Top 10 Murder Ballads Based on Real Events

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Everyone loves a good tale of murder. From “Stagger Lee” to “John Hardy” the American songbook is full of scoundrels, cheaters and unrepentant murderers. Quite often the origin of these songs is pretty hard to track. As most songs are decades, if not centuries old, and passed down in the oral tradition, the murderers’ boasts – which they most often are – are pretty hard to verify.  In some cases, though, the back-story can be traced and quite often the tragedy as related in song doesn’t come near to the tragedy of real life.

10. Poor Ellen Smith

Poor Ellen Smith

This 19th century ballad tells the uplifting story of a poor girl found shot through the heart.  With a mangled body and blood marks on the spot where she is found, her killer is soon located and sent to prison.

It’s been covered by Neko Case, the Kingston Trio and The Stanley Brothers among others and relates the true story of events that took place in North Carolina in 1894.

The real Ellen Smith’s life story was much more tragic than the song even hints at. Things started to go downhill when she began an affair with town drunk Peter DeGraff, who promptly rejected her.

This didn’t go down too well with Ellen and she began following him around town. At some point she also got pregnant by the uncaring rogue, though the baby died at birth. Obviously enamored with the wonderful future prospects of the drunkard, she obsessed over the man.

Having finally given up hope of them ever having a future together, she received a note from DeGraff asking her to meet him in a secluded area, apparently to reconcile. When she arrived he shot Ellen Smith through the chest. DeGraff confessed to the murder and was later hanged.

9. Frankie & Johnnie

This traditional tune has had a long and varied life in the hand of blues men like Charley Patton, Big Bill Broonzy and Leadbelly, country singers like Johnny Cash, soul singers like Sam Cooke and Stevie Wonder, jazz men like Count Basie and Duke Ellington, pop and rock stars like Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Elvis and whatever Lindsey Lohan is.

Having so many different interpreters in so many different styles perhaps inevitably leads to many different lyrical variations of the song. The basic story remains the same, though, Frankie and Johnnie are sweethearts, unfortunately for Frankie it turns out Johnnie is not as faithful as she would like, so she is left with no alternative but to shoot him dead.

Like the song itself there are a few different versions of the song’s origins. One is the murder of 17 year-old Allen Britt by his 22 year-old paramour Frankie Baker. Britt was having an affair with another woman. Baker was actually acquitted when the case came to trial after claiming that she was acting in self-defense. She died in a Portland mental institution in 1952.

Another possible origin of the song is the case of Frances Silver, convicted in 1832 of murdering her husband Charles Silver in North Carolina. In the case of Silver, she was executed.

The original version of the song appears to have been written around 1899 as “Frankie Killed Allen” perhaps indicating that it was Baker case that was the true inspiration for it.

8. John Hardy

Railroad workers have been given quite the life in song. Take the case of John Hardy – often mixed up with John Henry who was a lovely fellow  – Hardy was a rail worker in West Virginia who killed a man during a craps game and was found guilty of murder and was ultimately hanged. Such is the stuff of the classic murder ballad.

It seems everyone with an ability to vocalize has had a crack at this one. Leadbelly, the Carter Family, Dylan, Woody Guthrie, The Kingston Trio and Doc Bogs have all told the tale in a song that has been going around since at least 1924.

7.  Westfall

The murder ballad has been marginalized in current times. It seems today people just don’t want to hear about unrepentant murders and capital punishment anymore. It is not completely gone, though, and a few bands are still out there mythologizing songs about horribly tragic events. One such band is Okkervil River.

The group was formed in Austin Texas in 1998 and released this particular song in 2002. It relates the story of the Yogurt Shop Murders in Austin Texas in 1991 of four teenage girls who were found dead in a shop in the area. Lead singer Will Sheff worked for the state at the time and was prone to hearing some details that went unreported, including how they cut the girls open and filled them with frozen yogurt.

Over 50 people have confessed to the crime over the years but no one has, as yet, been convicted and the case remains open.

6. Stagger Lee

One of the most famous of all murder ballads is “Stagger Lee” or “Slackolee” or about a dozen other variations was based on the adventures of one “Stagger” Lee Shelton.

It is a song that’s been done countless times by the likes of the Grateful Dead, The Clash and lately by The Black Keys. Perhaps the most memorable version is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ all swearing testosterone-soaked treatment on their album Murder Ballads.  However, the actual inspiration for the song is much less legendary than the icon that sprang from it.

The real life protagonist, the aforementioned Lee Shelton was a black carriage worker and pimp. He got into a fight with his friend William Lyons over politics. Lyons took Shelton’s hat, apparently unaware that you just don’t mess with Stagger’s hat. Shelton demanded it back and when his friend did not respond promptly enough, took out his revolver and shot him. As Lyons lay bleeding from the gut on the floor, Stag took his hat and walked away, cool as ice. Lyons died and Shelton went to prison.

5. Tom Dooley

Another legendary murderer is Tom Dooley. The song tells the story from Dooley’s point of view and relates the tale of how he stabbed a girl to death with his knife. Like many songs of the type it eulogizes the condemned murderer rather than the family of the poor girl who has been killed.

In real life Dooley was a bit of a dick. His actual name was Tom Dula and the murder victim was Laura Foster, who was more than likely his finance. The confederate veteran had another lover named Anne Melton and it was her comments that led to the discovery of Foster’s body.

On the gallows Dula stated that he had not harmed Foster but that he did deserve to die. Perhaps indicating that it was Melton and not Dula who actually carried out the murder.  “I didn’t harm a hair on the girl’s head, ” he’s reported to have said.

