years has heightened interest in US music traditions; it’s a good time to be a bluegrass musician. Tentatively, the scene might be described as based in the inner city, characterised by a liberal or left-wing political orientation, spanning the spectrum of young musicians to older alumni of the sixties folk revival. As with other folk traditions, knowledge of bluegrass and country history – its practitioners, canon, geographical sites, modes of transmission and lineages – is highly valued and sought after, the more in-depth and obscure the better. As country music scholars have argued, bluegrass, old-time and alt-country are the Other to commercial, mainstream country: the hardcore partner in a hardcore/soft shell duality. This duality is exemplified by the counter-cultural popularity of outlaw or alt-country artists such as Waylon Jennings, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Gram Parsons, or Gillian Welch. These artists attract urban audiences who would never dream of attending a Keith Urban or Lee Kernaghan concert. As country music writer Teresa Goddu observes, bluegrass is ‘filled with stories of violent murder, unatoned sin, and ghostly visitations, [and] permitted the morbidity and excess that mainstream country cannot “get away with”.’ So, how do bluegrass and its musical cousins ‘get away with it’?

 

The first explanation might be described as the Game of Thrones defence, what Katherine Don has called the ‘But … the Dark Ages!’ line. In other words, the temporal and geographic distance of say, early twentieth-century USA, from contemporary society, gives practitioners licence to ignore the resonances of murder ballads in the present day. Tales of jealous, violent and vindictive men raping and killing their lovers are seen as gothic remnants of a long-ago past, and of a place peopled by quaintly-backward mountain folk who expressed their love with passionate excess. This ye-oldey folksy world is understood as far-removed from twenty-first century urban USA, and even more so from contemporary Sydney or Melbourne.

While twenty-first century Sydney may be far away from nineteenth-century Appalachia, or George R. R. Martin’s medieval Westeros, the issue here is the uncritical framing of historical violence, and the lack of recognition of links with present-day sexism and misogyny. When glamorous, nameless prostitutes are brutally killed as a mere aesthetic backdrop to the primary storyline in Game of Thrones, it reiterates deep cultural constructions of women as disposable sex objects. When Jaime rapes Cersei in the same series, and the director describes the rape as sex which was ‘consensual by the end,’ we are steered away from recognising, acknowledging, and naming what has truly happened. When the violent and sometimes sexually abusive deaths of women in murder ballads are presented as an edgy folk tale in which the primary issue is ‘excessive passion’ or gender-blind ‘murder’, rather than ‘violence against women’ or ‘rape,’ we detour past the immediate link with contemporary society, in which at minimum one in five women experience sexual assault over their lifetime, generally at the hands of partner or known person.

The second mode of obscuring or excusing the brutality of murder ballads has to do with class. As thinkers like Bourdieu have theorised, the advantages or disadvantages experienced in society are not merely a function of economic power, but rather also of disparate allotments of social, cultural, and symbolic capital. Middle-class white teens can earn kudos through appropriating African-American vernacular, dress, or music, while African-American teens are disciplined for the same behaviour. Less privileged subjects are fixed in place by their assumed inherent traits, while more privileged subjects are free to adopt or discard a range of identities and behaviours without attracting the assumption that any are inherent.

In Australia, bluegrass, old-time and alt-country are primarily an urban phenomenon. While it would be an oversimplification to state that by contrast, mainstream country music attracts primarily rural fans, mainstream country music has found its commercial and spiritual home in Tamworth in country NSW, and it is most popular with working-class people in outer suburbia and regional towns. Moreover, Australian mainstream country music is concerned with the perceived values of the Australian bush: there are award categories for ‘Bush Ballad of the Year’ and ‘Toyota Heritage Song of the Year’ at the Tamworth Country Music Festival. As a result, country music is readily dismissed by progressive urbanites as low-brow, parochial and conservative. This is to say, the largely white, middle-class liberals who play and listen to bluegrass or alt-country might be said to have a level of symbolic capital not held by country music fans. Songs about misogynistic murder, if sung by mainstream country artists, might be construed as indicative of the harsh patriarchal world of rural Australia. To the contrary, urban alt-country or bluegrass artists can afford to try on the persona of the violent male without any ramifications, and indeed, can accrue symbolic capital through their embrace of a song form considered gothic or edgy. One need only look to the middle-class moral outcry around misogynistic content in black rap and hip-hop to see that this symbolic capital is not available to everyone. For black rappers, violent lyrics are often perceived by mainstream white media as a marker of criminality, rather than of edginess or ironic gothicism.

