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Murder made beautiful? If it sounds morbid, consider the cultural significance of those stories, which—like ancient mythology—exist as a way to explain things we cannot or chose not to readily understand.

Greil Marcus and The Handsome Family meet at UNC 

Singing the murder ballad's praises

Read an excerpt from Greil Marcus' The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice

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click to enlarge Staring down the soul: The Handsome Family's Rennie and Brett Sparks - PHOTO BY WES NAMAN
  • Photo by Wes Naman
  • Staring down the soul: The Handsome Family's Rennie and Brett Sparks

"Pretty Polly" is a murder ballad about a woman with a ruthless mate who becomes her killer. In a genre full of tough personas, Polly's attacker has particularly icy arteries: He planned her gruesome death, even dug her grave. Then he did it.

The song happens to be a favorite of Rennie Sparks, one half of the Albuquerque, N.M., duo The Handsome Family. Sparks wrote about the song for The Rose and the Briar, an anthology on the American ballad edited by Greil Marcus, the cultural critic who will speak about murder ballads before the band plays UNC-Chapel Hill's Southern Folklife Center Friday. "It's sinister but very beautiful," Sparks says of Polly's tale. "I don't think I would like it as much if it were just sinister."

Murder made beautiful? If it sounds morbid, consider the cultural significance of those stories, which—like ancient mythology—exist as a way to explain things we cannot or chose not to readily understand.

"There is no American identity without a sense of portent and doom," writes Marcus in his new book, The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice. Though many murder ballads evolved from stories older than this country, their retelling and stateside transfigurations through the oral tradition carries a very American mark: "People continue to devote themselves to these songs as if they are mysteries that linger," Marcus elaborates by phone from New York. "But maybe if I get the song right, or if I find a new way to sing it, it will all become clear."

When Naomi "Omie" Wise wrote a letter to her mother in 1807, she described a hardscrabble life with her children. She'd met a man who she felt could change all of that, so she left Hyde County, N.C. He had another plan for her, as "The Ballad of Omie Wise" details: "Little Omie, Little Omie, I'll tell you my mind/ My mind is to kill you and leave you behind." She pleads with him, but he is steadfast. "He kissed her and hugged her, and he turned her around/ And pushed her in deep water where he knew she would drown."

What part of Wise's tale was real and what was fable? Marcus says we often assume murder ballads are mostly fable. "But they're reports on real events, and yet very, very quickly, somebody like Omie Wise—a real person who lived in Deep River, N.C., in 1807—becomes an abstracted figure that anybody can rewrite or remake or inhabit," he says. "The fact that she was real becomes forgotten. It's as if she was always a fictional character."

Even "Tom Dooley," the only murder ballad to be a No. 1 hit when the Kingston Trio recorded it in 1958, carried that feel of fiction by the time it became popular. Marcus points to the song's strange spoken intro and its vague references to those involved. When it was first recorded by North Carolinians in the '20s, says Marcus, it was recorded by people who knew the principals. "And yet it was performed as a mythical story."

When Sparks answers her phone at home in New Mexico, she first says she's "working on a cat." After a pregnant pause, she adds, "No, not a real cat," laughing. Sparks is painting. Her visual works often retain the same haunting qualities that The Handsome Family sews into song. Sparks digs into the supernatural side of things, and she perks up at elements of mystery, like the idea of a tale's teller searching for something primeval or dark. As a writer, she's a bona fide magic realist.

"Stories are very important, which is probably why I love these murder ballads, too," she says. "It's almost like you're talking about these real things and these powerful places where incredible things can happen."

For Sparks, the medieval alchemists were onto something that relates directly to murder ballads. "If you follow their recipes they don't make any sense, but they were trying to find the spirit in each element or the prime matter that unites everything." Likewise, these tales are as fluid as their teller wants them to be. Their quality is mercurial, magical even. Folk ballads are different things in different hands, and particular interpretations speak volumes about the interpreter. Perhaps an American Puritan influence stripped old-country ballads of their original intent, Sparks says: "Christianity lacks a belief in nature," she says, contrasting religion with alchemy. "It's as if we took these ballads from places like the British Isles that were originally about fertility and sex and turned them into murder ballads about death."

