Murder Ballads: When Women Take The Lead

The long tradition of murder ballads continues through songs by Reba, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, and others.
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Miranda Lambert (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Miranda Lambert (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

This feature is part of our week-long series on murder ballads. Inspired by recent hits, Radio.com is looking at the poem-cum-song’s evolution in country music, its place in the development of hip-hop and rap, and the impact they had on social consciousness. Check back every day for a new dive into the dark corners of murder ballads.

The thing about a murder ballad is: someone has to get killed. And very often, historically speaking, that someone is a woman.

But recently (which really means in the last half-century, given that the genre dates back to the late Medieval/early Renaissance times), a change has done come. Murder ballads have taken on a whole new shape, where women are the ones doing the murdering.

But before we get to the women who’ve sung some of the more explosive, gender-expectation-defying murder ballads, let’s take a look at one song in particular. It’s not just any song–it’s one that has inspired so many versions (not to mention films and plays) that it may be the watershed moment in pop culture that opened the door for women to lay their hands on a weapon and go “root toot toot” to the men who were “doing them wrong.”

That song is “Frankie And Johnny” (also known is “Frankie And Johnnie” or “Frankie And Albert” and sometimes just “Frankie”).

The song dates back to at least the early 20th (and some say early 19th) century, and it’s since been interpreted in many variations by the biggest names in music: Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley (who also starred in a film, the 1966 musical Frankie & Johnnybased on the song), Lindsay Lohan (for Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion), Duke Ellington, Lead Belly, Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, and Louis Amrstrong are among those who’ve taken a crack at it. The song has crossed many musical genres, too, from country, folk, and blues to soul, pop, and whatever else you’ve got.

And in addition to Presley’s film vehicle, it also inspired the 1991 movie of the same name starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeifer. Back in 1933, Mae West sang the song in her film She Done Him Wrong. And Mia Farrow’s character sang it in Death On The Nile, before killing her lover.

Frankie is, in short, one of the most influential female characters in murder ballad history.

“The thing about folklore [including] folk stories [and] folk songs, is that they do often reflect the social circumstances of the culture that produces them,” Harold Schechter, author of Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment, told Radio.com. “So you get these social realities that are assimilated to certain kinds of artistic forumlas.”

Below: Radio.com Inside Out Video Feature On Murder Ballads

This is, though, far from the first murder ballad in which a woman was the killer.

“Insofar as a lot of the crimes [murder ballads] dealt with were domestic crimes,” Schechter continued. “For example…William Beadle, that was a horrendous domestic crime–what criminologists call a family annihilator. You still see them. There’s a ballad about a mother who gets angry at her daughter and persuades her husband they need to get rid of this kid because she’s kind of a disobedient brat.”

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