murder ballads and misogyny in country music

This post was originally published on our old website, before the cursed hacker take down of 2014.  As we’re about to record the song that came out of these thoughts (Beanth the Willows) and put out a new record whose liner notes all these words probably won’t fit in, I wanted to make sure the thoughts behind it were still available in full-length form.  So here you go:

When someone asks what I find so attractive about old time country and folk music (besides the sound)—as someone inevitably does any time they interview us—my answer usually starts with community. Old time country is music you play on your porch with your friends. Traditionals became traditionals because back in the day you had to learn them to hear them. With a common stock of traditionals, you could form an impromptu band with just about anyone, which was really important before recorded music made it something you could have anytime anywhere. DIY or silence mother fucker! Not only does old time country music invoke a strong tradition of DIY, but it is a genre that often celebrates nature and spending time outside—the pretty place you live, the blossom of a particular plant, the joys of fishing—and songs about sticking it to the man and, yes, whiskey. These are things that I like.

But the dark side of country music is dark indeed. There is racism and there is sexism and there are far too many songs about women being killed by men, usually their lovers. I can appreciate the darkness of a good murder ballad, but why are most murder ballads about men killing their lady lovers? The majority of murder ballads come down to two main stock stories. One: lady loves dude, dude kills lady, dude regrets it because he is in jail. Two: dude loves lady, lady doesn’t want to marry dude, dude kills lady, dude regrets it because he is in jail. Take a look at a few examples. You don’t even have to listen to any of the songs I’ve listed below to get the idea. I’ve summed up the story of each in a few sentences.

pretty polly

Girl says she wants to marry boy. Boy and girl go on a walk. Boy stabs girl to death. Possibly because of some dubious past reputation—aka “slut shaming” in the extreme.

banks of the ohio

Girl won’t marry boy. Boy goes on walk with girl. Boy drowns girl and throws her body in the river.

down in the willow garden

Boy and girl go on walk. Boy stabs girl and throws her in the river. Boy cries. Poor poor boy. He really loved that girl.  Obviously.

delia’s gone

Boy goes to visit girl. Boy ties girl up and shoots her. Boy sure wishes he had married her instead.

knoxville girl

Boy meets girl. Boy and girl go for a walk. Boy beats girl. Boy throws girl in the river. Boy angry! Boy loved girl! Girl wouldn’t marry boy!  *Beats chest and swings off into the jungle.*

mattie groves

Girl marries boy. Girl cheats on boy. Boy kills girl and her lover boy.

darlin corey / dig a hole in a meadow

Girl plays banjo and brews whiskey. Girl corrupts men with her whiskey, makes them do things they would never ever ever have done otherwise. Girl is killed by the police for illegally brewing whiseky.

I also found an entire play list of songs about men killing women here, which was quite disturbing to see on a screen. There are also other old time country standards about men killing women that I didn’t find good (or any) examples of on youtube, such as Tom Dooley and Little Sadie. And don’t forget Johnny Cash’s other killing-lady ballads: Cocaine Blues and Transfusion Blues, which are basically the same song.

is this misogyny?

Misogyny means a “hatred of women,” something that you can find manifesting in gender-based discrimination, violence, and objectification. And yet, perhaps, the word is inaccurate in this context.  Let’s take it apart. When you look at the stories told in many man-kills-women murder ballads, you’ll find that these dudes just love women so much that they need to off them in order to prevent anyone else from getting them. Tough love! Excuse me while I throw up in my mouth.

As author David Wong explains in this articulate article on how modern men are conditioned to hate women, our culture teaches men to think of themselves as being owed a pretty lady. Because of this message, which is incredibly prevalent once you become aware of it, many men—men who have perhaps internalized this message without even realizing it—become very angry when they don’t get what they feel they have been promised. “It’s why every Nice Guy is shocked to find that buying gifts for a girl and doing her favors won’t win him sex. It’s why we go to ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ as our default insults—we’re not mad that women enjoy sex. We’re mad that women are distributing to other people the sex that they owed us,” explains Wong.

The message in many of these songs is similar to what Wong describes: When men can’t have the toys that they want, and which they are pretty sure they are owed god damn it, they have to break those toys so that nobody else can play with them (Knoxville Girl, Matty Groves, Banks of the Ohio). In others, we just see men killing women for the hell of it (Delia’s Gone, Little Sadie), or because they have a “shady” reputation (Pretty Polly). Or because they dared to cross over into the male domain of whiskey brewing and banjo picking (Darlin Corey). Soooo, yeah, I would say the word misogyny applies without a doubt.

Though the majority of the men in these songs end up in jail, many remorseful, the fact that so many songs talk about men killing women is telling. They reflect the culture we live in, and in reflecting it, perpetuate it. These are catchy, fun songs. People sing along, internalizing them, and playing a role in our acceptance of this sort of thing as status quo. Were there fewer women killing men when these songs were being written? Or were there just too few women in the genre at the time to write about their murderous tendencies? What about the ladies who kill dudes?  Do they exist?  And if they do, why do they kill men?  The answers to these questions are pretty telling.  Take a look at two examples:

goodbye, earl

Girl marries boy. Boy beats girl. Girl poisons boys peas.  Girl throws boy’s body in the lake and lives happily ever after with her best friend on a farm.  Nobody misses boy because he was an abusive alcoholic asshole.

caleb meyer

Boy visits girl. Boy tries to rape girl. Girl kills boy with a broken bottle.

Both of these examples of lady-on-man murder ballads are incredibly disturbing, and as both are songs about women killing men we can certainly say that the murderous violence goes both ways. Gunpowder and Lead by Miranda Lambert and Independence Day by Martina McBride also deal with similar story lines (though they cross firmly into pop country).

But take a closer look at the differences in motivation in the man-kills-lady versus the lady-kills-man songs. The male murderers are killing women because the women won’t sleep with them or marry them or because they feel like it. The lady murderers are killing men because the men are beating them, raping them, and trying to kill them. There are exceptions (in Frankie and Johnny, for example, the lady kills her lover because he is cheating on her, a female version of Matty Groves), but by and large, you’ve got dudes killing women for the hell of it and ladies killing dudes in self defense.

Another difference in the songs about women killing men: all of the examples I was able to find were recorded in the last 25 years (Frankie and Johnny being the one exception again)—a correlation I can only assume corresponds to increasing gender equality and women’s rights. Goodbye Earl was written by Dennis Linde in the 1990s before being recorded by the Dixie Chicks in 1999. Gillian Welch recorded Caleb Meyer in 1998. Miranda Lambert’s Gunpowder and Lead came out in 2007 and Independence Day in 1993. None of them truly even fit into the old time country genre—neither in sound nor in time period. Though the number of country songs about men killing women is depressing, the fact that recent years have brought more female voices telling women’s stories is slightly heartening. And we are going to add one to their numbers.

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