Readers’ Guide

CrimeSong: True Crime Stories from Southern Murder Ballads
by Richard H. Underwood

CrimeSong reveals the historic stories of crimes that inspired twenty-four Southern murder ballads. Author Richard H. 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. Underwood uses primary source material and research to uncover layers of history, humanity, and art. Like the clippings, photographs, and court records included in the book, this guide aims to add another layer to your reading experience. Whether you are part of a book club or an independent reader and scholar, use these discussion topics and activities to inspire your own adventures into this history of crime and music.

Topics for discussion:

Women are at the center of many of the stories in CrimeSong. Chapter 1, “Real Murdered Girls,” tells the stories of women who fall victim to violent lovers. Even in chapter 2, “The Girls Fight Back,” violent women are treated differently from men who commit similar crimes. What do the first two chapters tell us about how gender affected views of these crime and victims?

  1. Women are at the center of many of the stories in CrimeSong. Chapter 1, “Real Murdered Girls,” tells the stories of women who fall victim to violent lovers. Even in chapter 2, “The Girls Fight Back,” violent women are treated differently from men who commit similar crimes. What do the first two chapters tell us about how gender affected views of these crime and victims?
  2. Discuss the use of cautionary advice found in the ballads. In what ways do you imagine the songs were used to influence young women?
  3. In the story of Pearl Drew, the author says, “There was—and still is—a sort of rough justice, or lex non scripta, out in the country—‘some people need killin’” (102). Do you see the theme of this unwritten law in other southern stories and art?
  4. In the afterword, author Richard Underwood says most murder ballads are “reports of intimate violence—violence against lovers, wives, sons, daughters, or other family members,” and that many people find the topic difficult to discuss. He speculates, “Perhaps the ballads were popular because they provided a way to discuss it,” (252). Discuss the importance of art in social justice and its role in helping readers broach topics that are otherwise uncomfortable or taboo.

Suggested activities for furthering the CrimeSong experience:

  • Visit https://smpbooks.com to learn more about the author and find additional information and resources for CrimeSong
    Invite author Richard Underwood to participate in an in-person or online Q & A with your book club
    Read news articles from today’s newspapers that include the same topics and themes included in CrimeSong
    Experience the traditional music of the ballads by listening to various recordings
    Use a prompt sheet to write the “bones” of your own murder ballad
    Watch a related documentary
    Visit a museum or historical site
    Attend a local folk music concert or festival
    Visit your local library or community Archive to access historical primary source material
    Ask friends and relatives to share stories of crimes or ballads that have been passed through generations in their families

Readers’ Guide Supplementary Activity

CrimeSong: True Crime Stories from Southern Murder Ballads
by Richard H. Underwood

Write Down the Bones of Your Own Murder Ballad

You don’t have to be an experienced musician to write the “bones” of your own murder ballad. Find a story that interests you and use the following prompts and tips to create your own song.

Try to find an interesting story of a crime that occurred in your area. If you can’t think of one, ask your local historian or archivist if they can help. They may even help you locate newspaper articles that give all the details of the crime. There might be an interesting story might be hiding in the ancestral hand-me-downs. Talk to your family and friends to see if there have been any passed down through the generations.

Gather your information:
Who was involved?
What was the motive for the crime? Was it love, jealousy, betrayal?
Where did the crime take place?
Did the perpetrator get caught?
What was his/her fate?
What lesson can be learned from this event?

Put it all together:
Remember a ballad is a narrative, “story song,” which tells the story in the order in which it occurred. Put your details in chronological order. Like every good story, your ballad should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Beginning: Set the scene. Introduce location and characters. Make clear their relationship.
Middle: The climax: the details of the crime.
End: What happened to the perpetrator and what lesson will be passed down from this event? How will the players involved be remembered?

Tips:
Choose an easy-to-follow ballad rhyme scheme. Most ballads use ABAB pattern. Refer back to the ballads in CrimeSong to model their rhymes.

Try to make your first line a “hook” for your listener/reader. Draw them in with the suspense of the story you’re about to tell.

Find as much information as you can, but try to use only the most necessary, compelling details in the song. Once you’ve written out the story, go back and focus on the language. Is it lyrical and vivid?

Readers of CrimeSong may find interest in the following Kentucky-based true crime. The list is in no way comprehensive, but is a good start to learning more about true crime stories from the Bluegrass State.

Books:
The FBI Killer by Aphrodite Jones
The Killing Jar by Gloria Nixon-John and Robert Skip Noelker
Bluegrass: A True Story of Murder in Kentucky by William Van Meter
Kentucky Bloodbath: Ten Bizarre Tales of Murder From the Bluegrass State by Kevin Sullivan
The Beverly Hills Supper Club: The Untold Story Behind Kentucky’s Worst Tragedy by Robert Webster
Cruelly Murdered: The Murder of Mary Magdalene Pitts and Other Kentucky True Crime Stories by Keven McQueen
Defending Donald Harvey: The Case of America’s Most Notorious Angel-of-Death Serial Killer by William Whalen and Bruce Martin

Documentaries/Movies
Six (2003)
Betrayed By Love (1994)
Places to visit:
Pike County, home of many sites from the Hatfield & McCoy feud. Pikeville is also the murder site of the crime in The FBI Killer and Betrayed By Love
Harp’s Head historical marker in Webster County
Jenny Wiley State Park and gravesite in Floyd County
“Bloody Breathitt” historical marker in Breathitt County – history of deadly feuds
Site and historical marker of “Rowan County “war” 1884-1887 in Rowan County