Ep. 45: Murder Ballads – Part 1


In today’s episode, we explore the twisting, gruesome world of Appalachian murder ballads. Jack, J.J., and special guest Marie, explain what identifies a murder ballad from other kinds of regional folk songs, then go into detail about the crimes behind the lyrics.

In Part 1 of 2, we cover the “sweetheart” murder ballads Pearl Bryan, Tom Dooley, and Delia’s Gone. Each song is based on a gory murder, and we’ll share all the facts that led to the creation of these famous tunes.


‘This Murder Done’: Misogyny, Femicide, and Modernity in 19th-Century Appalachian Murder Ballads” by Christina Ruth Hastie. University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Trace: Tennessee Research and Creative Exchange. August 2011.

The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad” by Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus. W. W. Norton & Company. 2005.

Why Is The ‘Murdered Girl’ So Popular” by Arthur Field. Midwest Folklore. Indiana University Press. Vol. 1, No. 2 (Summer, 1951), pp. 113-119.

‘Whackety Whack, Don’t Talk Back’: The Glorification of Violence Against Females and the Subjugation of Women in Nineteenth-Century Southern Folk Music” by C. Kirk Hutson. Journal of Women’s History. Vol. 8, No. 3 (Fall, 1996), pp. 114-142.

99 Years is Almost for Life: Punishment for Violent Crime in Bluegrass Music” by Kenneth D. Tunnel. The Journal of Popular Culture. Vol. 26, Issue 3. 5 March 2004.

Classic American Ballads: from Smithsonian Folkways” compiled and annotated by Jeff Place, Katie Ortiz, and Max Smith. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. 2015.

Searching for silenced voices in Appalachian music” by Deborah J. Thompson. GeoJournal. Vol. 65, No. 1/2, Geography & Music (2006), pp. 67-78

Cecil Sharp (1859-1924)” via Vaughn Williams Memorial Library. Includes links to his diaries and more primary sources.

Pearl Bryan

Tom Dooley

Delia‘s Gone

Note: the trial transcripts which we reference are reproduced and available in the book The Rose & The Briar by Wilentz and Marcus, linked above. A suitable excerpt is available online here.


Music used in this podcast:

Egg Drum by Germanager


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