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The Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley, 1934, oil, tempera, canvas, aluminum, by Thomas Hart Benton © T.H. and R.P. Benton Trusts/ Artists Rights Society, New York/Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Museum purchase: Elizabeth M. Watkins Fund, 1958.0055

Issue 123, Winter 2023

Blood Harmony

The far-flung tale of a murder song

My Bloody Fact I Still Denied

Shropshire, England, 1684

They went for a walk in the meadow.

It was a cold February evening, still light, and the greenness of the grass and its motion in the wind seemed peculiar and perfect. Anne Nichols could be prone to whimsy. She thought, in spite of herself, that perhaps the color and the motion were reminders. Of the glory and the gift of Creation. The Lord, she thought, was always close.

Francis Cooper had his hand on the small of her back as they walked, just as he had done the first time they took this stroll, when he had walked with her through the meadow to the riverside after he finished his day at the mill and they held each other close beneath the willow tree. He told her that the dark softness in her eyes left him staggered. He told her that he loved her, and the rushing sound of the river seemed to accent his words and make them sound true.

The first night she felt the quickening, it made her think of the particular wobble of a blade of grass on a windy day, and also of the water and its rush. She could be prone to whimsy.

His child. Their child. He had promised her father that he would marry her, and they were both thinking of that promise as they walked, his hand on her back. A bird flew overhead, a large black bird she had never seen before, and Anne pointed and said that the bird was watching them. The bird, he told her, knew the measure of their love.

Underneath the willow tree, there was no one to hear the lovers, or to see them. He touched her cheek and kissed her lips and his familiar hand ran up the length of her arm—and then he hit her, hard, across her face. He hit her again. She screamed. At first in confusion and then about marriage and their child. She pleaded with a shocking kind of sweetness, but he found himself overcome by a blank white heat and he could hardly hear her. He knew only that he was young and that his freedom was the only thing he owned in the world and that he did not trust her—he did not trust her because she had trusted him. He drew his knife and thrust it into a patch of soft flesh just below her ear. And he could not hear her scream, he could not hear the river, he could not hear anything, as he felt his hand pull the knife across her cheek and along her mouth to the other ear, as he found more softness to penetrate, as he stabbed her wildly until the silence that had overwhelmed him was real. The silence was hers.

It was done. He wiped his face and felt blood. He thought, at first, that it was her blood. But it was his own. His nose was bleeding. He thought nothing of it. He could not know that later, his nose would bleed again at trial, and the balladeers would place this detail into meter. He had suffered from nosebleeds since he was a child. But they did not know that. And so in song, the nosebleed was a signal of his guilt, or a portent—a marker of the evil he had done.

Droplets fell from his nose and made a pattern in the dirt. He looked at her body a final time and walked away and did not look back. He licked the blood from his lip. It tasted like nothing so much as nothing at all.

To Cover The Foul Sin

London, England, 1720 or thereabouts

There once was a man, literate, unkempt, of little account and a dubious moral reputation, but a familiar face in the London printshops. His name is lost to history, but perhaps he wouldn’t mind. His motivation was a speedy payday, not posterity. A ballad that stirred the passions could sell for a penny. Sometimes he sold his work directly to the printshops, but he often took to the streets himself. He borrowed tunes from familiar songs, and had a talent for singing his work that helped him draw a crowd and sell his broadsides.

One winter, he wrote a ballad to prepare for the hanging of John Mauge, a miller who would soon be executed in Reading. As was the custom, the ballad would be described as the miller’s “last dying words and confession.” The crime: “the barbarous murder of Anne Knite, his sweet-heart.”

Our modern notion of a songwriter would have been nonsensical to him, of course. His trade was partly creative, but his task was also to record and remember the familiar songs already sung, and re-shape them for new events and local happenings. He was a kind of tabloid journalist in his time. Today, we might think of him as a historian of oral traditions, a cataloger of folkways.

But that’s not quite right. He was no mere archivist, no passive documentarian. He shaped and reshaped these traditions. Writing was an astonishing technology, and the reach of the printing press gave it newfound power. Oral traditions were chaotic, unfixed, unwieldy—stories forever in revision, never complete. Versions would branch without end, and older branches would be lost with time. How did the lyrics go? Well, that would depend. You could say a song existed in superposition, until someone sang it in their particular way.

The printing press didn’t end the flowering variety of the oral tradition, but as soon as a shop printed what he wrote, it fixed a version of the song in documented history.

And so we have it still: “The Berkshire Tragedy.” We can trace countless songs that took his work as template and bred countless new songs in turn. We can speculate that perhaps he may have cribbed a bit from “The Bloody Miller,” an earlier tale of a miller killing a sweetheart named Anne (Nichols in that case). But we are only making an educated guess; we cannot know for certain.

“The Bloody Miller,” dating back at least to 1684, was sung to the tune of “Alack for my Love I dye,” an earlier song that is lost to us but might have been known to him. We can imagine that, though he is not a violent man himself, he writes his brutal lines with a certain kind of glee. That he feels warmth in his body, a bit like mead, or a woman’s touch, as he conjures the murder in the patter of meter. But we are only imagining; we cannot know for certain.

If “The Bloody Miller” was indeed an antecedent for his new ballad, the murder weapon was changed, along with other details.

“From ear to ear I slit her mouth, and stabbed her in the head,” the narrator confesses in the older song; in “The Berkshire Tragedy,” he “took a stick out of the hedge, and struck her in the face.” Also, this time, he throws her body into the river.

