• Courtney E. Smith

The Feminine Revolution in 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 as “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 & Johnny, based on the song), Lindsay Lohan (in Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion), Duke Ellington, Lead Belly, Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, and Louis Armstrong 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 “So you get these social realities that are assimilated to certain kinds of artistic formulas.”

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.”

Schechter then proceeded to read a very old murder ballad in which a woman burns her child alive in a stove after the father finds himself unable to carry out the murder plot the duo has hatched. Clearly, disturbing crimes committed by women have always existed, but the time of the resurgence of “Frankie And Johnny” into popular culture in the 1960s coincided with a new wave of interest in equal rights for women. We start to see a rash of women artists, largely in country, taking on murder ballads. But it wouldn’t be until the ’90s that the women characters in their songs would start to predominately become the killers.

“What’s interesting to me now is, in terms of some of these recent hit murder ballads, you have the woman doing the murdering,” Schechter said. “It really reflects major, major changes–obvious changes and probably healthy changes–in our culture and the position of women.”

The change was ushered in with “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia,” a song originally written in 1972 by Bobby Russell and turned into a No. 1 hit by his wife, Vicki Lawrence. The song was covered by Tanya Tucker in 1981. Arguably, though, it was Reba McEntire’s reinvention of the song with her 1991 recording that unleashed the flood gates and laid the groundwork for normalizing women killers. Only three years later, for instance, came Martina McBride’s then-shocking hit “Independence Day.”

One of the biggest crossover murder ballads of late is the Dixie Chicks‘ darkly comic song “Goodbye Earl,” which became a Top 20 hit on the Billboard 100 in 1999. In the 21st century, the flame is being carried on by among others Carrie Underwood, whose “Two Black Cadillacs” was a very dark No. 1 hit earlier this year.

And of course, we can’t overlook Miranda Lambert, who writes and records songs such as “Gunpowder & Lead” and her breakthrough hit, “Kerosene,” both of which certainly fit within the world of murder balladry.

Lambert is the artist most likely to cast herself as the troublemaker, femme fatale, outsider, and killer/narrator. A modern-day outlaw of sorts, she doesn’t shy away from her real-life reputation as a proud card-carrying member of the NRA who went hunting on her honeymoon. What really sets Lambert apart, though, is her fierce independence. And in that respect, she’s cast from the same mold as Loretta Lynn. In fact, Miranda’s image couldn’t exist without Loretta (who wrote such groundbreaking songs as “The Pill” and “Rated X”) as a precursor. As a modern-day, 21st-century woman, Lambert’s social circumstance frees her up to instead write about how she’s going home to get her shotgun and blast a surprise out for the abusive man who’s chasing her down.

In contemporary country music, Lambert is the type of artist who is using her music to push the cultural norm. And in the process, she’s writing songs where the woman who’s been scorned can be unapologetic about her appetite for revenge.

This story was originally published on June 7, 2013.

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