Steven L. Jones: Murder Ballads

Nothing new from Mekons, but at least something new about them.

Steven L. Jones is the author of Murder Ballads, old and new

Mekons are featured in a really nice way in his book. There are three chapters about Mekons related songs: about Drone Operator, Trimdon Grange Explosion and Dora. While the subjects of the first two songs are quite clear it‘s the Dora chapter which is most interesting. It analyses how three women have been treated by men. Women who have a complicated psyche are treated by psychatrists and by the church with devastating results.

The intersting thing about the book is that it has several levels and in the best parts you experience how these levels are interwoven and dependend on one another.

Each chapter is about a song, about other songs, about the underlying facts, about the artists, about the effect a song might have and how these levels are in relation.

„Getting home alive“ deals with the fact that waitresses often have a dangerous situation each evening when they walk home. Why does the killer focus on waitresses, how‘s the relation to his future victim in the bar, how does this relation raise dominance fantasies? The waitresses situation maybe a special one but it mirrors murder ballads in general. The singer of the song (Hüsker Du‘s Grant Hart: Diane) is full of compassion, there is no hint of exploitation when he asks her: hey little girl, do you need a ride.

Steven L. Jones

 Hart experienced what seems almost enevitable with murder ballads: crowds sing along with the chorus, mistake the song for pro-rape and it all ends with the typical mysogyny, which is too often connected with murder ballads. Hart stopped performing „Diane“.

The book gives you surplus value to the simple collection of murder stories and their songs. No Knoxville Girl but songs about war, a murderer announcing his killing in a song, righteous outlaws, the Kennedy killing, drugs, tuberculosis and most surprising for me Goethe‘s Erlkönig. (I‘ve taught that in school for 40 years.) Some artists you might expect like Cash, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger or Louvin Brothers. But you get Sonic Youth, Smiths, Beach Boys and Clash as well. All in all it‘s 25 chapters with more than 100 songs.

Now if you want to read more about Diane or her killer – there‘s this book I am talking about. Same if you want to know what Tom Greenhalgh said about Dora or who the other strange angles are, just klick here.

Thanks for the pictures to Ken Bigger.

There was a book launch at the Hideout in Chicago on October 15. Watch Sally Timms and Jon Langford revisiting the Mekons’ “Dora”—a haunting ballad about a troubled woman inspired by a case of Sigmund Freud’s. With Martin Billheimer and John Szymanski.

Sally Timms and Jon Langford perform a biting “Drone Operator”—Langford’s song about mechanization and dehumanization in modern warfare. With Martin Billheimer and John Szymanski. Thanks to David Sameshima and Steven L. Jones for the clips.

Rachel Drew and John Szymanski: Percy’s song

And this is what Feralhouse says about him:

Murder Ballads Old & New: A Dark and Bloody Record is an exploration of an age-old topic? our human need to document the horrors of the world around us. The murder ballad, here expanded to include songs about traumatic loss in modern variants and multiple styles, including punk, post-punk, alt-country, and folk. The book is a graveyard stroll past tombs both well-kept and half-hidden. Murder Ballads Old & New excavates facts about killers, victims, and the folkloric storytellers who disseminated their tales in song.
Author Steven L. Jones focuses the tragic ballad as “an act of remembering and a soul-reckoning with the ineffable.” Songs examined range from obscure tunes from the founding days of the United States to familiar canonical songs learned in schoolrooms and honkytonks. Jones tackles each song in a manner that’s equal parts musicological, psychosocial, and genealogical as he uncovers stories that reveal larger contexts and maps the lineages of songs and themes, forebears, and ancestors.
Murder Ballads Old & New is a compelling delve into the perennial American fascination with True Crime. Includes archival and historical black & white images.
Steven L. Jones is an artist, writer, musician, and former instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Kentucky-born, the son of a choir director and violinist, he lives with his wife Catherine and dog Mojo in his adopted hometown, Chicago. A longtime writer for magazines and online journals, including the Woody Guthrie Foundation magazine “Sing Out.” Murder Ballads Old & New is his first book.

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