The bloody nose remained.

But Little Did This Fair Maid Know

1,000 kilometers from the Port of Philadelphia, 1801

“Can we still see the village from here?” his sister asked. “If we look hard enough?” She was seven years younger than him, just six years old, and frightened.

They were more than four thousand kilometers from Belfast Harbor; another fifty or so kilometers from Tandragee, their village, the only place they’d ever known. He did not know these measurements and couldn’t have guessed at what they meant. He knew only that when they were allowed up on the deck as the sun set, the sea was a field of black that stretched to the ends of the Earth.

That night, down below in steerage, she asked him to sing the song.

“Bow down thine ear, O Lord, hear me: for I am poor and needy,” he moaned, in just the hint of a tune.

“That’s not the song I mean,” she said.

And so he sang her another song, the song she meant, a song he had known at least since he was her age. A song that stuck with him, that seemed to creep into his body as he sang the tale. It was, he knew, wicked. His mother did not approve. But though it was not a godly song, it had the same effect on him, the weight and wonder of a psalm. Sometimes late at night, sharing the bed with his sister, he sang it as a lullaby. The song had many names, but they called it “The Wexford Girl.”

And this was how he sang it to her now—like a lullaby—as the ship bobbed in the never-ending black sea. “Down on bended knees she fell, and for mercy she did cry,” he sang. “I’m innocent, don’t murder me, for I’m not prepar’d to die.” And the ship bobbed, up and down, and there was a gentle depth in his voice, a hint of the older register to come, and his sister pressed her head tightly against his chest—the two of them lying together on their single wooden bed, their parents on a single wooden bed above them, strangers in their own beds on either side close enough to touch, snoring and chattering. He had never been to Wexford, a town south of Dublin, but the song’s tale felt familiar. The air was heavy and moist and the tune seemed to hang there.

He sang on, verse after verse, in a kind of rhythm with the ocean, and with his sister’s breath. “He took her by the yellow hair and dragged her along,” he sang, “and threw her in the river that ran both deep and strong,” and he felt her breathing grow slower and heavier, and he kept singing still, even as she slept.

from the issue

A (speculative, partial, oversimplified) Murder Ballad Family Tree

Read the sidebar

Come All You Men And Maidens Dear, To You I Will Relate

Boston, Massachusetts, 1829

The preacher was an urgent man. This urgency was his message. He must, he knew, find the urgency of the carpenter two thousand years ago, the urgency of the fisherman on the day of Pentecost, the urgency of the tentmaker in the wake of Damascus.

The true church was founded on this urgency, and so the ancients were gifted with the powers of the Spirit and of healing. Earthly corruption had led the Roman Church, and then the Anglican Church in turn, astray. This was why the preacher’s grandfather had made the journey across the sea to Boston: to dissent from this wickedness.

As he stood outside the Park Street Church downtown, with twenty souls gathered to hear him and others passing by, he did not mind the heat of the summer day. He had been preaching for some time, and he tongued his upper lip to clear the sweat that had rolled down and gathered there. He now told the story of Ichabod, from the First Book of Samuel, a minor story that few would know—but every word in the text was sacred, every word was a channel to the Spirit, available not just to the priests, not even just to those who could read, but to anyone. This was the miracle.

The preacher told them of the ancient city of Shiloh, and of priests who fell to corruption and deviance. He raised his voice to near a shout as he told them how the Lord grew angry and put a curse on the House of Eli. When the Philistines defeated Israel in a battle near Eben-Ezer, Eli’s sons, the corrupted priests, were killed, and the Ark of the Covenant was lost.

But this is not a story about them, the preacher said, leaning forward on his heels.

One of the fallen priests had a wife who was pregnant. On that day, when she heard the news of her husband and the Ark, she went into labor. Her pain was overwhelming. The ground around her was soaked in blood. (This detail of her blood was not, strictly speaking, in the scripture, but the preacher knew that sometimes the Spirit could provide him vivid fillings when the story had blank spaces.) The woman was dying. Her midwives told her not to despair. You have given birth to a son, they said. But there could be no glory for her. The Ark was lost, her husband dead. As she died, she gave the boy his name, Ichabod, which meant no glory—which meant the glory has departed from Israel.

As the preacher continued, allowing the Spirit to guide him so that he might use this simple story to convey the stakes—to convey the urgency—and to issue a warning, a woman who had stopped to listen decided she should be on her way. She walked a few blocks and stopped to buy a broadside. She had a weakness for these stories, particularly the gory tales, which this one promised to be: “The Lexington Miller.” The preacher had warned of the danger of demons. The ballad, she saw, offered a warning of its own: “The devil put it into my heart to take her life away.”

I’m Unprepared To Die

Pineville, Missouri, 1892

A few weeks before Christmas, there was a knock at the door. Mary Lula Noel, who was staying over at her sister Sydney Holly’s house, went running. She knew who it was.

Everyone called her Lula. She was beautiful, twenty-three years old, “a favorite with all who knew her,” according to a local judge. One of ten children, she came from a prominent family in McDonald County in the Ozarks, not far from the Arkansas border. Her father was the newly elected county assessor and a former deputy sheriff. The nearby town of Noel had recently been founded by family members who owned a sawmill in the area. The name later inspired a gimmick: tens of thousands of Christmas cards still arrive every year at the Noel post office.

