Not Your Daddy’s Murder Ballad

by Les Von Losberg

Perhaps the best place to begin this paper is before its beginning.  I have been called to few things in my life, but I have been called to something twice.  Once was when I was twenty and a student at the State University College at Oswego, New York.  One chilly but beautiful spring day I was walking across the old campus quad and was moved to sit down on a bench that overlooked the northern part of the quad that verged on a steep hill that lead down to a green athletic field that sat on the near side of the main campus road a hundred yards from the foot of the hill.  On the other side of the road was the college president’s quaint country-style residence, a thin band of trees and finally, the dull slate grey expanse of Lake Ontario stretching all the way to the edge of a deep blue sky.  I sat down, took out a notebook and wrote my first poem, one of a long string of stilted and sadly derivative lyrics.

The second time I was called occurred some years—and many poems—later, when I worked as a production and review editor for Bitterroot Magazine, then edited by Menke Katz.  Merle Molofsky and I were at that time running a grassroots arts organization called Poets Union, and we had been successful in getting a number of poems by writers from Poets Union into the magazine.

At this second calling, I was sitting at a typesetting machine about 10:30 at night in a puddle of light in a dark, dusty, cold loft space in what was then the not-so-fashionable venue that came some ten to fifteen years later to be known as DUMBO, working on the next issue of Bitterroot, which contained a poem by an accomplished poet and dear friend and colleague of ours, Terry Hayes.  As I sat there, frankly wanting to be somewhere else at that time on such  a cold night, typing Terry’s poem, a melody came into my head, a melody that fit Terry’s poem, a melody coming into being even as I was typing her words.

I took Terry’s single stanza poem and turn it into a three stanza song lyric that uncovered, I won’t say the story, but one of any number of stories that might have been hunkering down behind her lines—and it began a twenty-five year period over which I wrote a series of songs that had an old-timey, what I think of as Appalachian, back-up-in-the-mountains, quality.  These songs are primarily murder ballads.

The murder ballad is a sub-genre of the ballad, the history of which is shrouded in mystery.  While this paper is not a scholarly exposition on the ballad, some information about ballads informs what you’ll hear in the .wav files that have been provided here.

There are two basic strains in balladry, one literary, the other folk.  T. H. Henderson, in The Ballad in Literature, says that there is no way to know how the ballad originated or how it found its way into different countries.  What is clear, however, is that there are some basic characteristics that many ballads share, including the following.

