A....murder ballad typically recounts the details of a mythic or true crime — who the victim is, why the murderer decides to kill him or her, how the victim is lured to the murder site and the act itself — followed by the escape and/or capture of the murderer. Often the ballad ends with the murderer in jail or on their way to the gallows, occasionally with a plea for the listener not to copy the evils committed by him as recounted by the singer.
Often the details and locales for a particular murder ballad change as it is sung over time, reflecting the audience and the performer. For example, "Knoxville Girl" is essentially the same ballad as "The Wexford Girl" with the setting transposed from Ireland to Tennessee - the two of them are based on "The Oxford Girl," the original murder ballad set in England.
I first heard "Knoxville Girl" from the singing of the Wilburn Brothers. Other examples of murder ballads I'm familiar with include "Lord Randall" (Josh White), "Down in the Willow Garden" (Charlie Monroe), "Frankie and Johnnie" (Mississippi John Hurt), "Omie Wise," (Doc Watson), "Pretty Polly" (Ralph Stanley), "Stagger Lee" (Lloyd Price), and "Tom Dooley" (The Kingston Trio).
"The Banks of the Ohio" (Joan Baez, Doc Watson, etc.) is one of my favorites. I've known the chords for many years and back in the day, Joyce used to sing it. This is a really good version featuring Doc Watson in his prime and a few other folks you might recognize.
I remember the Kingston Trio's "Tom Dooley" because when I was a Sophomore at Martin Junior College back in 1959-60, some friends and I sang it in a talent show. There were five of us involved (believe me, the other four guys had ALL the talent), and so it was logical that we call ourselves The Martin Five. That's better I suppose than the Martin Funf. (A couple of us were taking German). We didn't win, and I wouldn't say we killed 'em, but we had fun.
(Joyce and I will be in Georgia today visiting with our three older grandsons, Jason, Jonathan, and Erich who's in the Navy and just back home on leave from a Mediterranean tour. I'll talk to you all tomorrow. Later in the week I hope to be discussing the Titans' acquisition of QB Peyton Manning and the Vandy Commodores defeat of Harvard - ! - in the first round of the NCAA tournament. )