It was frigid outside and they weren’t expecting any visitors, so Lula concluded that knock could only mean one thing: Will had come to see her. She opened the door and they embraced. Perhaps Lula’s sister looked on with apprehension, or perhaps she only smiled. This was Wednesday, December 7.

William Simmons lived in Joplin, thirty-five miles away, a significant journey he made by train. It was not unusual for him to make the trip because—here I am speculating, with some confidence—Will and Lula were sweethearts.

Will stayed as a guest, along with Lula, at Sydney and her husband’s farmhouse. The sleeping arrangements are lost to history. We do not know how Lula and Will passed the time over the next few days and nights.

We do know that on Saturday, Sydney and her husband planned to journey to Sydney and Lula’s parents’ house, and then walk with them to Noel and visit a relative. And we know that they asked Lula and Will to come along, but Will declined, saying he was going to walk to Lanagan to catch a train later that day to return to Joplin. We know that Lula told her sister she would stay behind with him and catch up with the family later (perhaps, but I am only speculating, the lovers wanted some time alone).

And we know this: That was the last time Lula’s family saw her alive.

About A Mile From Town

Dacula, Georgia, 1923

Gid Tanner, a chicken farmer who lived in Dacula, Georgia, was one of the best fiddle players in the area. His wife tried to get him to learn to read music, but it didn’t take. The story goes that Gid could play around two thousand tunes. Notes on a page may have been gibberish to him, but he had what he needed recorded in his head.

Gid dominated local fiddle contests along with his friendly rival Fiddlin’ John Carson. Gid always considered himself a farmer who liked to fiddle, but his prowess made him a regional sensation. He was a character, known as much for being a ham as for his chops on the fiddle. He wore goofy hats, told cornball jokes, turned his neck nearly all the way around like an owl, and could send his rangy voice from thundering bass notes to quivering falsetto harmonies that have been compared to “a crow on helium.” If Gid or Fiddlin’ John was going to play a fiddlers’ convention, the Atlanta Journal would write it up. They were among the very first musicians we can refer to as country stars.

Gid had a few regulars he played with—sometimes including his little brother, Arthur Tanner—a rotating crew of band members eventually known as the Skillet Lickers or similar names. Their repertoire included traditional songs native to America as well as ballads with origins stretching back a couple centuries or more to England. One was a song called “The Knoxville Girl.” It is possible that the version that Gid and his fellow players knew had qualities distinctive to Georgia. The lyrics in their heads might have been influenced by the peculiarities of local musicians who came before them, or the spread of news like the killing of Lula Noel, or an altogether different incident closer to home. They sang it their way, by local gossip and taste.

How did the basic template get to them? The writer Paul Slade tracked the development of “The Knoxville Girl” back to England in his book Unprepared to Die. He argues that “The Bloody Miller” helped to father “The Berkshire Tragedy,” which then became “Oxford Girl” in England or “Wexford Girl” in Ireland, both of which traveled to the United States to land as “Oxford” (like Mississippi) or “Lexington” (like Massachusetts or Kentucky), and finally “Knoxville Girl.” Slade and others hazard a guess that as the song evolved, new locales were selected by the “X” sound (also present in Berkshire given the British pronunciation). Other scholars argue that “The Bloody Miller” should be viewed as an altogether different ballad, though one that could have influenced the later song. There’s no doubt that “The Berkshire Tragedy” led to countless variations and revisions, and there are multiple theories about just how and where they fostered new traditions in America. Take your pick. It’s hard to trace such tangled threads.

Gid Tanner and his crew, like Carson, loved to square off in local contests, or gather at the porch over at the fiddler Rob Stanley’s place in Dacula for jam sessions. You could make some money playing square dances or at local political campaign events. WSB in Atlanta, one of the first radio stations in the South, went on the air in 1922, and within the next few years, a number of the players on Stanley’s porch were broadcasting there.

But these were still local players, singing songs they had heard performed on other porches by older players who came before. That was how you got to hear someone perform, for the most part: You showed up. If someone passed through, you might hear their rendition and then never hear it again. What about popular songs with more widespread fame than local folk musics? In the first two decades of the twentieth century, sheet music still substantially outsold records. If you found out about a new song from somewhere far away, it was probably because someone played it on the piano in the home.

All of that was about to change.

The Age of Man, Displayed in the Feveral Changes of Human Life, 18th century. Courtesy Yale University Library

I Took Her By Her Golden Curls And I Drug Her Round And Around

Nashville, Tennessee, 1956

After a series of singles for Capitol Records, nearly all gospel, the Louvin Brothers went to Music Row in May 1956 to record their full-length album debut, the aptly named Tragic Songs of Life. You could think of it as a bleak concept album, featuring murder ballads, heartbreakers, and tales of woe—mostly traditional secular songs they had known from childhood or learned from other traditional musicians they admired, like Bill Monroe. The song that would turn out to be the biggest hit from that session was something their mother had sung to them when they were little boys: “The Knoxville Girl.”

Ira and Charlie Loudermilk were born a little more than three years apart and grew up on a farm on Sand Mountain in DeKalb County, Alabama, where their family grew cotton and other crops. Their father, Colonel Loudermilk, was a small man, but tough, and mean. He was a teetotaler, and he wasn’t violent with his wife or his daughters. But the boys were different. If they got into the regular sort of trouble, he’d beat them with a hickory limb, which he called a “width.” If the trouble was more severe, Colonel wouldn’t bother to find a branch, he’d just grab firewood, furniture, or whatever he could find.

