SING A SONG OF SIX-GUNS
By Robert Lopresti
I warned you that folk music would creep into this blog from time to time. Now’s your chance to flee and listen to your favorite Britney Spears album. Folk music is full of short stories, but how many of them are mysteries? Depends on your definition, of course, but if you go with Otto Penzler’s (which I recall as “a story in which crime or the threat of crime is a major element”) then tons of folk songs qualify. Last year the old time band Uncle Earl played in my town and the four talented women bragged about their high body count. Foolish maidens, unfaithful lovers, and vicious outlaws were getting snuffed left and right
If you want a traditional whodunit style mystery I’m not sure that any folk songs qualify (with one possible exception we will get to later). On the other hand, there are some folk songs with that standard element of the mystery story, the surprise ending. (A warning . . . each of these songs has dozens of versions, and I am just going to talk about the ones I know best. If you are familiar with a recording that is different than the one I discuss just keep in mind that, in all cases, my version is right.)
Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight
This is a good example because in every version I know the characters are an anonymous innkeeper’s daughter and a squire’s son. Not a (titled) lady, not Isabel, not an elf, and not a knight. If it were a novel you would have to assume the marketing department did not consult the author on the title.
The badman in question invites the young woman to grab some of her daddy’s money and flee with him. When they reach a bridge he cheerfully informs her that he drowned six women here and she was about to become number seven. Our intrepid heroine tricks him into turning his back and pushes him in. When he begs her for help she replies: “It’s six foolish maids that you’ve drowned here. Go keep them company!”
In my novel Such a Killing Crime, two folksingers argue about the proper way to end that song. One says that it should end right there, at the punchline. The other says that you need to finish the story properly by singing the last few verses that bring the lady safely home and assures us that she got away with it. I think the modern audience expects the first choice; the traditionalist prefers the second.
This one is often described as a ballad about a female highwaywoman (highwayperson?), but I don’t know if this is her occupation or if it was just a one-time thing. (“Hi, I’m not a robber, but I play one in ballads.”)
Sovay disguises herself as a man and robs her boyfriend, who willingly gives over everything, except a ring that was a gift from his lover. The next day she reveals the truth and he is naturally embarrassed. She assures him that everything is fine. However . . . “If you had given me that ring, she said, I’d have pulled the trigger and shot you dead.”
One suspects that Sovay didn’t worry much after that about her sweetheart’s fidelity.
Ah, but this old Scottish ballad is my favorite. It takes the form of that classic mystery technique, the Q and A.
A young man comes home and his mother asks what he has been up to. After cutting through some obvious lies she determines that he has just killed his brother-in-law (or in some versions, his father). She asks the motive and gets a bizarre explanation: “He cut down a bit of a bush that would have been a tree.” Highly symbolic of God knows what. Edward says he will go into exile. Mama asks what he will leave for his wife and kids and the answers are pretty gloomy. Finally she asks (and you can tell she has been building up to this): what will you leave your mother dear? His reply: “The curse of hell, mother, for such advice youâ€™ve given me.”
Whoa. This dysfunctional family was a little more complicated than we thought. Not exactly a whodunit, but apparently she was an accomplice before the fact.
Murder, American Style
In a future session of this shindig I will talk about some of my favorite American crime songs and I will also discuss the murder ballads which my brother and sister folkies are even as you read this writing to remind me of. Trust me, I know these people.