Within the history of the roots music that sprang up from the Appalachian Mountains during the last two centuries, the songs known as murder ballads have always been in the mix.
Most of these folk tales set to music were based on real events and were a way to spread the crazy stories of humans at their worst through the generations. In a sense, the murder ballads were the tabloids of their day.
Murder ballads are stories about sinister, hair-raising crimes based on love gone wrong, about tales of outlaws who wreaked havoc, ghostly retributions and deeds that led to public hangings and more.
On Oct. 17, Boone Saloon will host An Evening of Appalachian Murder Ballads. Put together by Kat Chaffin, the lineup for this night of creepy tales and true life blues will include an all-star cast of musicians featuring Chaffin, Lauren Hayworth, Earleine, Julie Chiles, Brooks Forsyth, Alex Golden, Handlebar Betty and Trevor McKenzie.
A perfect example of an old yet still popular murder ballad is the song “Tom Dooley,” which is based on a disputed murder that happened in Wilkes County in the 1860s by a man named Tom Dula.
After the end of the Civil War, former soldier Dula was romantically involved with two women at the same time, Laura Foster and Ann Melton, who were cousins. When the passion, jealousy and evil hit the fan, Foster was stabbed once with a very large knife in the chest, killing her right away. Her body was found in a shallow grave in a field after a member of the search party’s horse freaked out over a patch of unsettled dirt. Both of Foster’s legs were found to be broken after her demise.
Dula was arrested, but so was Melton after one of her handkerchiefs was found in Foster’s unmarked temporary grave. Eventually, Melton was acquitted and Dula took the fall. Yet moments before he was hanged by a rope, Dula said that he did not harm Foster, yet was guilty of great wrongdoings. Dula never testified against Melton, though many to this day believe it was she who did the deed. Melton was viewed at the time as having a hellhound on her trail, with the ability to manipulate people and do wickedness as only a witch could do.
While The Kingston Trio made famous a version of the song “Tom Dooley” in the 1950s, late local music hero Doc Watson recorded what many consider to be the best version of the musical tale. That is because Watson learned the melody and the lyrics from his grandmother. Her mother, Watson’s great-grandmother, knew the Dula family during the time of the murder. Because of that direct family connection, Watson knew many of the inside facts of the incident.
On the amazing 3-CD album “Doc Watson and David Holt – Legacy,” where the two musicians play music while telling the stories behind the songs, Watson talks of the gruesome event.
“It was generally believed that Tom Dula swore that he never harmed a hair on Laura’s head, and that Annie Melton stabbed the girl and Tom helped cover up the crime,” Watson said. “Annie Melton was in jail for a while. She made her brags that they would never put a rope around her pretty white neck. (My great grandmother was there) when Annie was dying and all of the women claimed they could hear something in the room like hot stones being thrown into real cold water and the flames of hell roaring and things like that. It was a scary time. Annie told the women that she knew something that would never get well, something she needed to tell them, but she was afraid to tell them. Before she died, she called her husband into the room and told him whatever it was. He never breathed it either, but he almost lost his mind.”
Other famous Appalachian murder ballads include “Pretty Polly,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “The Knoxville Girl,” “Banks of the Ohio” and more.
Trevor McKenzie is not only a well-known local musician, music teacher and festival contest judge, he is also a University Library Specialist at the Appalachian State University. As a professor in the archives department, McKenzie helps to preserve old Appalachian artifacts and more found in this region for the W. L. Eury Appalachian Collection, which is “a repository with more than 44,000 volumes of books, over 200 periodical subscriptions, 8,000 sound recordings, and 1,500 videos and DVDs related to the Southern uplands.”
The W. L. Eury Appalachian Collection is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. A big part of this local project known worldwide is its collection of Appalachian music, including murder ballads found decades ago. Many of the songs found in the Appalachian Mountains were notated by ASU History Professor I.G. Greer, a song catcher that was born in 1881 who did most of his work in the early 1900s.
McKenzie points out another murder song based on true events that happened in this part of western North Carolina called “The Ballad of Frankie Silver.” The short end of the story is that Frances Silver was the only woman hanged in Morganton after she chopped her husband up with an axe and attempted to burn his remains in her fireplace. This happened in the High Country by the Toe River in the frontier days of the 1830s.
“I believe that at this ballad concert, one of the performers has a family connection to Frankie Silvers,” McKenzie said. “There is even one version of the ballad that was supposedly written by somebody who heard Frankie speak on the gallows before she was hanged. They took down word-for-word what she was saying and paraphrased it into a ballad. It is pretty grim. A lot of these murder ballads are sort of fun and spooky in this day and age, but a lot of it was very real and painful for people in the past. There were some songs that were even banned in certain counties because if you sang them, you were apt to bring up a fist fight over whether the narrative it was telling was true or not.”
More information on An Evening of Murder Ballads can be found in our Nightlife Listings on page 17B.