BOY KILLS GIRL
by Rob Lopresti
I haven’t written here about folk music in a while, so let’s talk a bit about that great American tradition, the murder ballad. Specifically the popular type that follows this pattern:
Boy invites girl to take a walk/ride
Boy kills girl
Boy is jailed/hung/threatened with damnation
Why done it
You may notice something missing from that formula: motive. And that’s my point. Most of these ballads don’t offer any explanation as towhy the guy killed a woman he obviously had some sort of friendly relationship with (or why did she go off with him?).
Some songs do offer a motive. She refused to marry him. (“I killed the only girl I love because she would not be my bride.” -The Banks of the Ohio”) Or she was unfaithful, whether or not the boy had any right/reason to assume fidelity. (“The answer that she gave him it sore did me oppress.” -The Lily of the West)
But there are an amazing number of songs with no apparent motive, as if killing your girlfriend is such a natural phenomenon that it doesn’t require an explanation. Little Sadie. Poor Ellen Smith. Rose Connoley. Knoxville Girl. And of course, the world-famous tune that helped to launch the Great Folk Scare:1
Pretty mysterious. Folklorists will tell you that when literature is silent on an important subject you can assume that that subject is understood by its audience, and possibly taboo. I’m not sure if anything still counts as taboo for discussion in our society (which may just show how acclimated I am), but some of you can remember female relatives going off to powder their noses when everyone understood that that wasn’t what they planned to do at all.
So what understood taboo is hiding under the silence within these songs? Pretty Polly offers at least a hint: “Polly, Pretty Polly come go along with me /Before we get married some pleasures to see.” Why would he kill a woman he was going to marry? Or: why would he marry a woman he wanted to kill?
The likely solution can be found in Omie Wise, which is a very old ballad called (Naomi Wise died in 1808): “Have mercy on my baby and spare me my life. I’ll go home as a beggar and never be your wife”
And there we have the motive: illegitimate pregnancy. Understood, but generally not sung about. That motive has been known to show up in a mystery or two, especially in historicals. Audrey Peterson practically built a career on it.
Whatever you want to say about teenage mothers and the like it looks like we don’t kill so many people about that issue today — at least not so many that it can be understood in silence.
A final thought
In preparing this piece I read an interesting article by a scholar named Teresa Goddi who would disagree with me, or at least feel I was making a distinction without a difference. She argues that whatever the alleged motive in the song: – infidelity, refusal to marry (i.e. to be monogamous), or unmarried pregnancy – the real sin that was being punished was women’s sexuality, end of story.
Something to think about next time you find yourself singing along with the Kingston Trio.