Episode 18: Music & Mortality: Murder Ballads with The Couldn't Be Happiers
On today’s episode, we’re continuing the series on music and mortality with a little bit of a twist. I’ll be talking to my friends Jodi Hildebran and Jordan Crosby Lee about the music that they compose and perform together as the Couldn’t Be Happiers. Jordan and Jodi will play several songs for us, including a couple that fall into the genre of traditional American music known as the murder ballad.
Now when most of us think of a ballad we think of a slow, romantic song. But really, a ballad is a folksong that tells a story. Many ballads recognizable to modern listeners came to America with settlers from Ireland, England, and Scotland and have been adapted and modified over the years. There are some ballads with documented lyrics going back to the 1200s. The ballad “The Death of Queen Jane” is about Jane Seymour, the third wife of King Henry VIII and the mother of King Edward VI of England. Other ballads were written on this side of the Atlantic, primarily in the Appalachian region of the United States. These ballads are the foundation of several musical genres in the United States, including folk music, country music, and Americana music.
Music scholars and historians began studying the ballad in the late nineteenth century. One of my favorite movies, Songcatcher, stars Janet McTeer as a musicologist who goes into the mountains and records people performing ballads, some of which she recognizes as old English songs. The soundtrack includes traditional ballads including Barbara Allen, Wayfaring Stranger, The Cuckoo Bird, Conversation with Death, and Wind and Rain.
One of the subgenres of the ballad is the murder ballad. One ballad scholar observed that because murder ballads were often based on local events, they tended to be of fleeting popularity. One notable exception is “Pretty Polly” which is derived from an English ballad known as “The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter.” Modern artists are still writing and recording murder ballads. For example, “I Killed Sally’s Lover” by The Avett Brothers is clearly a murder ballad.
Jodi and Jordan, who perform as the Couldn’t Be Happiers, are based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. You can find out more about their music on the website, www.couldn’tbehappiers.com and I’ll include a link in the shownotes.