4. Lonesome Death of Hattie Caroll

With the arrival of the folk boom in the early sixties the murder ballad had a bit of a revival. Many young folkies discovered the music of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Jack Elliot and many others and a few even started to write their own. One of these was a young Bob Dylan who set about writing a series of songs he took from the newspapers, one of these was the story of Hattie Caroll.

Unlike many other songs on the list it doesn’t, in any way, attempt to mythologize the murderer. In fact, it goes to great lengths to reiterate the tragedy of the situation.

African-American Hattie Caroll was a barmaid at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland when William Zanzinger arrived and drunkenly assaulted at least two of her colleagues with a toy cane.  He then turned to Carroll and asked for a drink. When it didn’t arrive drink quickly enough he hit her across the back with his cane and, still not satisfied, turned to his wife and assaulted her too. Carroll handed him his drink before collapsing moments later and then died from a brain hemorrhage caused by the attack.

Zanzinger got just six months in jail.

3. Lord Randall

Lord Randall

An old English folk ballad “Lord Randall” tells the tale of a young Lord who has been poisoned and is cared for in his dying moments by his loving family. In the final verse it is revealed that it was his sweetheart that did the killing.

The song has been all over Europe and versions have been found in Italy, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary and Iceland.  There are many different versions such as “King Henry My Son”, “Jimmy Randal” and “Jimmy Ransom” though it is best known as “Lord Randall.”

The origins of it are hard to pin down exactly. It might be about the death of Thomas Randolph Earl of Murray and Robert the Bruce’s nephew who died in Scotland in 1332, many suggested by poison. A more likely inspiration might be that of the sixth Earl of Chester who died in 1232 and was poisoned by his wife.

The murder ballad whore Bob Dylan took some of the melody and opening lines and adapted them into his apocalyptic tale of potential nuclear fallout in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

2. Omie Wise

Naomi Wise

Another in the long line of traditional murder ballads “Omie Wise” is another with a tragic back-story. Omie Wise being courted by a lovely fellow named John Lewis who told Wise to meet her at Adam’s Springs where Lewis convinced her to skip town with him and start a new life. Then he decided to kill her.

Although, not before Wise begs for her life and reveals she is pregnant and, quite understandably, pleads with Wise to not kill their baby. Lewis being a unmerciful man, ignores her pleas and drowns her in a nearby river.

This seems to be a pretty literal retelling of the tale of the tragic figure of Naomi Wise, an orphan girl from Randolph County in North Carolina. She was taken in by a local family and soon became involved with Jonathan Lewis. Naomi, being an orphan girl, was not the stuff mothers’ dreamed of and Lewis’s mother recommended he see Hettie Elliott instead, who was from a much more financially sound background. Lewis decided it might be best just to keep seeing both of them.

In April 1808 ,Wise, having uncovered Lewis’s affair with Elliott, disappeared.  Her body was soon found in a nearby river, badly beaten and pregnant. It would take seven years before Lewis saw trial and then, despite plenty of evidence to condemn him, he was acquitted. On his deathbed he apparently confessed to the murder.

 1. Delia’s Gone

Delias Gone

One of the meanest murder ballads “Delia’s Gone” tells the story of a man who ties his lover Delia to a chair and shots her in the side. Poor Delia doesn’t die straight away and so he mercifully shoots her again and “with the second shot she died.”

The song has been covered by numerous musical legends like Pete Seeger, Dylan, the Kingston Trio and many times by Johnny Cash, perhaps most famously on the American Recordings album.

The lyrics to the song quite explicitly suggest that Delia deserves what she got. “She was low down and trifling, she was cold and mean.”

Delia betrayed or, at the very least, severely annoyed her man and got shot for her insolence. The real story behind this song is very, very different.

In Johnny Cash’s video for the song, Delia was played by the alluring figure of model Kate Moss.  The real life Delia probably never dreamt of a life so glamorous as the model’s and certainly never got a chance to live one. Her name was Delia Green and she was an African-American girl born in Georgia in 1886.

At the age of fourteen she was murdered by 15 year-old Mose Houston on Christmas Eve 1900 in Savannah Georgia, apparently for calling him names. Houston got life in prison and served some 12 years for the murder.

He died in 1927 in New York. Delia was interred in an unmarked grave in Savannah’s Laurel Grove Cemetery South.

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11 Comments

  1. Blue Oyster Cult’s “Last Days of May” is based on a real story in Long Island (?) where a couple of kids who were buying / dealing drugs were killed. Buck Dharma read about the case in the paper and wrote the song. Must have happened in the 60’s.

  2. There’s a really good take on “John Hardy” by Among the Oak and the Ash called “The Redemption Of John Hardy.” Just thought I’d share.

    • True, I really like it myself. Among the Oak and Ash is one of the very few folk groups who (In my opinion) is still worth listening to. Shady Grove is also superb, and Billy and the Good Girl, too.

  3. sharnique perkins on

    I was just thinking about Jeremy by Pearl Jam, even though it wasn’t murder; it’s still a very powerfull rock ballad about an untimely death.

  4. Another song that could fit very nicely here is Steve Free’s “Seige at Lucasville.” Steve was living across the street on Mohawk Drive at the time of the riot in Lucasville Prison. He wrote the song and recorded it, and it placed fairly high on the charts.

  5. Thank you for including “westfall.” When I saw the title my mind immediately went to that great song, but thought you wouldn’t include it do to that album’s lack of commercial recognition.

  6. Peter, Paul and Mary’s folk ballad “Polly Vonn” tells of a man who accidentally kills his fiance, the title character, with bow and arrow when he mistakes her in her white apron for the swan he’s hunting.

  7. I think that ‘Lord Randall’ might be based on the death of the Earl of Murray, and might therefore be a Scottish folk ballad. The song lyrics appear to have been written in old Scots.

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