CrimeSong: True Crime Stories From Southern Murder Ballads

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CrimeSong: True Crime Stories From Southern Murder Ballads


2016 Foreword Reviews INDIES Book of the Year Awards Winner (True Crime) and winner of two 2017 IPPY Awards!

This compelling investigation of the gripping true crimes behind American ballads dispels myths and legends and brings to life a cast of characters—both loathsome and innocent—shadowy history, courtroom dramas, murders, mayhem and music.

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2016 Foreword Reviews INDIES Book of the Year Awards Winner (True Crime) and winner of two 2017 IPPY Awards!

Now Available in Paperback with an Addendum and Reading Group Guide! 

In CrimeSong, law professor and authentic storyteller Richard H. Underwood recreates in engaging and folksy prose the historic true crimes that inspired twenty-four Southern murder ballads. All of these ballads were composed and eventually written down by simple folk, mostly unknown, who were preserving, in their homespun lyrics, actual, tragic events. As G. Malcolm Laws Jr. observed in his book Native American Balladry, “

[M]urder is a subject of widespread interest.” Murder ballads are actually no more morbid or gruesome than news broadcasts or other forms of news reports—or, for that matter, many works of classical literature.

Some of the ballads will be familiar to readers who are musicians or fans of American folk music—especially those who remember or know about the “folk revival” of the 1950s and 1960s. Not all of those readers may know that these familiar songs are about real people, or they may know only the legends behind the songs. Some of the ballads are obscure and long forgotten. Because of Underwood’s interest and experience in the law, he has resurrected these stories and shares them with the reader through his “old lawyer trifocals.” He presents his case studies, documented through contemporary news accounts and court records, as a series of dramas filled with jump-off-the-page real and memorable characters. These stories are sometimes harrowing, but they are always completely readable.

CrimeSong plunges readers into a world of violence against women, murders, familicide, suicides, brutal mob action, and many examples of a failed justice system. Although these ballads and stories are set in specific times, cultures, and places, they present “timeless, universal themes” of love, betrayal, jealousy, and madness through true-life tales that are both terrifying and familiar—stories that could be “ripped from today’s headlines.”

Richard Underwood reveals the details of these stories in a way that not only preserves history, but also reminds us that behind the lyrics of songs we have heard for generations were real people who often met horrific fates. He uses primary source material and rigorous research to uncover layers of history, humanity, and art.


Enjoy Richard Underwood’s entertaining talk on his award-winning book CrimeSong: True Stories from Southern Murder Ballads from the comfort of your own home or office! There are also some traditional murder ballads interspersed throughout the hour-long recording, which adds a nice touch you are sure to enjoy.  You can listen to the podcast on Soundcloud, or visit iTunes to listen to Underwood and subscribe to Mountain Talk Monday – every Tuesday!


“A sometimes-sad, sometimes-humorous look at ballads that have preserved a part of America’s crazed, violent history.”

“A law professor explores the real-life events behind old American murder ballads. …Underwood has written a delightful book about a gruesome subject. Even when he delves into the cases and their legal issues, he employs a light touch, sprinkling his accounts with humor: “Oh hell, don’t bother with him; he ain’t nothing but a lawyer,” one defendant advises. Besides providing a revealing look at the quirky history of U.S. criminal law, the book also serves as a testament to the sheer weirdness of American culture… Read full book review >

–Kirkus Reviews

“CrimeSong is a very unique and interesting book, to say the least, one that is sure to be appealing to a very diverse group of readers. … CrimeSong is a well-researched, well-written, and highly interesting portrayal of human tragedies that made their way into ballads that speak of both the best and worst of our human nature (love, betrayal, jealously, anger, and violent responses). …It should be a most interesting read for anyone who finds pleasure in the reading of murder mysteries. And it should be an even more interesting read for those who have connections to the justice system and interests in observing the law’s response to some of its toughest problems.

–Robert G. Lawson, Professor Emeritus, University of Kentucky College of Law, “Book Review,” Bench & Bar Magazine, Jan./Feb 2017, Kentucky Bar Association

“CrimeSong: True Crime Stories from Southern Murder Ballads by Richard H. Underwood is a unique book that goes behind the words of well-known music to tell about the bad acts that inspired the songs. For generations, American ballads have told stories of murder and mayhem. [Underwood’s] meticulous research and expertise in trial procedure combine to recount the details of criminal acts that became the basis for songs.

–Jayne Moore, Contributing Columnist, The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky

Read Advance Praise

Award-winning author Richard H. Underwood is the Edward T. Breathitt Professor of Law, University of Kentucky College of Law. He is the author of Gaslight Lawyers: Criminal Trials & Exploits in Gilded Age New York (2017) and the co-author of several books on evidence, trial technique, and legal ethics, and he has published numerous articles on the law, legal history, perjury, famous trials and true crime. Richard has lectured or presented papers on diverse subjects at conferences across the United States and in London and Amsterdam.