Ballads From Beneath

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Face it- we all get a little freaked when we see the “based on a true story” tagline before the movie starts. It’s one thing to have an incredible movie of ghosts and demons and other scary folk, but once we know that somewhere, somehow, something happened… it gets a little intense. Add to that the uncomfortable sorrowful truths of old folk ballads- you got yourself a recipe for heavy spookiness. According to the varied histories of these traditional ballad songs, they were all based on truths. Perhaps even scarier, however, is the fact that history has changed and shaped them into new creations in full. It’s up to us to imagine what the original versions were like, in an eerie twisted game of telephone, gazing into the late past.

The really interesting thing about folk music as a whole is that its roots are so spread. You can trace one folk song back to a million different places. Classic folk music was written way before copyright laws, so everyone was pulling from each other. Plagiarism? Folk artists invented that. Folk has and always will be derivative. In this case, these old songs planted seeds for new renditions that wouldn’t be recorded until decades, sometimes centuries, later. Which gives them an ancient cult-y feeling, like decaying books that went unread, or the entire country of Ireland.

 

  • The Unquiet Grave

 

Ah, the dead lover. Get acquainted with this idea, folks, because it is basically this entire list. This is the first song on this list because it’s the warm up, the opening act if you will. It’s probably the oldest, though we can’t know for sure. Dated around 1400, so… creepy. The story goes like this: A sorrowful man loses his love, classic. He sits at the grave of his beloved and mourns, recounts old memories, pontificates poetically, the whole nine yards. Twist is this- his relentless mourning disturbs the woman’s peace, and she can never find eternal rest. If I was her- I’d be mad as hell. No pun intended. 

 

 

  • Fair Margaret and Sweet William 

 

This one is a real kicker, dramatic enough to make Sophocles jealous and romantic enough to fill Shakespeare with envy. Basically, a fair lass named Margaret finds her beloved betrothed to another gal and, her heart practically breaking as we speak, she dies instantly. That night she finds window in her caught-between-two-realms form, and once she finds the sucker, asks him if he loves his wife-to-be more than her. The eternal struggle. William, sweet as he was, says “No! No babe I love you more you gotta believe me,” or something along those lines. When morning time comes he goes to her home immediately to right his wrongs and marry her. What he finds, however, is her corpse. He dies instantly, similar case as hers, and the two are buried together.

 

 

  • Polly Vaughn- The Dillards

 

This whole circumstance is so stupid. Let explain. Little Polly goes out for a walk by the lake in the evening with an apron around her waist. She was betrothed to her true love, who, by coincidence, was hunting at the same time, in the same area. Her true love mistakes her as a swan and shoots her dead. Stupid. But the plot thickens, as he mourns over her dead bodybecause he is stupid, Polly’s ghost visits him. She cries, “Jimmy oh Jimmy you must have no fear;

Just tell them you were hunting when your trial day has come

And you won’t be convicted for what you have done.” Not sure what made her condone her own accidental murder so quickly, but at least she found peace. So the next day when the trial comes Polly Vaughn’s ghost appears from the afterlife to prove his “innocence.” Heard from the corpse’s mouth! So they let him go. Happy ending, but not really. Either way, it’s a funny story and it’s kinda an interesting angle, you know, being shot by your beloved. 

 

 

  • Caleb Meyer- Gillian Welch (trigger warning: sexual assault)

 

And into this century we leap! With the new age, iPhones, Gilmore Girls, you’d think there’d be some new developments in the bluegrass community, right? Ha, my friend, you don’t know bluegrass at all. Gillian Welch is an incredible songwriter and she gives us everything that bluegrass promises, poor people, alcohol, violence, killer guitar riffing, and the occasional murder in the backwoods. This tune in particular takes place on a lonesome night deep in the Appalachians. A woman is alone without her husband and the town is empty. The man next door is violently drunk and forces himself into the narrator’s home, and then onto her. She sends out a frantic prayer and god answers- with a beer bottle. She hits him with it and the blow kills him. I have no problem saying that this story left my mouth agape and gave me chills. I implore you all to give the song a listen, just the delivery itself will leave you breathless.

 

  • O Death- Ralph Stanley

 

Maybe it’s just me, but the idea of begging death for mercy gives me the heebie-jeebies. It was written in the 20s by a guy named Lloyd Chandler who was, you guessed it, from Appalachia. More recently, though, it was in an incredible movie called “Brother Where For Art Thou,” which put landed it in the public eye again. Just like all American folk songs, it’s dark. Lines like, “The children prayed, the preacher preached / Time and mercy is out of your reach” and “Death, I come to take the soul / Leave the body and leave it cold.” Chilling. This one may be creepiest because it’s lack of ghosts and ghouls and other cliches… it’s more Twilight Zone than anything. A direct confrontation of a man with the fear of death. 

 

 

  • Shankill Butchers- The Decemberists

 

This story hits very close to home for me, as the second generation Irishman I am. My grandad actually immigrated from Belfast about fifty years ago, which is exactly where this absolutely-no-doubt-about-it true story took place. 

If you know anything Irish history, or have gone to a pub once, you know that we’ve got quite a bone to pick with the British. In fact, the entire north side of the country belongs to them. There is a whole long unforgiving history of religious warfare and general hatred between the English Protestants and Irish Catholics, but the gist is- tension. This is where the song comes in. The Shankill Butchers were a street gang in the late seventies and the early eighties and they weren’t the kindest. They were Protestants and got their kicks from torturing and murdering the Catholics. They murdered over twenty people, and gruesomely. Why were they called the Shankill Butchers? So glad you asked! Shankill after a road in Belfast, and butchers after the way they sliced their victims throats with a butchers knife. Awesome! 

Anyway, the song is amazing and is guaranteed to freak you out.         

 

Those are just a couple of haunting tunes to make the season for you. Tales of truth or haunting oral tradition? You’ll have to answer that.