Ira got the worst of the beatings. His dad would beat him bloody, at least one time continuing until the boy was unconscious and they had to fetch the doctor. Once, when Ira was around ten years old, he made a bet with his little brother: Charlie wouldn’t be able to hit Ira’s hand with a hatchet. Ira would place his hand on the floor and pull it away just in time. Finally Charlie timed it right. He was only seven and didn’t have the strength for much force, but the blade was sharp enough to cut Ira’s fingers to the bone. That incident earned both boys a beating, with no pause to tend to Ira’s injuries. “He beat the shit out of him,” Charlie recalled later in his memoir Satan Is Real, “and Ira with his fingers damn near cut off.” It was probably hard to tell which blood was from the cut and which blood was from the whipping.

Colonel played banjo and enjoyed arranging jam sessions with other musicians at their house, but the boys learned songs from their mother, a preacher’s daughter named Georgie whose family still sung folksongs from their roots in England.

“We learned songs from her that most children wouldn’t ever have known,” Charlie wrote. Before the boys were old enough to help their father on the farm, they would help their mother with housework and she would sing—“those tragic songs,” as Charlie put it. She might teach them the first verse while she got her sewing done, with the machine clacking along in rhythm; then the second verse as she carried water in from the well; then the next verse while they went to fetch salted pork from the meat house, or pulled up sweet potatoes from the holes she’d dug and lined with pine needles—continuing verse after verse as she finished her chores.

This must have been a sweeter time than working in the fields for Colonel, and there is something sweeter still about the way these lessons from Georgie were centered on the tragedies of everyday life. Consider: The family was trying desperately to eke out a living growing cotton in the unforgiving hill country of Sand Mountain, with the kids out in the fields as soon as they could do it, brutal work with no reason for optimism on the return. For a life like that, those tragic songs their mother gave them were honest, and decent.

The first one she taught them, “Mary of the Wild Moor,” told the tale of a father turning away his daughter in the cold when she arrives at his door with her child born out of wedlock. The next morning, he finds her still at his door, frozen to death; the baby has survived and is still “grasping his dead mother’s arm.” The song was so unflinching in its mimesis that Charlie almost couldn’t bear it when he grew older. “I can’t hardly sing it now,” he wrote, “because it’s so possible.”

Once the Loudermilks had a song down to their mother’s satisfaction, they sang it for their father, who was proud of the boys’ talent. “A song that had been carried across an ocean by Mama’s people,” Charlie wrote, “and passed down to us, just like it had been passed down to her, almost like we were singing with all their ghosts down the generations.”

And how they sang. Like kindred, like spirits, like ghosts.

When the Loudermilk boys grew up and went out on the road as the Louvin Brothers, Ira sang high and Charlie sang low. But it was more complicated than that.

“Every so often, in the middle of a song, some hidden signal flashed and the brothers switched places—with Ira swooping down from the heights, and Charlie angling upward—and even the most careful listeners would lose track of which man was carrying the lead,” Alex Abramovich wrote in the New York Times. “This was more than close-harmony singing; each instance was an act of transubstantiation.”

They did not get along. Ira had a violence in him he could not contain, smashing mandolins when he was drunk, which was most of the time. Whiskey would inevitably be followed by blood. A couple years before he died, Ira allegedly wrapped a telephone cord around his third wife’s neck, choking her in the bedroom while they hosted a party. She shot him with his .22 six times, but he survived. “If he ain’t dead, I’ll shoot him again,” she told police, a line that starts out scanning in perfect meter.

Ira and Charlie spent their partnership fist-fighting and hollering until they eventually broke up the band and went their separate ways. But when they sang, the hidden signals always flashed.

The country music podcaster Tyler Mahan Coe has pointed out that Charlie had “never known a time without the sound of his older brother’s voice.” They had a language so intimate that it was as if their subjectivities blurred—their harmony not two voices but a complicated instrument they shared and played together.

There’s a term for this, when siblings sing together in this way: Blood harmony.

I Met A Little Girl In Knoxville, A Town We Know So Well

Fort Myers, Florida, 2023

This morning I played the Louvin Brothers’ rendition of “The Knoxville Girl” for my six-year-old daughter while she ate her breakfast. I warned her that it might be scary. When she heard the old-time country music begin, she smiled and let her head bob back and forth like a doll, which I think is the way she dances to something that sounds old fashioned.

“This isn’t scary,” she said.

She misheard “fair girl” for “fire girl,” and when I corrected her she thought it was very funny. “Poor fire girl,” she laughed, chocolate-chip pancake spilling out of her mouth.

At the end of the song, the brothers’ voices mingle and blend for the final line. It is so menacing and spooky, but maybe it is the angelic quality to their harmony that guts me: “Because I murdered that Knoxville girl, the girl I loved so well.”

My daughter and my wife said the same thing at the same time: “He didn’t love her well!”

My daughter asked me why the man had been so mean, and I said that this version of the song doesn’t really tell us why—it’s a mystery. It all happens so fast. I started to tell her that there was a story, from a much older version of the song, that does give a reason—but then I stopped myself. She’s six.

The other day, I played my wife some macabre songs that Dolly Parton wrote early in her career. This is probably not the first thing you think of when you think of Dolly, but she penned a number of ballads with dead babies, suicide, arson, throwing rocks at a bride in lieu of rice, and so on. (“Dolly Darko,” my wife said.)

