13 July 2013

Music and Murder



by Elizabeth Zelvin

I was brought up on folk music, including the high lonesome murder ballads of the Appalachians: “Pretty Polly,” “Banks of the Ohio,” “Down by a Willow Garden.” All these tell basically the same story: a man murders a woman because she’s pregnant and he doesn’t want to marry her. Then there’s the great “Long Black Veil,” written in 1959 and performed by just about everyone, from Lefty Frizzell, Bill Monroe, and Johnny Cash to Bruce Springsteen and the Chieftains. In that one, the first-person narrator is hanged because his lover, his best friend’s wife, won’t speak up and give him an alibi. In fact, the song’s a paranormal: “She walks these hills in a long black veil/Visits my grave when the night winds wail.”

I didn’t discover country music until 1988, when the New Country was just getting started, although I discovered that many of the “folk songs” I’d heard in college were by country singers like Johnny Cash, such as “Folsom Prison”: “I killed a man in Reno just to see him die.” At the time, as an addictions treatment professional, I was more interested in alcoholism and codependency than I was in murder. And country music certainly had more than its share of stories about my area of expertise. Why do you think these guys went so far as to kill their girlfriends? They’d probably been drinking. And why did their girlfriends stay with violent men who got them pregnant and refused to marry them? Codependency, of course. They were hooked on love, the victims of addictive relationships.

I once gave a workshop at a professional addictions conference on alcoholism and codependency in country music. I had a great time making the tape. Some of the greatest country singers were alcoholics. Hank Williams, a legendary alcoholic, died of an overdose of pain medication at the age of 29. Keith Whitley was a rising star of the late 80s who got sober and then died of alcohol poisoning during a relapse. And loving a no-good man was a staple of cheatin’ songs, songs about women who loved alcoholics (“Whiskey, if you were a woman/I’d fight you and I’d win, you know I would”), and such classics as “Stand By Your Man.”

I talked about how drinking beer (rather than effete wine) was considered a virtue of the working-class culture hero in dozens of songs. I pointed out how dysfunctional some of the love situations in these songs were. “I Will Always Love You,” written by and a hit for Dolly Parton and then a megahit for Whitney Houston, was used for the soundtracks of two movies, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and The Bodyguard, in which lovers don’t live happily ever after. As a therapist, I assure you that if you don’t see somebody for thirty or forty years and have a modicum of emotional health, love passes. Then there’s Linda Ronstadt’s gorgeous “Long, Long Time,” in which there is no love affair, only unrequited mooning over a man who isn’t interested: “I’ve done everything I know to try and make you mine/And I think I’m gonna love you for a long, long time…I never drew one response from you…Living in the memory of a love that never was.” Does this woman need therapy or what?

When I listen one of the many “darling, please let me come home” songs that male country singers still write and perform, I always think, “There are three reasons she could have thrown him out: infidelity, alcoholism, or domestic violence.” When you read between the lines, his request doesn’t sound so reasonable or his declaration of love so sincere. Nowadays, there are many other ways than murder to deal with a failed relationship or an illegitimate child. And sometimes the woman turns the tables on the man, as in Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” in which an abused wife takes a burning-bed revenge. But underneath the surface, when they’re chirping about love, I can still see death.

I can even see a serial killer in an upbeat country song. Take Sara Evans’s “Suds in the Bucket.” It’s about an 18-year-old girl, and it’s sunny as a day in July. “She was in the backyard…when her prince pulled up - a white pickup truck…Well, he must have been a looker - smooth talkin' son of a gun/ For such a grounded girl - to just up and run/… you can't stop love/…She's got her pretty little bare feet hangin' out the window/ And they're headin' up to Vegas tonight/…She left the suds in the bucket and the clothes hangin’ out on the line.” It’s love at first sight, right? Does the image of those “pretty little bare feet” fill your heart with romance? Not me. Maybe it’s because I’m a mystery writer. Maybe it’s just me. But I don’t listen to that song any more, because every time I hear that line and think of that young woman going off with a stranger, I think of Ted Bundy, and I shudder.

16 comments:

Toe Hallock said...

Ms. Zelvin: Many of the performers and songs you bring up are "out there." Hope that makes sense. They did not hide their inner demons. Nor did they seem capable of conquering them. By the way, is it okay if I use the name Beth Zelvin in a mystery story I'm presently writing. Don't worry, she is very intelligent. And very attractive, of course. You can blame Mr. Floyd for such boldness on my part. Yours truly, Toe.

Fran Rizer said...

