PlanetSlade's fourth book is out today. It collects all my Gallows Ballads and Bushranger Ballads essays into this volume, and added some bonus material. Sold at chaotic public hangings, these lurid songs described the condemned man’s crime and warned spectators not to follow his example. Many claimed to set out the killer’s own confession – his “last goodnight” – placing these verses atop their own blood-soaked account of exactly what he’d done. Celebrity hangings, like that of Frederick and Maria Manning in 1849, produced many rival ballad sheets and total sales of well over two million copies [more inside]
Bushranger ballads are home-grown 19th century Australian songs about that continent’s most notorious highwaymen. Bold and cheerful thieves like Jack Donohoe, Ben Hall and Ned Kelly are hailed as heroic underdogs down under, and their ballads still play a role in protest music there today. This essay discusses the songs’ Irish roots, the transportee convicts who spread them round Australia and the young performers keeping them alive today. It's a PlanetSlade Murder Ballads production (previously). [more inside]
I've mentioned The Gallows Ballads Project on Metafilter previously. These sheets were sold at public hangings in Victorian London, and each contains a set of verses describing the condemned man's crime and punishment. Now, I've made an hour-long radio documentary on the project, which London's Resonance FM put out as a Halloween Special last night. In the programme, I tell the true crime stories behind eight of the goriest ballad sheets I've collected and play some great new performances of these century-old songs by modern musicians like The Jetsonics, Pete Morton and Elsa "Bride of Frankenstein" Lanchester. I think you'll like it.
Many of the good folk here on Metafilter have enjoyed PlanetSlade.com's Murder Ballads essays in the past (previously: 1, 2, 3, 4). Now Soundcheck Books is publishing a collection of them, which contains two brand new exclusive essays (covering Poor Ellen Smith and Murder of the Lawson Family), plus a host of fresh musician interviews about songs already discussed on PlanetSlade. I hope you'll consider buying a copy (Amazon US / UK), but in the meantime, please feel free to enjoy its free "DVD Extras" section on PlanetSlade itself. There you'll find some out-takes from my new interviews with Billy Bragg, The Bad Seeds' Mick Harvey, Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family, Snakefarm's Anna Domino, Dave Alvin from The Blasters, Laura Cantrell, The Mekons' Jon Langford, Bob Shane from The Kingston Trio, Angela Correa and Ralph Stanley II. I've also included a couple of sidebar stories which got squeezed out of the book for reasons of space, including an introduction to the OTHER Charlie Lawson (who also murdered a member of his own family at Christmas time) and an account of my long-delayed trip to Tom Dula and Laura Foster's graves. Finally, you'll find some links to my own curated playlists for the book's eight songs. Please spread the word.
PlanetSlade's been writing about Murder Ballads for quite some time now (previously 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Now I've placed the site's first book-length offering on the Kindle store, where you'll find it at the link above. If by any chance you'd like to buy a copy, that would make me very happy. Robert Wilhelm at Murder By Gaslight called the book "very impressive", and the crime scene's local paper rated it "truly a fascinating read". British readers should go to this Amazon.co.uk page instead.
You may not know the song covered in PlanetSlade’s latest Murder Ballads essay, but I guarantee you’ll never forget the story behind it. On February 1, 1896, Pearl’s decapitated body was found in a Kentucky orchard. She was pregnant, and she’d been struggling when the killer began cutting off her head. That head has never been found, but we do know that the murderer carried it round Cincinnati’s bars with him. The police investigation which followed used a crucial clue from Pearl’s shoes and America’s first bugged cell. There was a thriving souvenir trade surrounding the case and lynch mobs roamed the streets. Two men – one of them Pearl’s lover – eventually hanged for the crime, which inspired a ballad still sung (and danced) today. Read all about it at the link above.
I've just completed a year-long project selecting, researching and writing about some of my favourite gallows ballads from the British Library's collection. These were the printed broadsheets knocked out overnight by jobbing hacks in London's Seven Dials slum and sold at the foot of the scaffold whenever there was a popular public hanging. Each entry in the menu linked above has the ballad's full lyrics, plus my own research on the real-life murder that inspired it and a scan of the original sheet itself. [more inside]
Since May 2009, PlanetSlade has been bringing you the true stories behind classic murder ballads like Stagger Lee, Knoxville Girl and Hattie Carroll. The site’s latest essay details my efforts to write a fresh set of lyrics in this old tradition, describing a real 2004 murder near my home in North London. The victim was a young Somali prostitute, picked up by her killer while working the streets around King’s Cross. Her death was barely reported at the time, which is one reason I decided to try and commemorate her in song. The folk singer Pete Morton liked my first set of lyrics enough to add some music and record them for me (free download here), and Iowa’s own Scott Riley shot some YouTube footage of himself performing my second version of the song – again, with his own music. PlanetSlade previously: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.