  • An association with dance, which, I would suggest, meshes well with the formalism of the ballad, its repeated rhythmic structure, with its use of refrain, an overall structure that I would contrast with that of the more fluid art song.
  • The telling of a tale, not originally mirthful or satirical (again Henderson), but designed to address deeper, perhaps more disturbing emotions.  Henderson further says that the ballad “. . . sought to impress by the vivid representation of a single event, to bring home to the hearer its wonder, its pathos, its fatefulness, or its horror.”  For all its high emotion, the ballad is generally concerned with the bald facts and employs few if any poetic tropes, such as metaphor or simile.
  • Its subject matter is matter of importance:   historical events, battles or political upheavals, for example, or important local events (as, for example, local murders or other tragedies).
  • There is often high emotion:  anger or jealousy, and in the martial ballads, the exaltation of courage and nationalism.
  • There is often a collateral social function, that is, reinforcement of  the status quo, reflected in which a young girl—a country maid or serving girl—becomes pregnant and is then killed by her lover; or those in which family members—often brothers—seek out and kill the lover of a female relative either in anticipation of her elopement or after she and her lover have run off together; or those that address infidelity and, given the times, theft of chattels—sometimes cattle, sometimes a daughter, sometimes a wife.
  • Invariably, the culprit is caught and hanged if a man; and if a woman, often alternatively burned at the stake.  Retribution is swift and generally lacking legal process.
  • Sometimes there is a sense of guilt or remorse; often sadness.  Generally, there is no moral cast to the story being told, simply the facts.  We could characterize this feature as the absence of super-ego, often with the presence, it seems, of stupid-ego, particularly when the murderers are readily apprehended, walking back home from the scene of their crimes or simply while sitting in their cottage doorways.  This absence also often appears in the story line itself.  One common story goes like this:  two sisters walk down by the river where one of them—often characterized as the older or the darker of the two—pushes her sister into the water to drown her.  The girl often either scrambles out of the water or is helped out by a passing boy.  In either case, the drenched girl has no luck, in that the boy often then robs her and pushes her back into the river before going on his way.  It is possible that this hard-heartedness evidences the tenor of a time when the value and meaning of life was different from what we imagine today, when life might be characterized accurately as mean, brutish and short for many living at the “folk” level in society, though one might expect that one sister would have a soft place in her heart for another.  What is additionally remarkable is that in many versions of the song (there are, according to one reference I perused, more than 125 variant versions in Swedish alone) we aren’t given even an inkling as to why the one sister pushed the other into the river in the first place.  In those versions that have lyrics in which a reason is given, it is usually jealousy.
  • Many ballads include supernatural elements that appear in the story with the same weight as facts.  The harp strung with a murdered child’s hair speaks to her parents of her murder.  Murdered children playing by the roadside speak to a mother who remarks on their comeliness and how lovingly she would treat them while returning from having just birthed, killed and buried her own two infants, the children’s response revealing that they are apparitions, the murdered babes in the form of older children, who rebuke their mother for her hard-heartedness to them.

What is notably missing for the modern listener in traditional murder ballads is interiority, some clue or insight into the motivation of the characters in the ballad narrative.

That this balladic tradition is meaningful to us still, none the less, is evidenced by the fact that it has continued into the present time, not just reflected in the popularity of the oldest and most traditional of the surviving ballads being sung today, but also in the fact that many ballads, and here I want to mention only murder ballads, are of more recent composition or interpretation.  For example, “Child Owlet” by Steel Eye Span, “The Cruel Mother” by Joan Baez, “Frankie and Johnny” by Mississippi John Hurt, Brook Benton, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash; “I Hung My Head” by Sting, “Omie Wise” by Pentangle, “Pretty Polly” by Judy Collins and Ralph Stanley, “Lily of the West” by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and the Chieftains; “Little Sadie” by Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Merle Travis, and Woodie Guthrie; and “Stagger Lee”—with variations on that title—by Ma Rainey, Duke Ellington, Woodie Guthrie, Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, and Nick Cave; “Tom Dooley” by the Kingston Trio, “Hey Joe” by Jimmy Hendrix, and I could go on and on and on.

Appended to this paper are .wav files of the four murder ballads I discuss below to highlight how they can be contrasted with more traditional murder ballads, though they fall into the same ballad sub-genre.

The first song is Desolated Traveler.  In this song we find a narrator with a certain degree of inner understanding, both of himself and the young girl he loves.  We find out about his inner experience of spring—of youth, of burgeoning love, of prospect and anticipation of the joyful life he’ll lead with his beloved.  A stranger comes to town, wrapped in an exotic aura (for the imagined time and place) that beguiles the narrator’s love, who seeks the stranger’s company “both in the night and in the day” and ends up as many a young woman in a ballad does:  with child, a fact alluded to rather than directly stated.  The stranger suddenly abandons her, and she commits suicide, throwing herself into the river.  The language in the song is meant to suggest that the young man takes revenge upon the stranger for what he has done to him and what he has driven the young man’s sweetheart to do.  And in the end, the desolated traveler wanders ceaselessly, searching for a heart of stone.  But whose heart?  His sweetheart’s?  Perhaps, but more likely a heart of stone—a heart that can’t be broken—to replace the broken heart inside his breast that is the epicenter of his emotional desolation.

