“Tell me, tell me Delia, how can it be/You said that you loved another man, and you don’t love me” —Reese Du Pree, “One More Rounder Gone”
Time can erase. Time can bury. Time can shift what was known into what was thought, what was felt. It has a way of doing that. It has a way of taking names, and dates, and faces, and shifting them, combining them, until all that’s left is story and myth. It’s happened throughout history, but rediscovery can fill in the spaces that time has left behind. Take the story of Delia Green, her name has been on the lips of singers through history— Josh White, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Harry Belafonte, among many others. But her life? That’s a different story. Despite being a part of modern music history since the early 1900s, most barely know the real story behind the song. But Delia’s story, and the stories of many figures like her, are being untangled from the myths in a new podcast, Songs in the Key of Death, hosted by Courtney E. Smith.
The murder ballad has a long history. They take their cue from the ballad tradition, a musical form of storytelling. Their roots trace back as early as the Middle Ages, but as they, and their singers, found their way to America, they began to take on new forms, picking up pieces of musical history, culture to culture, along the way. The folk, the blues, the work song. The juke joint, the barn dance, the front porch. But people have always been interested in true crime, it seems. They’ve always wanted to peer into the darkness with fear and delight at what might look back. These songs were often based on true stories, real murders whose names have worn away with time. Murder ballads were part history, part gossip, part folklore. “A lot of the stuff would be ripped from the headlines of newspapers, from local newspaper articles,” Smith says. “As well as changing things around so that the rhyme scheme worked.” They were never the whole truth, just a version of it.
In the book The Rose & the Briar, a collection of essays exploring the origins of several well-known ballads, author Dave Marsh writes, “Humans invent songs and stories so that they can be repeated.” That is the history of these songs. The repetition gives them their power, as much now as they did then. They’ve been repeated over and over again in songs like “Pretty Polly,” “Stagger Lee,” and “Omie Wise.” “The original versions of the songs might be very old, sometimes more than a century old, but we still saved them a century later,” Smith says.
“Delia” is a classic murder ballad, which Smith describes in the first episode as songs “recounting real stories of deaths too haunting to be forgotten.” She has long been interested in the genre, writing several articles on the history of the people behind the songs as a long-time music journalist. Harold Schechter in 2013 started her down the path on extracting the stories from these age-old songs. That interview, she says, “really got me into this world, this sort of dark music. And around the same time, Shechter’s own work on the topic, particularly his 2012 book Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard of references the specific markers of the subgenre first categorized by Eleanor R. Long-Wingus. At their core, this subgenre of murder ballads are about an innocent young woman led astray by a man, which inevitably leads to her murder. An article in The New Republic around this time also noticed the trend, “it’s clear that there’s little that interests the American public quite so much as a young woman’s body.” Delia is just one of the many women whose real stories have been lost in song.
But as Schechter noted in the interview, more recent murder ballads “have the woman doing the murdering. It really reflects major, major changes–obvious changes and probably healthy changes–in our culture and the position of women.” Modern artists were rewriting the narrative— in some cases quite literally, as in the case of R&B group The Bobbettes, who released a follow-up to their 1957 hit “Mr. Lee” called “I Shot Mr. Lee” in 1960. “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” from 1972 continued the trend. But maybe the tables turned most dramatically with the release of “Goodbye Earl” by The Chicks in 2000. Not just a country hit, the song about the murder of an abusive husband also found a home on the pop charts. This was followed by songs like “Man Down” by Rhianna in 2010 and “Two Black Cadillacs” by Carrie Underwood in 2012.
And today, women artists are continuing to reject the murdered girl trope, Smith says. “Taylor Swift wrote one on her last album [“No Body, No Crime”]. People still draw from the writing traditions around those songs, and the songs are not structured in a terrifically different way than they would have been 50 years ago, but they are a lot different than they were 100 years ago.” Today’s murder ballads rest on tradition, but have very modern concerns, Smith says. The murder ballads of yesterday were often based on real life crimes, but now that gets tricky. “I think that people are kind of afraid to put their opinion in the song. People are so much more litigious now. If I wrote a song about, I don’t know, the Scott Peterson trial, will Scott Peterson sue me? I think it’s an abundance of caution more than anything. But I know artists out there who are into gruesome stuff, andI it would be awesome if they wrote about it.” Though she’s intrigued by the idea of new ballads, Smith’s show deals with the historical. But, she says, “A lot of these crimes are still relevant because they are morals that tell us about how we’re supposed to behave today, or how we’ve historically given people warnings in the same way that we do with fairy tales.”
When she was approached by friend and music podcast creator, Melissa Locker (who is also a producer on Songs), with the proposition of doing a podcast, initially Smith wasn’t sure what it would be about, despite her love of murder ballads. “I was like, well, I’d love to work with you, but I don’t know what I would do. I haven’t really been thinking about that space at all.” Shortly after that conversation, Locker approached Smith again, this time with after hearing another music podcast explain the murder ballad, and realizing that Smith’s knowledge of the genre was just the concept they were looking for, “Melissa said, I know you wrote a series on murder ballads while you were at CBS.” The first episode of the show was released on June 16 of this year.
The Songs in the Key of Death team is spread out over the U.S., a result of COVID, but the distance hasn’t really affected the work. “When we were in the writing stage, they just let me research and write, so they really let me take as much time as I needed to with the script. There was no deadline because we didn’t know what we were doing, we’re really making that the format of the show, and we would just trade off Google Docs, and they would give me edits and we would, you know, sharpen it out together.” And when Smith stepped into the studio to record the first episode, producer Sean Cannon “would be on the phone with me, so he was really coaching me through how to deliver the lines. We worked really closely together on all of that.”