Not long ago, a reporter asked Dolly about this darker side. She wanted to write about the real troubles in people’s lives, she said. And as a songwriter, she said, “you gotta remember too that’s how I grew up. All those old mountain songs and all those old songs from the old world. All those old English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh ballads about the Knoxville girl getting killed and throwed in the Knoxville River. And I was very, you know, impressionable.”

There is something in us, perhaps, that is drawn to this sort of song.

While filming The Birds, which was not a pleasant experience for actress Tippi Hedren, Alfred Hitchcock told a reporter, “I always believe in following the advice of the playwright [Victorien] Sardou. He said: ‘Torture the women!’…The trouble today is that we don’t torture women enough.”

Maybe he was joking. But the other night, I was scrolling through the offerings on Netflix with my wife, and who can deny that there is something nasty in that menu, and in our choices: endless stories of girls in trouble that end in blood. We started a movie and at a certain point, we realized there was someone behind us. Our daughter had gotten up in the night and was secretly watching over our shoulders. We weren’t sure how long she’d been there and she wouldn’t say.

Here’s how Charlie Louvin thought about a violent ballad like “The Knoxville Girl”: “[T]he greatest percentage of people who listen to real country music, they dig those sad old songs. They always have. There’s tragedy in life, I guess is the reason. Sometimes I think there’s more tragedy than there is life.”

He said: “We need those old songs.”

I Picked A Stick Up Off The Ground And Knocked That Fair Girl Down

Nashville, Tennessee, 1959

“The Knoxville Girl” went to number nineteen on the country charts for the Louvin Brothers, but what made it remarkable was its staying power. They released it as a single three years after Tragic Songs of Life came out because it was far and away their most requested song.

The song had been in their repertoire from the beginning, helping them win a contest in Chattanooga as teenagers to earn their first radio spot. Their version, which tracks pretty closely with the record released by Arthur Tanner in 1925, is much more stark and minimal than its European antecedents. The song is stripped of narrative context and the various twists and turns of plot. The moralizing has been snipped (the Louvin Brothers’ version was twelve stanzas; earlier versions were forty-four stanzas or more, with long digressions devoted to the killer’s guilty conscience). And one of the most crucial details—the pregnancy and the question of marriage—was gone.

The story is perhaps even more bleak for being spare: It only takes until the eighth line for the man taking his lover on a walk to beat her with a stick until she falls to the ground. There is a haunting void in the wake of these revisions: We are left with clinical descriptions of violence that we’ll have to make sense of on our own. A new kind of horror emerges—evil effect devoid of cause. And mystery: Why did he kill her?

Charlie said you could find the answer to the mystery in the lyrics: She had “dark and roving eyes.” By Charlie’s lights, that was the story: The Knoxville girl was unfaithful to her lover. I’m not going to tell Charlie Louvin what his own song means, but I will say that prior versions of the same ballad have lines like “dark and rolling eye” or “black and rolling eye” or “dark and charming eye” or even “cast a winning eye.” And the ballad that is its earliest potential ancestor is explicit that it’s the killer who has been cheating; others describe his “wanton eye.” Maybe things just changed as time went on, or maybe the story evolved to match new tales and new crimes in the new country, such as the murder of Lula Noel. Who knows.

Oral tradition is a game of telephone. Sometimes you can’t quite make out what the ghosts are singing, and spirits don’t keep records.

The murder ballads began with minstrel shock jocks hamming for the king, and flourished as literal gallows humor, or vengeful moral hectoring. When they began hawking broadsides, ballad-mongers had a sordid reputation (the “scandalous practice of ballad-singing” was the “bane of all good manners and morals,” one English letter writer complained in 1735). It was a time with more everyday violence, more death, more young lives cut short. And perhaps as progress plowed ahead, it was the places that were hardest and most affixed to the old ways that held fastest to the old songs.

Charlie Louvin kept playing that old song in his old age. He took it very seriously. If, say, some young men were laughing at a table while he played “The Knoxville Girl,” he would wag his finger. Listen to what happened, he would say. This was a sad song. We need those sad old songs.

And when I think of that, I think maybe there is something else about these sad old songs—that they are not bloodthirsty and cold, or at least they’re not only that. Communities that dealt more frequently and closely with death perhaps had more practice at a certain sort of holding each other up. There’s tragedy in life, as Louvin says. We are all hurting sometimes, sometimes badly, and all of us will die. Under the circumstances, there may be something sacred in facing the darkness together. Maybe that is why the way the Louvin Brothers sing sounds not just spooky, but beautiful.

“You can talk about ‘Knoxville Girl’ being a tragic song, but it only talks about the death of one person,” Charlie Louvin wrote. “Today the death of just one person wouldn’t even make the news.”

I would like to think that is why he wagged his finger: that to meet the sadness of the song and to stare together into the darkness of our tragic lives requires a certain sort of decency. This sad decency is itself an old way, a tradition we can hold. I hope that I might gift it to my daughter, along with a song, knowing she will sing a version all her own.

Patient Grissel: an excellent ballad, circa 1750. Courtesy Yale University Library

She Never Spoke Another Word

New York City, 1924; Atlanta, 1925

Around the same time that WSB in Atlanta started broadcasting performances by Gid Tanner, Fiddlin’ John Carson, and other old-time players, big-city talent scouts started showing up in towns like Dacula.