We see inside everyone in this song.   We know this girl, this boy, this stranger.  They are both mirrors into the many facets of our own hearts and lenses through which we see the rounder personalities the facts and details of the song imply.

The next song is also somewhat traditional in that it too involves a murder, and as in Desolated Traveler, a murder that takes place off stage.  The name of this song is I Raised You High Above Me.

In this song is a principal character with some insight into himself:  the recognition that he had a youthful vision, a wish, a fantasy that he sought unrelentingly to fulfillment because there was no one he could turn to who would “turn his burning heart aside” from it.  We have a character owning up to a character deficiency in which   his later action has its root.

This song is not about a crime of passion in the sense that crimes of passion are often conceived of and committed suddenly or over a relatively short period of time, while the perpetrator is awash in high emotion.  Here, the crime takes place after eight long years, over a period during which the facts slowly eat away at whatever fantasy the narrator brought to his relationship with his wife.

In addition, causation is addressed.  There are issues of repeated abandonments and issues of repeated infidelity.  These, however, seem to have no effect on the narrator’s commitment to and possible idealization of his marriage and of his wife.  The narrator’s long suffering before taking action is in sharp contrast to the simple, straight forward, sometimes impetuous, sometimes coldly pre-planned, sometimes madly undertaken and sometimes casually perpetrated murders of traditional murder ballads.

There is no concern about family honor, about how it looks that each of the murderer’s children resembles a friend of his.  These facts in and of themselves don’t impel the murderer to act.  One can’t help but ask:  Why not after the first child?  Or the second?  Was he waiting for her to produce a basketball team, but ran out of patience?  Friends?

We don’t know the exact circumstances of the murder, but we know that even in death the narrator remains in relation to his wife.  He calls her “dear” and “my darlin’.” We know, too, that when he is going to be hanged, it is not expiation of guilt or enforcement of justice, temporal or divine, that he anticipates at his end, not terror he feels, but thankfulness.  He is thankful that he will be released from his unhealthy, what we might today call his pathological attachment to his late wife, a release the joy of which he believes no one would even understand—no one, that is, in another time and in another place than the time and place we occupy.

One of the more contemporary notions concerning death is the concept of soul death.  The next song I want to comment on was the second I composed in this series of murder ballads, and it concerns not physical death, but soul death.  It’s called Weeping Stone.

In this song, we have great deal of interiority.  The story is told by the “soul decedent,” who shows a great deal of self-knowledge, though not applied self-knowledge.  Rather, we have a character who is asking us to pity him, to lament with him the tragedy of his life.

The song opens with a contradiction, the statement that what is being referred to in the first line of the song is “nothing I would talk about” “to them that really know me.”  Yet, there is an eagerness, embodied in the song itself that, though obliquely, contradicts this unwillingness, limiting it only to an unwillingness to run this story by those who already know him.  A new listener is something else.

The self-awareness embedded in the song is evidenced by the narrator characterizing himself a “gosling,” saying that the woman mentioned in the song “imprinted” on his mind.  This instinctual characterization masks what we might on reflection call an unmanageable desire to do himself emotional harm.  He later calls himself “her acolyte,” telling us that he is, at least now, aware that he answered her call “without a thought to any price she’d make  [him] pay.”  This self awareness is balanced against a denial mechanism that allows him to dismiss what he knows, saying “I don’t know why fate so cruelly dealt me a hand that brought my spirit down so low.”  And we gain further insight into the character of the narrator when he says “At night I lie here, crying for release, afraid that even death won’t bring me any peace.”  We hardly believe that this man wants to die and be released; rather, what we see and must believe in is his obsession with his pain, the same masochistic thread in his personality that drew him and bound him to a woman who would not give him what he thought he wanted, but would perhaps with some certainty give him what he most deeply desired.

The next song on which I want to comment is called Sorry Tree.