As a finished product, Songs in the Key of Death finds itself somewhere between. “I’m not a big true crime person. I don’t really listen to true crime podcasts or murders and mysteries. But I love learning the stories of where these songs came from, how they evolved and it’s so fun to really think about the interplay between musicians as they interpret it.”
Musicians have been interpreting these songs for generations. Songs handed down from one community to another, take different shapes depending on who’s doing the singing. Singers as varied as Sam Cooke (“Frankie and Johnny”), Neko Case (“Poor Ellen Smith”), Dolly Parton (“Silver Dagger”), and Lloyd Price (“Stagger Lee”) have taken these songs and introduced them to new audiences. But the murder ballad, far from being a relic of the past, still offers a window into very modern concerns. History is like that, though. While it may bring some clarity to the past, it can also bring it to the current time, a function that Smith embraces.
“Since these crimes are so old, you need something to make them relevant to modern day, we put them in the context of our modern lives,” she says. “The song you end up with doesn’t necessarily form like the story that inspired it, so that I think we can keep doing like we can keep twisting these perspectives and details and the stories around to bring in the point of view that is left out, which is often the person who was killed. The person who was silenced. You know, the person who doesn’t get the attention that they should; [those stories] are just as interesting as the cold blooded killers’.”
“Rubber tired buggy, double-seated hack/Took little Delia to the cemetery, but failed to bring her back”— Blind Willie McTell “Little Delia”
Let’s go back to Delia. The song and story that the first episode centered on, found life time and time again, through different voices, melodies, and many times, different details. As Smith explains in the episode, the real story, or as real as time and memory will allow, is that Delia Green, a fourteen-year-old Black girl, was killed on Christmas in 1900. The murderer was Moses “Cooney” Houston, another 14-year-old who she was dating. Houston said he’d shot her because she called him a son of a bitch, and that he’d do it again. In a later version of the story, however, Houston said it was an accident after he and a friend wrestled over the gun.
Varying stories aside, Houston was convicted of the shooting and sentenced to life in prison. But over the years, the story became less about the murder, the victim. Delia began to fade from her own story. Object rather than subject, who she was mattering less than the tales that could be told about her. “I remember the first time I heard [“Delia’s Gone”],” Smith recalls. “I was doing some research on Johnny Cash, and I saw the video and I was like, gosh, who is this Delia? I’m hearing all these men describe her as this liar and a cheat, and like femme fatale who men can’t control themselves around, and it turns out she’s just a teenager.”
Murder ballads have twisted the truth over the years, turned victims into instigators, killers into heroes. “Usually ballads are written to tell women how to behave,” Smith says. But from those songs, Smith emerges with narratives that she hopes shatter those conventions and bring more women into this particular intersection of music and history. “My two dreams would be that maybe hearing this would inspire women artists to re-record their own versions of these songs, change the lyrics and evolve the story from our point of view. To make it about the voice that they think it should be centered on.”
“Delia, Delia, Delia, girl why didn’t you run?” —Sparky Rucker, “Delia Holmes”
Looking at anything from a slightly different angle tells a new story. And part of revealing the lost, or more often, ignored angles is also a way to let some of the myths of authorship and artistry fall away as well. Like much of history, the contributions of creators of color are often ignored, another piece of murder ballad history that Smith is adamant about telling. “The six [songs] in our first season, three of them, definitively, were written by Black troubadours in the 1800s. We’re absolutely certain where they came from. And [they] don’t get credit for writing those songs. In some cases [we] don’t even know their names completely, because they were not treated fairly by the music industry in the 1800s and early 1900s.” Black songwriters, Smith continues, were prolific in the era. Not only did they write sheet music for these songs, but they taught others to play them, helping them spread across the nation, all for little-to-no compensation. “Historically and currently, we really underestimate the imagination and creativity of people of color.”
The show also continues the tradition of carrying the songs forward with each episode ending with a new interpretation of the ballad covered in the show. “Having the new songs at the end were Sean’s and Melissa’s idea.” The new songs are performed by either musicians Sadie Dupuis performing as Sad13 or Will Oldham aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy. “They both said yes and we’re so lucky and happy they did,” Smith says. She shared her research with both musicians in order for them to create versions of these songs that reflected both the stories and their own styles. In her version of “Omie Wise,” for example, Dupuis’ interpretation of the ballad adds an electronic atmosphere that feels like it pulls you under, even as it calls out to you from somewhere above, echoing the song’s history and the subject’s watery end. “She put all these elements on to it that are so unique to her and her style,” Smith says. “I thought that was amazing. I loved that she was so excited to write on behalf of all these women.”
“Delia’s gone, one more round Delia’s gone” — Johnny Cash, ”Delia’s Gone”
A 1951 article in the academic journal Midwest Folklore got right to the point with its title: “Why Is the “Murdered Girl” So Popular?” with the author deciding they “fill an almost unconscious need to let out aggression through fantasy.” And perhaps they do. A more recent essay, Kelly Robinson’s “Where the Wild Roses Grow: The Strange Allure of Murder Ballads” from the 2107 antholoogy, Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them expresses this too, “The songs may be a macabre package for an expression of such human desires, but some of us are attracted to darker things.” Songs in the Key of Death is a space for those darker things, but told in a way that illuminates some of the hidden corners. As Smith says, “I think it’s important to have a critical eye, about what you listen to, and what it says, and what messages it’s giving you, and who you’re letting do the talking.”