My debut young adult novel, Ghost Wood Song, kicks off with a murder. My main character Shady’s stepfather is killed, and Shady’s brother is arrested and jailed for the crime. Desperate to prove her brother’s innocence, Shady finds her family’s lost ghost-raising fiddle and learns to use it. She plans to call up her stepfather’s ghost so he can tell her what really happened to him. Of course, things don’t go so smoothly, and Shady is instead forced to confront her family’s dark history and consider her place in it.
Shady’s family history is steeped in more than darkness. It’s full of bluegrass and folk music. She turns to the music her daddy taught her, not just to raise ghosts but also to make sense of the devastating mess in which she’s found herself. One type of song in particular helps Shady to work through her family’s history of violence, betrayal and secrets: the murder ballad.
A murder ballad is a narrative song that details a real or fictional murder and its outcome, which is usually the killer being executed for their crimes. Occasionally, the songs end with the victim getting supernatural revenge. There are many excellent modern murder ballads, but the ones brought to Appalachia from England and Scotland are my favorites. These have become part of the rich and vibrant oral tradition of ballad singers, as well as being adapted by popular musicians, and they have nearly as many variations as they do singers.
As I wove murder ballads through Shady’s story, I found myself simultaneously attracted to and repelled by the genre. The murder ballad tradition is a fascinating treasure trove of the grisly, the gothic and the ghostly. Some I love for their eerie moodiness, some for their clever compositions and others for the tales they weave. Murder ballads always walk a thin line between romanticizing the murder and condemning the murderer for their crimes. Most murder ballads are about men murdering women, but my favorites feature women as the killers.
Just like a good gothic novel, murder ballads invite us into stories of jealousy, murder, revenge and grief. They give us glimpses of the darkness that lurks inside human hearts—perhaps even in our own hearts. These songs have endured because they appeal to our fascination with death and darkness, as well as to our deep desire for justice.
As Shady learns, we sing to the darkness to draw the secrets out. Only then can we face the past and write better endings for ourselves.
Here are my three favorite murder ballads, paired with some excellent YA novels that loosely reflect the themes and atmosphere of each song.
“Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight”
Performed by Sheila Kay Adams
“Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight” isn’t always categorized as a murder ballad, perhaps because of the clever twist at its end. In this 18th-century song, a knight offers to carry a rich girl to a country by the sea and marry her. But once they arrive, he decides to steal her fancy gown, murder her and throw her in the ocean, just like he did to six women before her. But shrewd Isabel tricks him and pushes him into the sea instead. The song ends with her bragging that “the seventh has drowned thee.”
I’ll admit that I laughed with delight the first time I heard this song. When you listen to a lot of murder ballads, you get tired of all the murdered women. I love that Isabel got the better of her killer and then rubbed it in his drowning face.
Pair with House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig
Erin A. Craig’s gothic fantasy goes very nicely with this salt-soaked tale. Its story features 12 sisters who die one by one in a manor by the sea, plus ghostly visions, silk gowns, shimmering slippers and a stranger with secrets. It’s got all the haunting loveliness of “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight,” not to mention a twist ending just as satisfying.
Performed by Sheila Kay Adams
My next favorite murderous tune is the Scottish ballad “Young Hunting,” which relates the story of a woman who, in a jealous rage, stabs her lover with a penknife and throws his body into a well. Later, a songbird reveals to the woman that her now dead lover had actually truly loved her. Angered, the woman tries to lure the truth-speaking songbird to the ground, but the clever bird knows she would kill it too and flies away.
Pair with The Things She’s Seen by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina
The song’s truth-speaking bird reminds me of The Things She’s Seen, a ghostly psychological thriller by Ambelin and Ezekial Kwaymullina. This short but power-packed novel about the unraveling of unspeakable crimes is told partly in prose and partly in poetry. Like “Young Hunting,” it is filled with blood and feathers and terrible truth.
“The Twa Sisters”
Performed by Crooked Still
“The Twa Sisters,” more recently known as “Wind and Rain,” is the murder ballad that features most prominently in my novel, Ghost Wood Song. This ballad has many variations, but its story typically goes like this: Two sisters fall in love with the same man. One sister drowns the other in jealousy, and when her body is found, her bones and hair are fashioned into a fiddle, but the instrument will only play one tune: “Oh, the dreadful wind and rain.” Spooky stuff, huh?
Pair with Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore
If the tale of “The Twa Sisters” appeals to you, you might also enjoy Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore, a magical realism novel about five cousins with strange and beautiful magical gifts who all fall in love with the same person. However, these girls have a bigger problem than jealousy: If they fall in love too deeply, their lover disappears. In this lush, gorgeously written story, the girls must delve deeply into the past and face their family’s secrets.
Author photo by Amelia J. Moore