Here again is a soul murder: not physical death, but the death of the spirit, the ego, a sense of self and self-worth.  In this song is a catalog of psychological ploys:  denial of how the Sorry Tree grew in that she wouldn’t allow herself to know how it grew, a denial not necessarily conscious so much as unconscious defense; sublimation in her picking up men who leave her in the morning able, finally, to cry.  For them?  Hard to believe she’d cry for strangers.  For herself?  She certainly has reason to do so.  And there is some compensation in her fantasies of how all the people she knows will look when she comes home, how their faces will fall—we can guess, in disappointment, in rejection, under the weight of abandonment, all of which characterize her—when she leaves.  The implication of feelings of shame and guilt in their hearts, feelings we could surmise she herself also has, is here, as is perhaps an irrational anger at them for not knowing of her plight, for not saving her.

But this “revenge,” her compensatory fantasy, like her sublimation and denial are “slippery as shadow,” not sufficient to alter her psychological landscape.  And is there any wonder, knowing what little the narrator of the song reveals about the family in which this young woman grew up:  a mother of wood who turned away in the presence of physical and sexual abuse when her husband, a father of iron, who tried to turn their young “girl to a woman and her back to bone.”

The song reveals a strong inner psychological logic, the kind of logic that leads reasonably to the song’s conclusion:  that “she’ll walk the night behind factory town.  Down in its dark light, she’ll run her heart to ground.  Then she’ll find her a young man and carry him home, so she can weep up side her bed in the morning when he’s gone.”

This is not a traditional paper to offer at a conference attended by psychoanalysts, psychotherapists, counselors and social workers.  At the conference, I said to the audience:  “So, in conclusion, I have to ask what you might well be asking yourself:  Why Not Your Daddy’s Murder Ballad?  Why this paper here and why now, at an IFPE conference?”

Let me answer that question with an analogy and two examples.  First the analogy:  imagine you are standing on the apron of an Olympic-sized swimming pool, the water just the right temperature, the air not too cool and the water stretching before you crystal clear in the sunlight filtering through large skylights set into the dome housing the pool.  At the far end, a figure appears—let’s call him Sigmund Freud—you can imagine him in his signature tweeds and waistcoat, with a cigar dangling from his lip or in a neon green speedo bathing suit, as the fancy takes you.  He carries something in his hand—an 8-ounce cup of red dye.  He walks to the edge of the pool and, holding his cup out over the crystalline water, pours the red dye into it.  He leaves.  Then another figure appears—let’s call this one Carl Gustav Jung—imagine him again as you will.  He walks to the edge of the pool, also holding a cup of red dye that he too pours into the still crystalline waters of the pool.  He’s followed by others, let’s call them Sandor Ferenzci, Erik Erikson, Hans Loewald, Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott, Ronald Fairbairn, Margaret Mahler, Hans Kohut, Otto Kernberg, Adam Phillips, Jessica Benjamin, Michael Eigen, Stephen Mitchell, and a host of others, last but not least, to your amazement, someone younger and svelter than you’d dare imagine in the bikini or speedo of your own devising, who looks remarkable like you—each and every one walking to the edge of the pool, pouring into it 8 ounces of red dye.  At some point the red dye ceases to fall into a crystal clear pool of water; rather, the water become suffused with color, becomes, even in its light currents, swirling swaths of light pink.  It’s in this water—this infusion of psychoanalysis into every aspect of our social and cultural lives—that you and I swim.

For my first example, I’ll choose Smile Train, an organization that sends doctors—plastic surgeons—around the world performing operations on children with cleft palates.  They do this not to promote a particular political agenda, not to promote a national or religious agenda, not for monetary gain—many of the operations performed are performed in countries where such services are either not available or financially unavailable to the population that Smile Train serves—a population that pays the Smile Train surgeons nothing, and not—generally anonymous as these doctors are:  you do occasionally see a picture of one in a fund-raising mailer—to become famous.  Smile Train exists, of course, to eliminate conditions that have a meaningful impact on the physical well-being of the children they work with, but—as all of us would readily understand—equally—if not more so, Smile Train exists to change for the better each child’s potential psycho-social experience in the world, put another way, each child’s self-image alone and in relation.