Carson was the first to sign up, going to Atlanta in 1923 to record “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” for Okeh Records, what is typically considered one of the very first country music records. It was a surprise hit. The suits had an epiphany: Country people were eager to buy records of songs from the country, by performers from the country.

Eager to keep up with Okeh, Columbia Records wanted to find their own Fiddlin’ John. Gid Tanner was invited up to New York, and brought along frequent collaborator Riley Puckett, a blind banjo player and singer. In March 1924, they recorded the label’s first Southern rural sides (“familiar tunes, old and new,” as the label’s catalog would describe this new genre).

All of this was happening in a time of transition in the music industry. While they were rural artists, Gid and Riley were close enough to Atlanta to be well aware of popular music and cosmopolitan trends. They were hardcore traditionalists, but their repertoire showed the possibility for fusion, playing ballads that were centuries old alongside more recent popular songs written by professional songwriters for a mass audience. Rural folk music was transitioning from the front porch to mass media. The term “country music” did not yet exist, but here was its beginning.

The recording process was in transition as well. It would still be a couple years before record companies adopted new audio technologies. They were still recording the very same way Thomas Edison had: A massive horn captured sound waves that were funneled into a diaphragm that would vibrate with the waves; the apparatus was attached to a needle that then created grooves in a wax cylinder.

Among the sides that Gid and Riley recorded was “The Knoxville Girl”—as far as I can tell, the first recording of the song by a major commercial record label (Riley sang, but I’ve seen conflicting accounts on whether Gid accompanied him and got lead billing or Riley did the number solo). The sessions were a big success and made Gid and Riley stars, but for whatever reason, their recording of “The Knoxville Girl” was never issued. If it’s available, I don’t know how to find it.

The following year, Gid’s brother Arthur was also recruited to Columbia. The label was particularly eager for a Southern exploitation song with a ripped-from-the-headlines feel. Arthur recorded “The Knoxville Girl” at a session in Atlanta in January with Gid accompanying him, but this too was scrapped by the label. Arthur recorded the song a second time in June with different backers, and this was the record that was finally released—the hit that anchored the song’s second act in mass media for the century to come.

Arthur Tanner was an important musician in his own right, but he was not the legend in his time that his older brother Gid was. But we don’t have Gid’s (or Riley’s) earlier song. We have Arthur’s. We tell our history with the records we have.

There’s a good chance that the Louvin family or the Parton family might have known the song anyway, by tradition in their communities, even without Arthur Tanner’s recording. Likewise the Stanley Brothers, who recorded their own version. Or the Carter Family, who actively went scouting for folksongs and recorded “Never Let the Devil Get the Upper Hand of You”—a similar song with a different name. But it’s just as possible that they heard the record.

Gid Tanner was born around 1885; Rob Stanley, who hosted the jam sessions in Dacula, was born a few years before the Civil War. They must have had tunes in their memories that are now irretrievable.

As soon as Arthur Tanner sang and played into that horn and the records were pressed, a new kind of tradition began. This tradition was more durable, less malleable and chaotic. The quality isn’t great, but we can still hear him sing. A version captured and made permanent, still on offer to me and my family to listen to a century later. The Louvin Brothers sang close to the same song; the endless covers that followed are covering the Louvin Brothers, not re-writing it to create something altogether new.

History became legible with the advent of writing; the printing press made the records of history so much richer that the previous era is rendered utterly foreign terrain. The phonograph and what followed represented just this kind of shift for sound.

Musical notation can tell us a tune, but we will never hear the seventeenth-century balladeer sing. We can hear Arthur Tanner, a tradition etched in wax.

Until The Ground Around Me Within Her Blood Did Flow

Pineville, Missouri, 1892

The Noel family knew the land where they lived as well as anyone can know anything. They knew the ford on the Elk River that would allow them to cross. Unless the water got too high—if your timing was wrong, you could find yourself stuck on one side of the river.

The excursion to her father’s that Saturday, December 10, required crossing the river. Lula told her sister, Sydney, that if the Elk became impassable by the time she had seen Will off, she would stay with another of the Noels’ many relatives on that side of the river.

The water was high that morning, but Sydney and her husband were able to cross by horseback. The couple wound up staying with her father for a few days. No one thought much of Lula not coming home; they figured she was staying with a relative because the Elk was too high to cross. As the days passed with no sign of Lula, the family grew anxious. They put out the word, and she was not in any of the places they might have expected.

Her father, along with Sydney’s husband, finally decided to go to Joplin on Friday, December 16. According to later court testimony, Sydney’s husband found William Simmons and said, “Will, your girl’s gone.”

“Is that so?” Will replied (after he “trembled violently a few seconds,” according to one account, a description that sounds like a lyric from a ballad).

After an awkward silence, he said, “You don’t suppose the fool girl jumped in the river and drowned herself, do you?”

By the next day, hundreds of people across the county joined in a search. They found her body in the river, where some of her clothing had caught in a willow tree, just a few feet from where her family had passed by the previous Saturday.

“On examination afterwards conclusive evidence of a violent death were found,” a local judge later recounted. “A bruise on one temple, one spot on one cheek and three or four on the other, as though a hand had been placed over her mouth to stifle her screams, finger prints on the throat, were all plainly visible. Besides a bruise the size of the palm of one’s hand on the back of the head and her neck broken. The lungs were perfectly dry and all evidences of drowning were absent.”

Will was eventually convicted of murder in the second degree and sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary.

