A law professor explores the real-life events behind old American murder ballads.
Underwood (co-author: Kentucky Evidence Courtroom Manual, 2016, etc.) delves into court records, newspaper accounts, and other primary sources to find the facts underlying popular songs about grisly murders and crimes in the South in the 1800s and early 1900s. Most readers will be unfamiliar with many of these ballads, although a few, such as “Frankie and Johnnie” and “Tom Dula” (aka “Tom Dooley”), are still well-known due to having inspired later musicians such as Bob Dylan and the Kingston Trio. Underwood explores several genres, including the “ ‘murdered girl’ ballad”—often about a man drowning his female lover—as well as songs in which women kill men for revenge, whole families are slaughtered, or bystanders lose their lives. In addition to tracing the history behind each song, Underwood comments on the actual cases’ legal aspects, such as hearsay, circumstantial evidence, or the “ ‘SODI’ defense”—short for “some other dude did it.” In all, he draws a macabre historical portrait of America, its sensationalist press, and its frequent miscarriages of justice, suggesting that things haven’t changed all that much in the modern era. The book includes each of the songs’ original lyrics along with a rich lode of grainy images and references to further readings and recordings. Overall, Underwood has written a delightful book about a gruesome subject. Even when he delves into the cases and their legal issues, he employs a light touch, sprinkling his accounts with humor: “Oh hell, don’t bother with him; he ain’t nothing but a lawyer,” one defendant advises. Besides providing a revealing look at the quirky history of U.S. criminal law, the book also serves as a testament to the sheer weirdness of American culture; in one ballad, for instance, the murder of a family in Missouri is set to the sweet, sentimental tune of “Home Sweet Home.” Underwood does have an unfortunate tendency to assert that certain topics are “interesting”—a judgment best left to readers—but such lapses are rare.
A sometimes-sad, sometimes-humorous look at ballads that have preserved a part of America’s crazed, violent history.