Marcus and Sparks, who met after he fell for The Handsome Family when they opened a Mekons show, share this appreciation for storytelling music, murder ballads among them. A celebration of such lore at one of the bastions of Southern Americana couldn't be more apropos, since there is something innately Southern about these ballads, no matter who is telling them or where they are from, Marcus says.

"They remain Southern in the sense of what W.J. Cash called in The Mind of the South 'a dimension of unreality in Southern life' that people really prize." The idea of unreal situations inhabits the South, especially in that otherness people think of when it comes to the pace of things. "Whether it has to do with weather, whether it has to do with many, many days of heat and humidity when things slow down and people think in a different manner, Cash was never sure."

But in this Southern landscape, "the idea of the ordinary world" isn't as authoritative as it is elsewhere. "This opens up into a whole realm of mysticism, where the evanescent and the unreal can seem as real and compelling as anything else."

Greil Marcus will speak on murder ballads at the Pleasants Assembly Room in Wilson Library at UNC-Chapel Hill Friday, Sept. 14, at 5:45 p.m. The Handsome Family will perform a set at 6:45 p.m., followed by a Q&A session with Marcus. The opening reception starts at 5 p.m. The event is free.


Excerpt from The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice by Greil Marcus

The Barking Dog

America is a place and a story, made up of exuberance and suspicion, crime and liberation, lynch mobs and escapes; its greatest testaments are made of portents and warnings, Biblical allusions that lose all their certainties in American air. "A dog, a dog," as David Lynch wrote in a song called "Pink Western Range," "barking like Robert Johnson."

The story of America as told from the beginning is one of self-invention and nationhood, and before and after the formal founding of the nation, the template, in its simplest, starkest terms, came in the voice of God from the Book of Amos, calling out to the Children of Israel: "You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities." From John Winthrop in 1630, with "A Modell of Christian Charity," describing the mission of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Company, to Abraham Lincoln in 1865, delivering his Second Inaugural Address, to Martin Luther King, Jr., ninety-eight years later, speaking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, America has told itself that story. Whether America has heard itself in these prophetic voices—voices that were raised to keep faith with the past, or with the future to which the past committed their present—is another question.

The Children of Israel made a covenant with God, to keep his commandments, obey his rules, and follow the path of righteousness; the covenant and nothing else made them a nation. The promises they made were not made to be broken; because one people and no other had made a covenant with God, the stakes were much higher. The promises were made to be betrayed, which meant that when one betrayed the promise, one betrayed God. In the Israel of Isaiah and Jeremiah, as the land fell into misery and sin, prophets stepped forward to speak in God's name, to warn the people that as in their covenant they had been promised God's greatest blessings, should they betray their covenant they would suffer the greatest torments; as they had offered themselves to his judgment, so they would be judged. America began as a reenactment of this drama, Amos's words echoing over Fitzgerald's phylogenetic American memory of "a fresh, green breast of the new world."

The Puritans carried the sense of themselves as God's people to America as they found it; that sense, armed, is what is called American exceptionalism. It recreates the nation as a voice of power and self-righteousness, speaking to itself in a message broadcast to the whole world. This is an original and fundamental part of American identity; there is no American identity without it, which is also to say there is no American identity without a sense of portent and doom. This is the other side of the story: the urge of the nation, in the shape of a certain kind of American hero, to pass judgment on itself. Israel had the comfort of knowing that should it betray its covenant, God would be the judge; in America, a covenant a few people once made with themselves, a covenant the past made with the future and that every present maintains with both the future and the past, passing that judgment on America is everyone's burden and liberation. It's what it means to be a citizen; all of citizenship, all taxes and freedoms, flows from that obligation. To be obliged to judge one's country is also to have the right to do it.

This story, once public and part of common discourse, something to fight over in flights of gorgeous rhetoric and blunt plain speech, has long since become spectral; it is now cryptic. To the degree that it is worth the telling, it is a story told more in art than in politics, even if it is at the heart of our politics—our ongoing struggle to define what the nation is and what it is for. In the nineteenth century, along with Melville and Hawthorne, Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass and Edgar Allan Poe, politicians and preachers asked if the country understood the nature of its covenant. They asked if the country understood the price that would be paid if the covenant were to be broken, or the price to be paid if the fact that the covenant had already been broken, a fact buried under generations of patriotic speeches and prayers, proved to be impossible to hide.

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