Tales of horror don’t always have to arrive in paperback or on celluloid. Yarns about murder are a long part of folk music tradition. The tradition continues with these 10 songs that depict murder—while vividly setting the scene.
10 King’s Highway
Joe Henry’s 1992 album Short Man’s Room features the song “King’s Highway.” The location of the highway is never given, and several U.S. states, including Texas, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, as well as Ontario, Canada, boast a road given this moniker. In the song, the narrator is the murderer, who looks for victims along the King’s Highway. As the song opens, he can’t decide for sure if he’s going to kill his next victim, “I might just change my mind, sometimes you can never tell.” But the victim ‘looked about right’ and stopped when he ‘flagged him down.’ So, in the end, his murderous impulses win out. The power of the song is how it hints that becoming a victim boils down to the mood striking the killer when one is in his presence. The song was covered brilliantly by Joan Baez on her 2003 album Dark Chords on a Big Guitar.
9 Deep Red Bells
Chilling and hauntingly beautiful, “Deep Red Bells,” taken from Blacklisted, is Neko Case’s musing on the Green River Killer. There’s something intriguing about the psychosis that creates the serial killer, and about the dastardly, unpredictability that makes one the victim of a criminal with such a rare malady. The Green River Killer, identified as Gary Leon Ridgway, killed at least 48 women in the Northwest U.S. during the 1980s and 1990s, leaving their bodies near The Green River. Case, who spent her teenage years in Tacoma, Wash., said the murders inspired the song. Case never specifically mentions the killer of The Green River, rather pondering the nature of such victimhood. She muses, “Does your cast about like an old paper bag, past empty lots and early graves, those like you who lost their way, murdered along the interstate, while red bells rang like thunder.” The same killer has inspired numerous other musicians, including Sir Mix-a-Lot.
8 The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia
We get to hear from the killer again, though that’s the big reveal at the end. (Oops…spoiler alert.) In 1973, Vicki Lawrence treated the world to the gold record hit song, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.” Lawrence, better known for her comedic acting, had only this one hit song. Just about every Southern stereotype is pulled out for this one, including a big bellied sheriff, a judge with blood on his hands, and, of course, vigilante justice. Again, as in The Long Black Veil, the wrong man is executed “as they hung an innocent man.” The real murderer, and her relationship to the victims, however, is revealed in the final verse. Sure this song is campy, but it celebrates its camp so gloriously! There’s cheatin’, mistreatin’, and murder all in under four minutes!
Anyone remember Richard Marx? He sang such sweet pop rock songs; plus he had a huge head of hair. This gem from 1991 is a tiny little murder mystery with no resolution but plenty of atmosphere that helped make the song a Billboard Top 10 Hit in the U.S. The song, set in Hazard, Nebraska, describes a young man who moved to the town when was seven but never fit in. When his girlfriend, Mary, is found dead, he is the prime suspect. The song never reveals a clear suspect or motive. The narrator insists that he left her by the river “safe and sound.” The town of Hazard, Nebraska, still has a page dedicated to Richard Marx, the song, and videos, along with speculation about who killed Mary and a short story based on the lyrics. [http://www.hazardnebraska.com/] At the time the song was released, three videos telling slightly different stories of guilt were aired. Detectives, begin your investigations!
6 The Long Black Veil
Long before singing songs about murder was cool (okay, it’s a part of oral folk tradition), Lefty Frizzell released The Long Black Veil. The song lyrics are from the point of view of a man executed for murder. The only one who knows that he was innocent is the woman in a long black veil who visits his grave. She knows because she was with him, despite being a married woman, and her lover died to protect her good name. Her regret and guilt torment her as she walks the hills “and the night winds wail.” Inspiration for the song came from numerous sources, including the murder of a priest, and the rumor of a woman in a long black veil who visited the grave of actor Rudolph Valentino. The song has been covered dozens of times by notables including Johnny Cash, Sammi Smith, Joan Baez, Sally Timms, and the Dave Mathews Band.
5 The Sky is a Poisonous Garden Tonight
In 1990, Concrete Blonde released the album Bloodletting, featuring the titular song, also known as “The Vampire Song,” a perennial Halloween favorite. Bloodletting even made it on Rolling Stone’s list of all-time best songs about vampires. However, on the same album is the fantastic “The Sky is a Poisonous Garden Tonight.” The frantic beat and hard sound of “The Sky is a Poisonous Garden” add to the tension of the song that bears a striking resemblance to The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and the movie based on it, The Haunting. Eleanor is the main character in the book, movie, and song. While investigating an allegedly haunted house, she feels that a presence wants her and she can feel him “from this side of the door.” Watch the classic movie from the 60s, and then listen to the song to see if you agree that the song is an homage.
4 Jenny was a Friend of Mine
Written by Brandon Flowers and Mark Stoermer, “Jenny was a Friend of Mine” depicts a murder and the subsequent investigation. The Las Vegas-based band, The Killers, offer a plea of innocence, but it looks doubtful. In fact, if you hold someone so close that she can’t scream, you might have anger management issues. The song is a part of the band’s Murder Trilogy, which also includes “Leave the Bourbon on the Shelf” and “Midnight Show.” Hadley Freeman, columnist for The Guardian compared this song to Marx’s Hazard. Like Hazard, this song offers no resolution to the criminal investigation. The Killers claim the inspiration for the song came from Robert Chambers, a.k.a. The Preppie Killer’s, defense in the murder of Jennifer Levin. The song is from the band’s debut album, Hot Fuss, released in 2004.
3 The Wedding List
Kate Bush’s quirky ditty from the 1980 album Never for Ever is based on the 1968 Truffaut film The Bride Wore Black and relates the tale of a murder-suicide. The jarring, somewhat discordant music is a big part of what makes the song so unsettling and bizarre. The French film, based on a novel of the same name, relates the story of a bride who dresses in only black or white, as she hunts down and murders the five men who killed her husband on her wedding day. The lyrics of the song depict the bride hunting down one murderer, as she plans to “fill his head with lead.” While the song was never released as a single, Bush acted out the carnage in a 1979 Christmas special.
2 Dark Lady
In 1974, the deceitful world of mystics was explored in Cher’s “Dark Lady,” written by Johnny Durrill, keyboardist for The Ventures. The narrator turns to a fortuneteller for help, only to find that the fortuneteller is the one messin’ around with her man. The clue for the narrator is smelling the mystic’s “strange perfume” in “her own room.” Unfortunately for the dark lady, she didn’t see the gun coming in the final verse. The song hit No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard charts in March of 1974. The song has helped contribute to Cher’s status as the artist with the most No. 1 Hot 100 Hits over the longest period of time – 33 years.
1 The Rake’s Song
The Decembrists’ tale of a father murdering his children is chilling, especially considering his lack of remorse, even as the little ones keep dropping. This 2009 tale of mayhem off the album The Hazards of Love reminds us that just because you can have children, doesn’t mean you should. Lead singer Colin Meloy leads listeners through the first-person narrative with such grace that you almost think you should jump up to save the last child. The song is one part in the album narrative that tells an hour-long tale, including the revenge sought by the ghosts of the children murdered in this song.
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Murder ballads are interesting. I’ve been collecting a number of them, particularly those where a body of water, usually a river, is involved (often a drowning). Very Twin Peaks of me but it does seem to be a popular motif.
You may enjoy Josh Ritter’s Folk Bloodbath, a veritable orgy of murder ballad villains.