A third mode of avoidance relates to the musical aesthetic and mode of delivery in bluegrass and old-time music. Have a listen to the popular Louvin Brothers version of ‘The Knoxville Girl’, in which the lover/killer ‘pick[s] a stick up off the ground and knock[s] that fair girl down.’ While the Knoxville Girl begs for mercy, Willy (they’re often called Willy) continues to ‘beat her more’ while ‘her blood … flow[s].’ If you ignore the lyrics, it’s the chirpiest piece of music you’ll hear all year. Other ballads are sung with a nostalgic beauty that would lead the listener to believe they are listening to a story about a lover lost in tragic circumstances, rather than a lover murdered at the hands of the narrator. (For reference, listen to Willie Watson’s version of Rock, Salt and Nails, including his creepy introduction: ‘I’ll sing a song for the ladies now.’) Some ballads do portray a sense of foreboding and fear, mostly through the use of modal tonality, but are sung dispassionately, belying the narrator’s implication in the murder story. This distanced stance is typical of traditional ballad singers and those continuing to perform in the tradition.

 

Can this dispassionate or removed stance remain politically tenable in current society? Old-time songs that express racist ideas about African-American folks or encapsulate the ideologies of slavery have been largely rejected. Reiterations of black-face minstrelsy are similarly, roundly critiqued and criticised (although less so in Australia than in the USA). This is to say, despite inertia and reluctance around altering folk traditions, this has been done, and for reasons few would argue with. Moreover, the very idea of folk traditions as static is a fiction, based on elitist notions of bourgeois progress versus peasant timelessness, high-brow versus low-brow. Any preliminary exploration of the history of bluegrass and recorded country music show that these have always been dynamic commercial genres, shaped by the desires of listeners and the marketing decisions of record industry personnel. Dynamism is a constant feature of folk music traditions; there is no reason why we should not see ourselves as agents in this process.

Rather than prescribe sanctions or limits on the performance of murder ballads, I would suggest that those engaged in bluegrass and related music scenes need to do the work of becoming resisting performers and listeners, of opening space for critical reflection on dearly-loved traditions, of daring to question the viability of things that have always-been-just-so. I might be wrong (because the internet is a big place), but I don’t think the kind of online communities that nut out the implications of gender-based violence in say, Game of Thrones, exist yet for this musical community. (One exception that I have come across is Sing Out!’s regular segment Murder Ballad Mondays, which often engages with murder-ballad gender politics). Certainly I haven’t heard or participated in many offline conversations untangling the messy politics of murder ballads, beyond my closest friends and feminist allies. Often the conversations I have had have been with people outside of the scene, people who have been put off by bluegrass due to their discomfort with the casual misogyny expressed in its canon. Perhaps this speaks to the self-preserving silence of scene members, a silence arising from the fear of jeopardising something that is held dear.

However, if we refuse to do the work of critical reflection and action, we are complicit in reiterating a culture that continues to see sexual abuse and gender-based violence as a minor offence, and women as responsible for assault. As Adrienne Rich wrote, ‘[u]ntil we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search for identity: it is part of her refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.’ Breaking from a dispassionate stance on the past is an act of recalibration, a refusal to comply with an apolitical stance on murder ballads, and indeed all texts that uncritically accept sexist or racist violence.

 

Critical work is already being done by some performers, a striking example of which is Alynda Lee Segarra’s project Hurray for the Riff Raff, and most specifically, her song ‘The Body Electric.’ Segarra does not move away from historical tradition but speaks back to it: ‘The Body Electric’ disrupts the non-event that is singing murder ballads within bluegrass and alt-country scenes. She sings:

He’s gonna shoot me down, put my body in the river
Cover me up with the leaves of September
Like an old sad song, you heard it all before
Well Delia’s gone, but I’m settling the score

Segarra brings the unquestioned folk past abruptly into the present by positioning herself as the soon-to-be-dead girl, and constructs an alliance with the women who have gone before, namely Johnny Cash’s Delia. This is only the beginning of Segarra’s intervention into the murder ballad form. She ran a crowd-funding campaign to produce a video for ‘The Body Electric’, with all funds exceeding video production costs going towards The Trayvon Martin Foundation and the Third Wave Fund, a gender justice organisation led by young women of colour, trans and queer folk. By partnering with organisations that address violence and oppression in their various forms, Segarra explicitly links gendered violence with racist violence. She states:

Our bodies are being turned against us. Black and brown bodies are being portrayed as inherently dangerous. A Black person’s size and stature are being used as reason for murder against them. This is ultimately a deranged fear of the power and capabilities of black people. It is the same evil idea that leads us to blame women for attacks by their abusers. Normalizing rape, domestic abuse and even murder of women of all races is an effort to take the humanity out of our female bodies. To objectify and to ridicule the female body is ultimately a symptom of fear of the power women hold.

The video itself features a trans woman of colour – New Orleans bounce performer Katey Red – as Botticelli’s Venus, tenderly gathering up and cradling bullet casings as a means of healing ‘a world that’s so sick and sad.’ Katey Red’s glowing Venus is juxtaposed with a chilling image of a young woman wearing what appears to be a trophy mount around her neck, a line of other women waiting in the background for their own inevitable encounters with patriarchal objectification and violence.

