The 10 Best Murder Ballads

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If you’ve never been into country, folk, or any other kind of American roots music before, consider this a good (and slightly odd) place to start. Non-country fans might associate words like “corny” and “hokey” with the state of popular modern country music, but these types of generalizations are grossly ignoring the fact that country and folk can get really badass.

Murder ballads have been around for a long, long time as a traditional form of poetry that exists to tell the story of a murder. First found in Europe a few hundred years ago, these poems and songs have since become heavily associated with traditional American music from the South. In modern music, murder ballads are a mainstay in country and folk, although the form has been played to not always fit the traditional ballad structure. It’s given rise to a subgenre of original songwriting, covers and reinterpretations, and if you’ve listened to enough Johnny Cash or Leadbelly (on Kurt Cobain’s recommendation), you should know at least few murder ballads well.

These are all murder stories. They’re interesting, brutal and sad, each in their own way; what more can you ask for in narrative music? Check out our picks for the 10 Best Murder Ballads below.

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  • harrison

    check out molly ban by allison krauss it’s a beautiful song

  • franko sinatra

    i think you got it wrong with the johnny cash song, i think cocaine blues or folsom prison blues would be better for a murder ballad. though i dont really think it would be consider a ballad? but neither is hey joe, now is it.

  • mtume

    dam no stack a lee??

  • CP

    i shot the sheriff??? hahah

  • Olaf

    How is Nick Cave not on there. Any song from the album Murder Ballads. Too much Johnny Cash people. Do your research.

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  • Leroy

    Westfall by Okkervil River is also a great song about murder

  • od

    bohemian rhapsody?

  • Chris

    The Decemberists have a song called “The Rake’s Song” that is about a man in an unhappy marriage. The wife then dies leaving him with their three kids. He longs for his freedom so he details the murders of all three and is finally a bachelor again. It’s some crazy stuff written by a guy who literally was married right before making the album haha. It’s a fantastic song though.

  • Confusion

    Rake’s Song is great. Almost made it on this list.

  • The Oddity

    Nick Cave’s cover of “Knoxville Girl” should be Top 3. Also, Long Black Veil should be the Lefty Frizzell version. Come on, guys!

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  • Jut

    Might I suggest Knoxville Girl by the Country Gentlemen? little bluegrass song…kind of disturbing

  • gaggles

    err.. nick Cave. His album is called Murder Ballads and it’s full of great traditional based songs. Country Death song by the Violent Femmes is plain scary and Pentangle’s Cruel Sister is a classic. Down by the River by Neil Young is another great example by a popular artist

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