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Murder ballads are a subgenre of the traditional ballad form dealing with a crime. Their lyrics form a narrative describing the events of a murder, often including the lead-up and/or aftermath. The term refers to the content, and may be applied to traditional ballads, part of oral culture. Broadsheet printed ballads do not use the same formulas or structures, and are rooted in a literate society.
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 the way to execution, occasionally with a plea for the listeners not to copy the evils committed by the murder as recounted by the singer.
Some murder ballads tell the story from the point of view of the murderer, or attempt to portray the murderer in a somewhat sympathetic light, such as "Tom Dooley". A recording of that song sold nearly four million copies for The Kingston Trio in 1958. Other murder ballads tell the tale of the crime from the point of view of the victim, such as "Lord Randall", in which the narrator takes ill and discovers that he has been poisoned. Others tell the story with greater distance, such as "Lamkin", which records the details of the crime and the punishment without any attempt to arouse sympathy for the criminal. Supernatural revenge wrought by the victim upon the murderer sometimes figures in murder ballads such as "The Twa Sisters" (also known as "Binnorie" or "Minnorie" Child Ballad #10).
By the mid-17th century in Europe, ballads were being printed and sold on broadsheets. Murder ballads make up a notable portion of traditional ballads, many of which originated in Scandinavia, England, and Scotland in the premodern era. In those, while the murder is committed, the murderer usually suffers justice at the hands of the victim's family, even if the victim and murderer are related (see "Edward/Son David", "The Cruel Brother", and "The Two Sisters" for examples). In these ballads murderous women usually burn while males hang--see "Lamkin" and some Scottish versions of "The Two Sisters".
Often the details and locales for a particular murder ballad change as it is sung over time, reflecting the audience and the performer. For example, "Knoxville Girl" is essentially the same ballad as "The Wexford Girl" with the setting transposed from Ireland to Tennessee--the two of them are based on "The Oxford Girl", the original murder ballad set in England.
American murder ballads are often versions of Old World ballads with any elements of supernatural retribution removed and the focus transferred to the slaughter of the innocent. For example, the English ballad "The Gosport Tragedy" of the 1750s had both murder and vengeance on the murderer by the ghosts of the murdered woman and her unborn baby, who call up a great storm to prevent his ship sailing before tearing him apart. In contrast, the Kentucky version, "Pretty Polly", is a stark murder ballad ending with the murder and burial of the victim in a shallow grave, followed by the hanging of her killer and his burning in hell in a few versions.
Other differences would include the evolution of the instruments used to perform the ballads: over the course of 300 years, many stylistic differences have been born and evolved away from the traditional folkways of the British Isles and the instruments used reflect this very strongly. Originally, any combination of the following would have been used to perform the murder ballads: vocals, fiddle, woodwind instruments like the fife, pennywhistle, or hornpipes, small harps that would fit in the lap if the ballad's origin was in Ireland or Wales, and the bagpipes if from Scotland. Over time, and most especially in the South, the addition of African music traditions brought by slaves blended with these much older conventions. This blend distinctly and forever altered the sound of the originals from the British Isles : the banjo evolved from instruments from West Africa but gave a syncopated rhythm to the tune and a completely different methodology of rapid fire pizzicato plucking rather than just a plainer strum. Bluegrass mandolins provided the soprano melody and guitars the alto and tenor; this development began late in the 19th century and amplified by the 1920s. The fiddle remained intact, but woodwinds were replaced by the dulcimer, an instrument most likely German in origin. The collections of Cecil Sharp and later A. P. Carter and his family provide evidence that by at least the end of the 19th century this musical pattern was set, and cross pollination into genres away from Appalachia like rhythm and blues soon followed, as evidenced by the works of Leadbelly.
Olive Burt notes that the murder ballad tradition of the American Old West is distinct to some extent from that of ballads rooted in the old broadside tradition, noting that:
Western settlers found murder and bloodshed fascinating, and composed local ballads. But with printing facilities scarce, many of these items were not published at all while others saw fame only briefly in the columns of the local newspapers. As a result true western ballads of murder--except those about such famous outlaws as Jesse James, Cole Younger, Sam Bass, and their ilk--have been entirely lost, or are known only to the children of those who knew and sang them. These children are now, of course, old men and women. Some of the best examples of western murder ballads will be lost forever when these people die.
Tom Lehrer's song, "The Irish Ballad", is famously a parody of the traditional murder ballad. J.H.P. Pafford, in a review of Olive Burt's American Murder Ballads and their Stories, states that the song contains "a running prose commentary on the incidents described in many [such] ballads".