The murder ballad is a traditional musical form with a dark twist - it tells the story of a violent death, and often the subsequent discovery of the murderer and his or her punishment. Or not, if they flee the scene and are seen no more. Banishment from home and hearth serve as atonement. Stories like these, in little villages that have long since crumbled away are often lost, but the stories told in these songs linger on, made easier to remember by the music that carries them.
The oldest ones in English were brought to America from Europe, and over time, they may be adapted to local traditions and locations. One of the oldest and most famous is 'The Twa Sisters', a story about a pair of sisters, where the elder drowns the younger, usually to steal away her handsome lover. Variations in the story have the young girl's body made into a fiddle, or a harp, and the macabre instrument sings out the guilt of the surviving sister, usually in the presence of her family. The themes of the story are guilt and justice, and the idea that the truth will inevitably out. I've interpreted this old tale into prose for my new book of short fairy tales in the older, darker tradition, which will be out in April.
Another popular story that traveled with the Colonists, and was adapted to their local tales, is "The Knoxville Girl". This one is derived, originally, from a murder in England, in 1683. But as it traveled to the Colonies, the crime and the aftermath were moved to Tennessee. The violence in this tune is particularly explicit. And again, the traditional tune takes on a country western flavor, as many European ballads do when they cross the Atlantic, making them more "American" in tone.
In the shadowy mountains of Appalachia, they lay claim to the "sweetheart murder ballad", in which one lover kills another out of jealousy. Tom Dooley is probably the most famous of these, having been recorded by The Kingston Trio. Local records confirm the truth of this story, from Wilkes county, in which young Tom stabs and kills his pregnant sweetheart, and is ultimately hanged for his crime. It's interesting to note, that in the usual way of these oral traditions, the man referred to as "Greyson", while a figure in Tom's life, was, in fact, unrelated to the crime.
More modern, more American tales exist, written in a modern style. Some of them rose to popularity, particularly in the country/western genre of music. Songs like Marty Robbins's 'El Paso', a story of a man who falls in love with a beautiful girl from the Mexican border, and shoots a rival, then flees the city, stealing a horse to ride into the desert, alone. "Long Black Veil" is a more contemporary ballad, from 1959, in which a man goes to the scaffold rather than admit he spent the night of the murder with his best friend's wife. The woman in the titular long black veil is the lover whom he died to protect. A decision of questionable morality, for certain.
These stories live longer because of their musical background. Though locations and names change with time and location, the hearts of these tales remain, carved into our collective history with timeless themes, and stories that repeat again and again, no matter how far into history they retreat.