Thursday, August 16, 2012

My music? It’s not about murder, BUT...

Elizabeth Zelvin

I was brought up on traditional folk music, about half of which consists of murder ballads, which I sang with great relish from an early age. Well, maybe not half. Other crimes were represented, including robbery of both the Robin Hood and capitalist varieties.

Jesse James was a man who killed many a man
He robbed the Glendale train
He stole from the rich and gave to the poor
With a hand and a heart and a brain.

And on the other hand:

Oh, the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the people sweated for.

Or, as “Pretty Boy Floyd,” one of my favorites back then, put it: As through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve met many kinds of men
Some will rob you with a six-gun
And some with a fountain pen.

But no question about it, the high lonesome subgenre was filled with songs about young men who did young women wrong and then killed them as a convenient alternative to marrying them. (My mother was always complaining, “Can’t you sing something cheerful for a change?”)

There was “Pretty Polly”:

“Oh, Willie, oh, Willie, I’m feared of your ways
I fear you will lead my poor body astray.”

“There’s no time to talk and there’s no time to stand.”
He drew out his dagger all in his right hand.

“Down in a Willow Garden” tells a very similar story:

I stabbed her with my dagger
Which was a bloody knife
I flang her into the river (I loved that “flang”)
It was a dreadful sight.

And then there’s “Banks of the Ohio,” which I still sing occasionally, because it’s a great singalong song with a delicious wailer of a chorus.

I took her by her lily-white hand
Down beside where the waters stand
I picked her up and I threw her in
And watched her as she floated by.

The first time I attended Killer Nashville, I had the unexpected opportunity to sing a murder ballad, accompanying myself on the beautiful black silver-inlaid guitar that had just been presented to guest of honor J.A. Jance. I sang “Long Black Veil”—not a traditional tune, but one written in 1959 that’s been performed by world-class musicians from Johnny Cash to Bruce Springsteen. You can still hear my performance of it on YouTube.

In my own songs, which I’ve been writing since before I started writing mysteries, nobody dies (except in “Two Tall Towers,” about 9/11, which is something else again, and “The Mayor of Central Park,” about a beloved New York character who died of natural causes at 94). Since I’m heading to Killer Nashville again next week, I’ve been thinking about whether my music is Off Topic at a mystery event, and I don’t think it is.

I’m scheduled not only to talk about mysteries in a panel on dialogue but also to perform a couple of my songs at the Sisters in Crime party on Friday night. I certainly hope to sell copies of my CD, Outrageous Older Woman, as well as my latest mystery, Death Will Extend Your Vacation. I write songs in the urban folk subgenre that are all about issues and circumstances that cause the kind of murders I write mysteries about, such as love, abuse, alcoholism, family, and ambition.

On the other hand, what I have to say about these issues tends to be hopeful. My mother, if she were still around, might even admit that their message is cheerful, on the whole. I sing about love, healing, recovery, having roots, and following your dreams.

I’ll sing two songs at Killer Nashville. The album’s title song, “Outrageous Older Woman,” is a good theme song for a lifelong writer whose first novel came out on her sixty-fourth birthday. I hope it will inspire the aspiring writers of the senior persuasion who show up at most mystery lovers’ events. The other, “All She Ever Wanted,” is just as apt, because it’s about a woman who dares to follow her dream, as every mystery writer I know has had to persist and persist and persist some more to accomplish. All the protagonist of this particular song has ever wanted is a country music band—and I’m tickled to death that I’m going to get to sing it in Nashville.


Sandra Parshall said...

I love traditional folk ballads. So many were written about real events that they offer a window on the lives of ordinary people of the past.

Janice said...

Nice piece and I love your selection of quoted ballads

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Did you ever see the movie Songcatcher? It was set in Appalachia around the turn of the last century and featured a very young Emmy Rossum as a local girl with a "false true lover." She sang traditional ballads just as convincingly as she did the operatics of Phantom of the Opera.