Segarra lets her critique of the gender-based violence in murder ballads act as a foundation for more wide-ranging activism. While her murder ballad intervention is impressive and inspiring, she is not the only one who has done or continues to do this work. Maintaining the haunting modal tonality of much Appalachian music, Gillian Welch’s popular ‘Caleb Meyer’ tells the story of a would-be killer/rapist who meets his end at the hands of protagonist Nellie Kane, after she finds a piece of sharp broken glass at a climactic final moment. The song’s power lies not only in its gender role reversal, but in its evocation of the ongoing trauma experienced by survivors of sexual assault. The chorus lyrics encapsulate Nellie’s fear and weariness at encountering the persistent ghost of Caleb Meyer: she pleads ‘don’t you call my name.’

Other groups, such as duo Eileen, have reimagined women’s fates by rewriting traditional murder ballads. Their adaptation of ‘Omie Wise, Omie Homage’ is one such example. Unaltered traditional ballads sung by women can also bring gender politics to the fore: when Aoife O’Donovan and her band Crooked Still sing ‘Poor Ellen Smith’, the exuberant joy of the music speaks to me of defiance and resistance. This is exemplified in the joyful smile O’Donovan and fiddle player Brittany Haas share when O’Donovan sings ‘such is the fate of a girl who is bad.’ All four examples covered here show that love and respect for musical canons can walk hand-in-hand with critique, resistance, and dynamism.

 

Let’s come back to Ahmed’s feminist killjoy – that is, me – and others who make a deal out of something that is not considered a deal. The women in the songs are also killjoys: they did not behave in the ways that were expected of them by patriarchal society. Perhaps their eyes were too roving (the Knoxville Girl), perhaps they were not ready to get married (Pretty Polly), perhaps they dared to conceive a child before marrying (Omie Wise). The feminist killjoy puts up resistance, disrupts the flow of taken-for-granted behaviours that are facilitated by powerful social structures. It is common to think of sexism as embodied in big, unequivocal events, such as a workplace refusing to hire women, or a college shooting by a Men’s Rights Activist. While these events are easy to spot and label, it is the slow drip of naturalised behaviours and attitudes that wear women down, over time creating waterlogged earth or flaking rust. Just as sexism occurs as this slow drip of daily events, so must resistance weave itself into daily life. This resistance becomes all the more visible when dealing with a genre of music that is considered traditional, the very name itself demarcating a set of conventions and norms that are perceived as immovable, that are reified in an unreachable past.

It is clear to me that many practitioners of bluegrass and related genres perceive there to be a clear disconnect between the fictionalised murders of the past and current gendered power dynamics. To the contrary, I would argue that the very viability of unquestioned reiterations of murder ballads illuminates the continued legitimacy of patriarchal power in our society. Recognising the continuities and resonances between the past and the present need not throw a wet blanket over the entirety of beloved traditions, however. Nor should critical interpretations of murder ballads happen at the expense of the making of beautiful, cathartic and non-didactic art: the work of Segarra, Welch and others speak to this. Instead, as Ahmed writes, feminism can provide us with ways of ‘reinhabiting the past,’ of speaking back to the stories that harm us. Reinhabiting the stories of Delia, Polly and Ellen – stories that belong to us, too – is the work that Segarra and others have begun to undertake.

 

Image: Katey Red in ‘The Body Electric – Hurray for the Riff Raff / youtube

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Miriam Jones is a fiddle player and early childhood educator living in Sydney. As the 2015 National Folk Fellow, she researched the history of people playing bluegrass music in Australia.

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Comments

  1. Wow, Miriam, that’s a very thoughtful article.It gives me a totally new perspective on country music. Not that I was ever a fan, mind, but I did endure my father’s nightly tunes of Cash.

  2. As a bluegrass lover and a feminist I found this an interesting article. But murder ballads are some of my favourite songs, and not all are about the women dying. “Long Black Veil”, “Stagger Lee” and “Lily of the West” are just of few where men die. Part of the purpose of a murder ballad is that it can – like any work of art – bring us into someone else’s head. Some of these tell a devastating story about domestic violence and murder. In some the woman’s death is sung about mournfully, as in “Banks of the Ohio” the lyrics are “I cried my God/ what have I done/ killed the only woman I loved/ because she would not be my bride.” Also as many female artists have sung this song as men – and turned it into a woman killing a man (Olivia Newton John is one).
    Agree though that some of my favourite renditions are when the tradition is turned on it’s head as Welch and others do. Another recent murder ballad by a female bluegrass/country artist is Sister by Diana Jones. Beautiful, devastating song.

  3. Great to read your analysis Miriam – an eloquent articulation of my own musing and pondering about the songs. Two others that come to mind who recalibrate the genre Miriam are Annie Lou and Laurie Lewis.

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