Local legend has it that this case was the inspiration for “The Knoxville Girl.” That’s not quite true—the song clearly has much older roots in English ballads. But it’s possible that the murder of Lula Noel was the sort of local tale that could give the old ballad new life in America, and perhaps shape it in new ways (unlike the older stories, Will’s motivation appears to be a total mystery, rather like “The Knoxville Girl”).

Slade points out that “The Berkshire Tragedy” story is so close to Lula’s tragedy that it would have been a natural fit for adaptation. In 1927, a folklorist found a Missouri woman who sang a ballad that was clearly a variation on “The Knoxville Girl.” It began, “’Twas in the city of Pineville / I owned a floury mill.” She called it “The Noel Girl.”

It’s Now My End Comes Hastening On, And Death Approaches Nigh

Hazard, Kentucky, or thereabouts, 1830

The preacher’s feet were tired and his eye still pulsed with a dull ache from a punch he’d taken several days before. He had journeyed nearly a thousand miles from his home in Boston. On the advice of some locals, he had come to visit General Elijah Combs to let him know about a revival he was planning and talk to him about the prospect of starting a church in the area. It quickly became clear to the preacher that Combs was not a general in the army at all. But he wore a uniform and had declared himself the general of the local militia for Hazard, the city Combs himself had founded less than a decade ago.

When the preacher first arrived, Combs waved his arm at the craggy nothing that surrounded them. “This,” he said, “is Hazard.” He had deeded ten acres of his land to the town four years ago. He brought the preacher inside his home, a two-story log cabin. “I call it the Old Log Fort,” he said, and laughed from his belly. Until a couple years ago, the cabin had served as a courthouse for the county, he said.

The general, who came from Virginia, told the preacher his story. In 1795, he got a notion. When the weather got warm, he journeyed into the frontier to the North Fork of the Kentucky River, not far from where they were now, where he first built a temporary cabin. Then he walked back to Virginia, married a girl named Sally Roark, fetched the people he enslaved, and returned to start a new community. As he told the story, he tugged at his uniform with pride.

When the preacher explained his own mission, the general seemed to lose interest in the conversation. Two enslaved people moved in and out of the cabin as they spoke. Their names were Anne and Jake—the preacher overheard the general’s wife addressing them. They looked at the preacher with a fear he had never witnessed before.

The preacher had come from an old city, by American standards, still deeply tied to the Old World, where English Dissenters had arrived two centuries ago. Now he was in new country, with new men declaring themselves generals in the new frontier. The preacher felt old.

After staying the night at the cabin, he walked along a trail the next morning and found himself venturing into the mountains. His mission had not even lasted forty days, he reminded himself. He was looking for people to tell of the revival, but people were few and far between. Even in New England, he felt that he had never seen so many trees. On the mountainside, belts of folded rock that had once been on the ocean floor were interrupted by seams of black. Everything here looked like a warning.

After a time, he finally came upon a small cabin. Just outside, a man was leaning against the wide trunk of a scarlet oak and singing to his family, a story about a girl. The man had a loud and unruly way of singing, like a woman in danger. The preacher stopped before he approached. In spite of himself, he smiled as the man sang. The preacher had traveled so far to carry something, to bring a message. He had no regrets, but he could grow melancholy sometimes. He missed his home. And as he listened to this song, he realized that he had heard it before. The song, like the preacher and his message, had traveled.

All In The Blood Of Innocence

Port of Phladelphia, 1801

The boy held his sister’s hand, and her hand felt new somehow. The snap of smell in his nostrils was new, the feel of the air on his skin was new, the sounds of the voices were new. Unlike his grandparents, his family spoke English, but this was a different English that he heard. He pulled his sister along, to keep up with their parents, who seemed to walk at a new pace. There was new money; he could not see it, but it was there—it seemed to electrify his vision. There was no rain outside, but out on the docks, he could hear a sound like thunder. It was the same Creation, of the same God, but it was a New World.

He could not know that he would re-tell this story later, to grandchildren in New York and Pittsburgh, to his sister’s grandchildren in Haverford and Baltimore—who would listen closely but could only halfway understand because they had only just the one world. They would have grandchildren of their own, who lived in those places and yet more places still, who would know roughly where he came from but would not know his name. (His name, by the way, was Peter. His sister’s name was Mary.) And these great-great-grandchildren would have grandchildren, who lived in an America that was a little older, but different: A new version of an old tune.

At a certain point, they would probably lose track of this lineage. Memories are rickety; records have gaps; the archives have to be dug up. The family branches become tangled and lost, until you cannot find the root.

When the newness of the noise at the port became too much for Peter, he sang familiar songs in his head. He held his sister Mary’s hand tighter still as his family found the proper queue in the chaos, and pulled at a snag on his linen shirt, a garment his mother had sewn from what remained of an old shirt of his father’s. He had worn it for the entirety of their journey. They had come with almost nothing, save for songs.

And Dragged Her To The River Side, And Threw Her Body In

London, England, 1720 or thereabouts

But she fell on bended knee,” he writes, “for mercy she did cry.” The meter in his ear was not so much a constraint as a companion that seemed to live inside him—the way the runner is guided by the measure of his breath. It was a manner and rhythm he would have known from English translations of the Holy Book from more than a century before, perhaps from theatre troupes that had returned after the Puritans’ ban was lifted, and certainly from the other ballads he borrowed from to shape his own lines. But he had no need to study scansion. The footfalls of syllables were deeper than knowledge or influence. He put the stick in the killer’s hand and the patterns and flows of language were like a river current. He merely had to let it carry him.

