This feature is part of Radio.com’s week-long series on murder ballads. Inspired by recent hits, Radio.com is looking at the poem-cum-song’s evolutions in country music, its uses as a tool to raise social consciousness around race issues and the recent turning-of-the-tables to songs sung about vengeful women. Check back every day for a new dive into the dark corners of murder ballads.
Let’s begin by disabusing you of the idea that a murder ballad is a slow song. When we talk about murder ballads, we’re using the original definition of ballad — or as the Oxford English Dictionary describes it:
“A poem or song narrating a story in short stanzas. Traditional ballads are typically of unknown authorship, having been passed on orally from one generation to the next as part of the folk culture.”
So really, a murder ballad can be as rocking or beat-driven as it wants to be. It may be morose, what with dealing with all the murder, but it can have a fast tempo and make you want to dance.
As previously established, the original murder ballads were an early form of true crime writing that served as a way for an illiterate population to get and share gory, blood-splattered news from all over Western Europe. It was a format largely by and for the common man, so it makes perfect sense that the two genres of music who would most closely embrace the murder ballad would be country and hip-hop.
“American country music is obviously rooted in this tradition that goes back to these [murder] ballads from the British isles,” Harold Schechter, author of Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment told Radio.com. “And in terms of hip-hop… you’re talking about a kind of music in a way that comes up out of the streets and addresses the kinds of issues that ordinary people are fascinated by and that reflect certain kinds of social realities and actual crimes that are going on in the community.”
RELATED: Radio.com Inside Out Video Feature On Murder Ballads
While everything else about country and hip-hop might be different, their audiences have one key element in common: admiration for outlaws. Hip-hop has produced plenty of outlaws: to name just a few, the Notorious B.I.G., whose semi-autobiographical debut album Ready To Die would become an instant classic; Jay-Z, whose early career mining his experiences as a hustler-cum-criminal has lead him to an estimated net worth of $500 million; 50 Cent, whose debut Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ detailed how he lived through being shot nine times.