murder ballads and misogyny in country music

Old time country music. When someone asks, as someone inevitably does any time they interview us, what I find so attractive about the genre (besides the sound), it usually comes down to community. Old time country is music you played on your porch with your friends. Traditionals became traditionals because back in the day you had to learn it to hear it. With a common stock of traditionals, you could form an impromptu band with just about anyone, which was really important before recorded music made it something you could have anytime anywhere.  DIY or sit in silence mother fucker! And not only does old time country music invoke a strong tradition of DIY, but it is a genre that often celebrates nature and spending time outside—the pretty place you live, the blossom of a particular plant, the joys of fishing.  These are things that I like.

But the dark side of country is dark indeed.  There is racism and there is sexism and there are far too many songs about women being killed by men.  I can appreciate the darkness of a good murder ballad, but why are most murder ballads about men killing their ladies, often their lovers?  The majority of murder ballads come down to two main stock stories. One: lady loves dude, dude kills lady, dude regrets it because he is in jail.  Two: dude loves lady, lady doesn’t want to marry dude, dude kills lady, dude regrets it because he is in jail. Take a look at a few examples.  You don’t even have to listen to any of the songs I’ve listed below to get the idea.  I’ve summed up the story of each in a few sentences.

pretty polly

Girl says she wants to marry boy. Boy and girl go on a walk. Boy stabs girl to death.  Possibly because of some dubious past reputation.  (Slut! Slut! Cough.)

banks of the ohio

Girl won’t marry boy. Boy goes on walk with girl. Boy drowns girl and throws her body in the river.

down in the willow garden

Boy and girl go on walk. Boy stabs girl and throws her in the river. Boy cries. Poor poor boy. He really loved that girl.

delia’s gone

Boy goes to visit girl. Boy ties girl up and shoots her. Boy sure wishes he had married her instead.

knoxville girl

Boy meets girl. Boy and girl go for a walk. Boy beats girl. Boy throws girl in the river. Boy angry! Boy loved girl! Girl wouldn’t marry boy!

mattie groves

Girl marries boy. Girl cheats on boy. Boy kills girl and her lover boy.

darlin corey / dig a hole in a meadow

Girl plays banjo and brews whiskey. Girl corrupts men with her whiskey. Girl is killed.

I also found an entire play list of songs about men killing women here, which was quite disturbing to see on a screen. There are also other old time country standards about men killing women that I didn’t find good (or any) examples of on youtube, such as Tom Dooley and Little Sadie. And don’t forget Johnny Cash’s other killing-lady ballads: Cocaine Blues and Transfusion Blues, which are basically the same song.

is this misogyny?

Misogyny means a “hatred of women,” something that you can find manifesting in gender-based discrimination, violence, and objectification.  And yet, perhaps, here, the word is inaccurate in this context.  When you look at the stories told in many man-kills-women murder ballads, you’ll find that these dudes just love women so much that they need to off them in order to prevent anyone else from getting them.  Tough love!  Excuse me while I throw up in my mouth.

As author David Wong explains in this articulate article on how modern men are conditioned to hate women, our culture teaches men to think of themselves as being owed a pretty lady.  Because of this message, which is incredibly prevalent once you become aware of it, many men—men who have perhaps internalized this message without even realizing it—become very angry when they don’t get what they feel they have been promised.  “It’s why every Nice Guy is shocked to find that buying gifts for a girl and doing her favors won’t win him sex. It’s why we go to ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ as our default insults—we’re not mad that women enjoy sex. We’re mad that women are distributing to other people the sex that they owed us,” explains Wong.

The message in many of these songs is similar to what Wong describes: When men can’t have the toys that they want, and which they are pretty sure they are owed god damn it, they have to break the ladies so that nobody else can play with them (Knoxville Girl, Matty Groves, Banks of the Ohio).  In others, we just see men killing women for the hell of it (Delia’s Gone, Little Sadie), or because they have a “shady” reputation (Pretty Polly).  Or because they dared to cross over into the male domain of whiskey brewing and banjo picking (Darlin Corey).   Soooo, I would say the word misogyny applies without a doubt.