His handiwork can be found in a Scottish chapbook dated 1744, but it almost certainly dates back earlier. Some estimate that a version of the song was first printed as far back as 1700; others date it around 1720. There once may have been thousands of copies, but broadsides were brittle and disposable, sometimes winding up as makeshift wallpaper in the taverns.

The murderer John Mauge and his victim Anne Knite, mentioned in an addendum in that 1744 chapbook, may not be the couple the ballad writer had in mind. It could be a later crime that the song was attached to, or it could be that the pair is entirely fictional. No historical evidence of the existence of the killer John Mauge and his victim Anne Knite has been found.

Though he would have been dismissed as a scabrous hack at the time, the ballad writer has such a knack for poetic and efficient depictions of monstrous violence that it can start to feel like he is an artist, or a proto-artist, who is governed by a bloodthirsty aesthetic. But the truth is, he may not be a single man—he may be a composite, his single authorship an anachronism. Or he may be merely a transcriber. The song’s structure and rhythm are so clean that it suggests a writer’s hand, but it could be that the story and its language were born entirely in song, from the community. Later, scholars would bicker over what counts as folk tradition, but a song’s evolutions in oral tradition and popular writing surely would have crossed back and forth countless times.

The past is so foreign and strange that we should be left humble when we write our histories. Whether he is one writer, or several writers, or the people as a whole, the shape of his thoughts—his entire manner of thinking—is unreachable. But the meter we can share. I can hear the gentle dance in his language, thousands of miles away and centuries hence: “For Heaven’s sake, don’t murder me. I am not fit to die.”

An Excellent Ballad of the Lord Mohun and Duke Hamilton. With an exact account of their melancholy deaths, circa 1712. Courtesy Yale University Library

So Like A Wretch My Days I End, Upon The Gallow Tree

Shropshire, England, 1684

The noose hung from the tree and the assembled crowd made a barrage of noise like happy jackals as Francis Cooper was led by the authorities to his fate.

Nearby, perhaps, someone had a broadside telling the tale of “The Bloody Miller.” Its hawkers promised that it was his sworn confession, which wasn’t true, but that hardly mattered. Francis would now be judged by God, a prospect that he could find no comfort in.

We do not know whether he was remorseful. We do not know precisely what motivated him to kill her, despite the clear motivation described in song. Ballad writers were not fastidious fact checkers, after all. They were entertainers. They went for the kill; they went for the thrill.

We do know that “The Bloody Miller” was preserved by Samuel Pepys, who was a member of Parliament from 1673 to 1679 and again from 1685 to 1689, as well as serving as a chief naval administrator under two kings. That alone would not have earned him much of a place in history, but he was also a diarist. His writing is one of the best primary sources available about life in England in the period. He was also a fan of ballads, collecting more than 1,800 broadsides, including “The Bloody Miller,” with the notation about Francis and Anne. His are the records we have.

We do not know for certain whether “The Bloody Miller” was an altogether new composition about this murder, or whether it borrowed from some previous ballad, the tale of some earlier wicked killing, as later songs might borrow from “The Bloody Miller” or use “The Berkshire Tragedy” as a template for wicked deeds to come. These songs were flexible. Certain details in the ballad could well have been drawn from another incident, recycled for the tragedy of Francis and Anne.

Anne was likely around twenty-three years old when she was murdered. We do not know if some remnant of her spirit was silently there that day at the gallows. From the very beginning, her silence was hiding somewhere in the song. We know what he did to her body, but every version was written from his perspective, not hers. History is littered with the dead, written by the living. Dead girls don’t write songs.

But we do know that a man named Francis killed a woman named Anne in Shropshire in 1684. Slade dug up the county records. Anne—last name Nicholas according to the records—was buried with the notation TRUCULENTER OCCISA, Latin for “brutally killed.” Another reference from around the same time appears to establish that her murderer was Francis Cooper.

And from these records, we do know something else, something that’s hard to reconcile with the song. The child was born. Anne was buried on March 1. A few weeks later, a baptism was recorded. The boy’s parents were listed as “Francis Cooper, homicide, and Anne.”

Perhaps she had already given birth, but the ballad writers preferred her to be pregnant for dramatic effect (one scholar speculates that the ballad had it right and the baby died with her, but that Francis also got a different woman named Anne pregnant at the very same time). Or maybe Francis couldn’t stomach killing the child, so he waited for her to give birth. Or maybe the tale was more gruesome still: He could have killed her and left the newborn alone in the meadow, clutching his dead mother’s arm.

“Was the pregnancy so far advanced that someone managed to cut a living child from the dead mother’s womb?” asks Slade.

That would certainly be the most murder-ballad manner for the tale to end. But I’m not sure how plausible that is. In any event, if that’s what happened, surely the people of Shropshire chalked it up to a divine intercession, a holy gift. So we might as well call it a miracle, too.

We do not know what became of the boy. We do not know whether he had children of his own. The trail is lost. The song ends there—we do not know where the branches go.

We do know the boy’s name, from the records that we have.

His name was Ichabod.

David Ramsey

David Ramsey, a contributing editor to the Oxford American, last wrote for the magazine about Hank Williams. You can follow his current work at his Substack blog/newsletter, Tropical Depression.