What is the perennial fascination with murder ballads? CrimeSong: True Crime Stories from Southern Murder Ballads (Shadelandhouse Modern Press 2016) started out as a short article in The Journal of Southern Legal History. I wrote the piece for fun, as a collection of curiosities about ballads and poems about murder, body-snatching, and the deeds and misdeeds of surgeon anatomists. The article was intended to be both amusing and dark. Over time I collected more material, continued my research and writing, and published a number of articles.

I must say that I was not sure many people would be interested in these stories, and the true crimes, folk culture, and legal history behind them. But Ron Pen, the director of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music at the University of Kentucky, convinced me otherwise. As he notes in his wonderful foreword to CrimeSong, the stories behind these murder ballads “have been kept alive through oral tradition because people have continued to cherish the stories and to be fascinated with the inexplicable evil that lurks under the surface of civilized society.”

As I continued my work on CrimeSong and as the book went into production, I continued to find— and to be amazed—at the number of others who share my interest in murder ballads. Maybe we are all just trying to answer a few nagging questions about our culture, history, society, law, and human nature.

  • Who were the loathsome and innocent characters of these songs?
  • How did their stories get told and survive?
  • Do loathsome people deserve their very own genre of music?
  • Did (does?) the law and the justice system work?

So back to my original question: What is the perennial fascination with murder ballads? We’ve posted just a sampling of interesting and diverse new murder ballad works in theater, visual art, recordings, and articles and blogs—which proves that interest isn’t waning.

There just seems to be an “allure,” as Ann Powers says, in NPR’s “The Allure of the Murder Ballad: Ruth Gerson Does ‘Delia’s Gone,’” which includes Powers’s interview with Gerson. Be sure to hit the Listen button in Powers’s article to hear Gerson’s sweet but jarring recording.

In the acknowledgements of CrimeSong, I mention that this is one of a number of books that I have been working on—books about nineteenth- and early twentieth- century trials, trial lawyers, detectives, doctors, and even a grave robber or two. I will try to keep interested readers (I hope there will be more than one) posted on these works in progress in my blog posts from time to time.