Though the majority of the men in these songs end up in jail, many remorseful, the fact that so many songs talk about men killing women is telling.  They reflect the culture we live in, and in reflecting it, perpetuate it.  These are catchy, fun songs.  People sing along, internalizing them, and playing a role in our acceptance of this sort of thing as status quo.  Were there fewer women killing men or were there just too few women in the genre at the time to write about it?  What about the ladies who kill dudes?  Why do they do it?

goodbye, earl

Girl marries boy.  Boy beats girl.  Girl poisons boys peas.

caleb meyer

Boy visits girl.  Boy tries to rape girl.  Girl kills boy with a broken bottle.

Both of these examples of lady-on-man murder ballads are incredibly disturbing, and as both are songs about women killing men we can say that the violence goes both ways.  Gunpowder and Lead by Miranda Lambert and Independence Day by Martina McBride also deal with similar story lines (though they cross firmly into pop country).  But take a closer look at the differences in motivation in the man-kills-lady versus the lady-kills-man songs.  The male murderers are killing women because the women won’t sleep with them or marry them or because they feel like it. The lady murderers are killing men because the men are beating them, raping them, and trying to kill them. There are exceptions (in Frankie and Johnny, for example, the lady kills her lover because he is cheating on her, a female version of Matty Groves), but by and large, you’ve got dudes killing women for the hell of it and ladies killing dudes in self defense.

Another difference in the songs about women killing men: all of the examples I was able to find were recorded in the last 25 years (Frankie and Johnny being the one exception again)—a correlation I can only assume corresponds to increasing gender equality and women’s rights. .  Goodbye Earl was written by Dennis Linde in the 1990s before being recorded by the Dixie Chicks in 1999.  Gillian Welch recorded Caleb Meyer in 1998.  Miranda Lambert’s Gunpowder and Lead came out in 2007 and Independence Day in 1993.  None of them truly even fit into the old time country genre—neither in sound nor in time period.  Though the number of country songs about men killing women is depressing, the fact that recent years have brought more female voices telling women’s stories is slightly heartening.  And for my next trick I will add one to their numbers.

4 Comments on “murder ballads and misogyny in country music

  1. As I was reading I was like, oh where’s the one about girl cheats on boy and he kills her lover, but you did include one of those. One of my favorite songs which I think is original? But am not sure is called Wanted Man ( is about seeing this girl in a bar getting molested, so he kills the guy who molests her and then gets killed in turn. My favorite line is “I killed him with my bare hands for the girl I loved that night.” Or possibly “now was it really worth I guess I’ll never know she’ll be drinking someone else’s rye when I’m six feet below.” It’s kind of an interesting twist. Plus its fun to sing.

    Anyway very interesting to think about. Lots of murder ballads about murdering your whole family because you don’t have enough food, as well.

  2. Very interesting…I listen to a lot of bluegrass and I have always wondered why there were so many songs of that nature. Also, why were they so random? I never understood the motivation and found it quite disturbing. Interesting post, thanks.

  3. Yikes. Scary stuff–and a great point about the difference in motivation between genders.

    I never have been much of a country music listener, but I remember vividly being 7 or 8 years old riding in the car with my dad and his brother when the Beatles song “Run for Your Life” came on the radio. I’d never heard it before. My dad and uncle were happily singing along, and I was listening to the words of this happy, bouncy tune and gradually realizing, wait a minute, this is a song about KILLING a girl just because she spent some time with another man?!! I had always loved the Beatles, but after that it took months for me to be able to hear their voices without feeling sick. I’ll gladly listen to that song now, but I still think it is really pretty twisted.

  4. Great post Nikki… and a really good point. This misogyny is deeply entrenched in our society.
    Wonder if you know of the song “A Stitch in Time” by English folk great Mike Waterson? It’s about a drunken wife-battering husband whose wife gets her own back by stitching him into the bed where he’s collapsed and beating him with a frying pan. Here’s Lucy Ward singing it:

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