“Richard Underwood’s CrimeSong: True Crime Stories From Southern Murder Ballads, a book on the ancient societal problem of murder, is valuable for ballad performers and scholars and for lovers of true crime stories and more. Professor Underwood has long been interested in old ballads, many of which date back centuries and tell us of the awful acts of violence that human beings have inflicted on one another—so often on former lovers.
“As an expert on evidence and trial ethics, he researched the background and true crime stories of some of the best-known ballads of the American South, such as Omie Wise, Poor Ellen Smith, Pearl Bryan, Tom Dula, Frankie Silver, The Lawson Family Murders, Mary Phagan, and others which are lesser known or even obscure. For some of these murders, the ballad itself is the only information we have about the victim or the perpetrator. Without the ballads we would no longer remember them at all.

“Professor Underwood’s research included a review of available court records, newspaper stories, and other accounts. The composers of the ballads often seemed more interested in the art of tune, meter, rhyme, and word than in telling an accurate story. Underwood also found problems when the murderer was brought before the bar of justice, with trial procedure, rules of evidence, and lawyerly and judicial incompetence. Overall, the motives for some of the crimes remain murky and the guilt or innocence of the accused in doubt.

“I have long admired ballads and the stories they tell and am in wonder about human memory that has brought them down to us through the generations. My own memory of them has been invigorated and enriched by Richard Underwood’s work.”

Loyal Jones, Appalachian author and retired director of the Berea College Appalachian Center (renamed the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center in recognition of Jones’s distinguished career and notable accomplishments as the center’s founding director)
“Richard Underwood’s CrimeSong: True Crime Stories From Southern Murder Ballads is a fascinating, delightful, and important contribution to Southern history, literature, and culture. CrimeSong is a pleasure to read, as Richard Underwood not only recounts the historical events that inspired the tradition of ‘murder ballads’ but also places them in richly detailed local social context.

“As a writer in Kentucky with a lifelong absorption in regional history, literature, and culture both folk and fine, I especially enjoyed Underwood’s relaxed writing style, which combines the voices of historian and traditional storyteller.

“These ballads may be rooted in Southern culture, but in full flower they are American treasures. CrimeSong goes a long way toward restoring American balladry to its deserved foundational place in the nation’s literature.”

Gurney Norman, American writer, Kentucky poet laureate (2009–2010), documentarian, and professor of English, University of Kentucky
“CrimeSong: True Crime Stories From Southern Murder Ballads provides an engaging window into the shadowy history and cultural context of true incidents and the world created by loathsome and innocent characters—those events which gave birth to American ballads that sing of crime and punishment. The stories are narrated in engaging, folksy prose with citations from primary documents that conjure forth the immediacy of the people and place.

“Richard Underwood, a consummate trial law scholar, has honed his experience and deepened his passion for trial law by acquiring an intimacy with the procedures, methodologies, and repertoire of case studies. He is perfectly situated to couple the study of two of his passions—crime and song—while relishing both the objective truth of the event and the subjective truth of the ballad. Underwood’s genius is that he is able to reconcile them to one another without draining the spirit out of the song or distorting the facts of the actual story as revealed through his rigorous research and analysis.”

Ron Pen, author of I Wonder as I Wander: The Life of John Jacob Niles, editor of The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles and of Jean Ritchie’s Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians, professor of music, and director of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music at the University of Kentucky