Liz, when I traveled with a bluegrass band, the lead singer would introduce songs with murder in them as "bluegrass love songs." You've done a great job with bringing country, including recent songs, into that concept. BTW, you've ruined "Suds in the Bucket" for me. Now when I hear it, Ted Bundy will be driving that truck. One I wish you'd addressed is the recent "Two Black Cadillacs."

Janice Law said...

Well, and then there's opera!
Good music makes a lot that doesn't bear examination, palatable.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Toe, honestly, I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that, since I don't know you or your work.

Eve Fisher said...

Oh, country music is full of murder ("Earl's gotta die"), alcohol (my least favorite country song ever: "let's get drunk and be somebody!"), infidelity. I remember "long black veil" - my parents had a lot of Johnny Cash and the complete Hank Williams. I don't think Hank ever killed people in his songs, but he wrote what is (to me) the saddest song ever: "Hear that lonesome whipporwill, He sounds too blue to cry; The midnight train is wailing low; I'm so lonesome I could die." Suicide coming up?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Eve, my least favorite country song ever is that Kenny Rogers one about the guy who doesn't believe in fighting until some guys gang-rape his wife. He shoots them down, so now he knows how to be a man and they all live happily ever after. NOT!

John Floyd said...

Eve, one of my favorites was BJ Thomas's version of "So Lonesome I Could Cry," a looong time ago. Better even, I thought, that Hank Williams's.

David Edgerley Gates said...

Interesting. A lot of country is about dysfunction, as is folk and the Blues, of course: women who should know better, men who abuse them, and obviously taken from life. (I always thought "Pretty Polly" would make a great cover for Neil Young and Crazy Horse, with a throbbing guitar line.) You get tired of the whining, men who want their womenfolk to take them back into the fold---pun intended---but it's hard not to be cheered by a song like "Earl Must Die."

Robert Lopresti said...

Good piece. Country music is not my thing, esp not modern. (Folksinger Utah Phillips: "The reason country music is so whiny is that their cowboy boots are too tight. If they switched to Birkenstocks they'd mellow right out.")

Two songs to recommend: "I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MahJcS5xC9w

and Fred Eaglesmith's "Alcohol and Pills" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JMuIXzZj7YY

I remember the old time band Uncle Earl performing in town and saying the concert had the highest death toll of any of their recent shows, referring to the killings in the songs, not the audience, fortunately.

Robert Lopresti said...

Good piece. Country music is not my thing, esp not modern. (Folksinger Utah Phillips: "The reason country music is so whiny is that their cowboy boots are too tight. If they switched to Birkenstocks they'd mellow right out.")

Two songs to recommend: "I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MahJcS5xC9w

and Fred Eaglesmith's "Alcohol and Pills" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JMuIXzZj7YY

I remember the old time band Uncle Earl performing in town and saying the concert had the highest death toll of any of their recent shows, referring to the killings in the songs, not the audience, fortunately.

Toe Hallock said...

Ms. Zelvin: Not to worry. Nothing of mine ever gets published anyway. Yours truly, Toe.

Bobbi Chukran, Author of Mysterious Stories & Award-Winning Playwright said...

Hi Elizabeth, Great post! I've been a fan of songs like "Long Black Veil" since I was young, and have always thought about the dark side of those types of songs. Now I'm going to go back and look at other songs with whole new eyeballs! LOL. Happy trails from Texas, bobbi c.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Rob, I like the acoustic side of country, the ballads that sound a lot like folk except that I think they're musically more interesting. I call my own music urban folk when I have to label it, but I've learned a lot from listening to country for the past 25 years (for example, how to write a bridge). And of course my lyrics say what I want them to say about whatever I want to talk about, not just "boy girl boy girl" as one of my mentors, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, once described the subject matter of commercial country.

Fran Rizer said...

Toe, I feel like I know you since you comment so often on Sleuthsayers. Some advice from someone who didn't start writing fiction until after retirement: Unless you're buried or cremated, it's not too late to write that story that gets published. Also, if you don't submit your material, you won't have to deal with rejection, but there won't be any acceptances either.
Good luck!

John Floyd said...

Toe, I agree with Fran. Keep reading, keep writing, and above all, submit those stories. One does NOT have to be well known to publish in national markets.

Anonymous said...

At first I enjoyed this but the more I read, the more I think you’re only half right. Country music is about hardship and loyalty and their contrasts. For example, Stand By Your Man doesn’t have anything to do with drinking and to my mind it doesn’t have to be about cheating. I’m sorry the rest of the world doesn’t get it, but there’s a reason it’s a classic. But maybe that’s because country music allows anyone to hear their own interpretation.