My second example is IFPE itself.  Here we are in Nashville, Tennessee, at the latest in a long history of conferences that have been devoted to exploring the impact of psychoanalysis on the broadest range of human experience.  Yes, there have been years in which the focus of the IFPE conference has been more centered on the history, the theories, and the mechanics of psychoanalysis, but, should we parcel out only the presentations made at the IFPE conferences that I have attended over the past ten years, laying those more psychoanalytically insular on a flat pan at one end of a scale, and on the other pan those that have addressed the broader implications of psychoanalysis in personal experience of self in the world alone and of self in relationship, in art, in music, in poetry, in theater, in film, in history, in politics, in religion and in cross-cultural awareness, to name some, but not all of the fields in which presentations have been rooted, we would see the pan stacked with insular presentations rise, not slowly, but with decisive speed.

And so, why Not Your Daddy’s Murder Ballad here and now?  Because when we stand up and look around at the world we inhabit, the world universally tinted with psychoanalysis, we always find that we stand with one foot firmly planted in the traditions of the past, no matter how far seeing we might be, and one foot solidly in the present, which, like the dye that was poured into the crystal waters of the pool in my earlier analogy, infuses its color into the future that awaits.

Audio Files:


Along with the universe of resources available to us all via Google, I will offer the four following additional sources for further reading about ballads:

Ballads by Topic: Ballads of 1798 Rebellion, Child Ballads, Murder Ballads, Robin Hood Ballads, Teenage Tragedy Songs, Vehicle Wreck Ballads, LLC Books, LLC, Memphis, Tennessee (

Henderson, T.H., The Ballad in Literature, BiblioLife, LLC (originally published by Cambridge:  at the University Press, 1912).

OLochlainn, Colm, Irish Street Ballads, Pan Books, Ltd., 1978.

Murder Ballads:  Hey Joe, Stan, Mack the Knife, the Twa Sisters, Cocaine Blues, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, Omie Wise, Frankie and Johnny, Books LLC, Memphis Tennessee (

Les Von Losberg has worked as a poet, songwriter, and artist for the past 45 years, and for the past 31 years as an estate, business and retirement planning specialist in the insurance industry.  He, along with Merle Molofsky, founded Poets Union, a grassroots arts organization that sponsored literary events and workshops from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s.  Together they founded Poets Union Press.  Les has published professional articles in many in-house publications and in newspapers, and his  poetry has been published both in small press magazines and in book form, including Granulated Sugar/Raw Cocaine (1974), Hexagram (with Pierre Boenig, Terry Hayes, Cortnie Lowe, Merle Molofsky and Lynne Reynolds, 1977), A Dangerous Life (a Hanged Man Edition, 1978), Making Sense of Foreign Currency (1982), Correspondences (with Gene Alexander, Paul Cooper, Merle Molofsky and Karen Morris, 2010), andThe Blind Inamorato and the Mute Inamorata and a companion volume The Mute Inamorata and the Blind Inamorato (with Gene Alexander, 2012).  Les has presented at a number of IFPE conferences.  His most recent presentation, “Not Your Daddy’s Murder Ballad,” in this issue of Other/Wise, is accompanied by links to four of his contemporary murder ballads around which the paper revolves.  The presentation Les gave at the IFPE 19th Annual Interdisciplinary Conference in 2008 in Boston focused on his art work, which has appeared at the Katonah Museum and will be exhibited in a group show at the Soho20 Gallery in New York City in January 2013.  A CD of Les’ murder ballads and other songs, with an accompanying book including an introduction to the work and the lyrics, will be forthcoming in 2013, along with additional collections of his poetry.  All of Les’ books are available either through Poets Union Press or on  He welcomes inquiries and comments on his work.

3 Responses to Not Your Daddy’s Murder Ballad

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