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Band/Artist Profile Classic Album Review

Artist Spotlight: Zulu

I love heavy music. And as someone who is far from a genre purist, I love heavy music that experiments with the “hardcore” label. Music that challenges what hardcore can be is extremely special to me.

I’ve talked about bands that subvert the archetype of “hardcore” before. In November of 2023, I covered Agabas, a band that blends the chaos of metal with jazz.

This week, I’m covering a band that not only fuses genres, but is doing groundbreaking work to elevate the Black community in the hardcore scene.

The Future of Hardcore

Zulu is a black-fronted hardcore punk band from Los Angeles. Formed by multi-instrumentalist Anaiah Lei, the band takes a leaf out of the powerviolence playbook, presenting a raw and aggressive distillation of hardcore punk.

What makes Zulu different from other hardcore acts, however, are the samples of funk, soul, reggae and spoken word woven into their music.

Cover for “Our Day Will Come” by Zulu

For example, the track “For Sista Humphrey” features a heavy guitar-drum duo and guttural vocals before abruptly transitioning into a soft soul melody. In “52 Fatal Strikes,” rage gives way to serenity as a brief classical instrumental jumps in.

While the contrast sounds jarring, it works.

By injecting black-pioneered genres into their music, Zulu imbues their sound with a distinct and unwavering identity. This is especially important when one considers that Zulu’s lyricism is all about elevating Blackness and empowering Black individuals.

You see tension, aggression

Only anger

I see peace

Community

Black joy is divinity

“Our Day is Now” – Zulu

However, as Lei said in an interview with Kerrang! in 2022, the band’s connection to Black culture shouldn’t stand as their only defining feature.

“…when it comes to bringing in a band where all of us are Black, that is an important thing but also people make it a lot bigger than it is,” Lei said. “I guess only because it’s not the norm, and that is what’s the issue. It should be very normal.”

Zulu’s central aim, according to Lei, is to experiment freely within the scene and create a space for others to do the same.

“The one thing I wanted to do with this project was be myself entirely,” Lei said.

Discography

Zulu released their first EP, “Our Day Will Come,” in 2019. The following year, they released “My People…Hold On.”

Both EPs feature a melange of rigorous hardcore interspersed with samples from speeches, spoken word, rap, soul music and other historically Black genres.

Zulu’s first full-length album, “A New Tomorrow,” came out in 2023. The album features several singles the band released in 2022 and early 2023.

Cover for “My People…Hold On” by Zulu

The album’s opening track, “Africa,” features a bright classical arrangement before the proceeding track, “For Sista Humphrey,” fades in with a hellish guitar and vocals. A similar pattern continues throughout the album, with hardcore tracks contrasted with peaceful, slow-moving melodies.

Thematically, this poses an interesting narrative. As the band’s lyricism suggests, this contrast illustrates the dual narratives surrounding Blackness: the imposition of an aggressive, violent nature versus the reality of peace, community and creativity.

I’m looking forward to seeing the direction of Zulu’s future projects and seeing them live, since I missed their last live show.

Recommended Tracks

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Music Education

Dub: The Genre That Built Goth

I’ve touched on the history of goth music on this platform before.

Considering the sheer volume of goth and goth-adjacent bands I cover on here, I think it’s safe to say that I’m fairly goth-focused. However, I’m far from an expert. When it comes to anything I’m passionate about, I consider myself perpetually learning and perpetually growing.

I’ve been long-familiar with the influence of punk music on the development of the goth subculture. Post-punk exists a staple of goth music (and my top genre of 2023).

Photo by blocks on Unsplash

What I wasn’t aware of, however, was the influence of black culture on early goth music. Once goth began to branch out from its deathrock roots, artists drew from numerous inspirations.

Among them, and arguably among the most important to the scene, was a genre I wasn’t even aware of until I started my research. This genre was not only important, but quite literally spearheaded the production of one of the most iconic goth songs of all time.

What is Dub?

Dub emerged from the reggae scene in the late ’60s and early ’70s. In its earliest iterations, dub tracks were simply instrumental versions of reggae songs.

According to an article by MasterClass, artists would strip a track — usually of the reggae, ska and rocksteady genres — of its leading vocals and highlight bass and drums, occasionally mixing in their own sound effects.

The “first” dub track was created in 1968 when the engineer for Treasure Isle studio accidentally pressed a copy of “On the Beach” by the Paragons without the accompanying vocal track. The mistake was a hit among Jamaican DJs, who improvisationally rapped (a practice called toasting) over the instrumentals.

Cover for “On the Beach” by The Paragons

Jamaican audio engineer Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock, roused by the track’s unexpected success, took to his mixing desk to experiment. Ruddock’s influence was instrumental in the growth of dub’s popularity and its spread overseas.

None of this would have been possible if not for the advent of multitrack recording, which allowed artists to strip down tracks in the first place. Other technological advancements in the recording industry would later prove instrumental in the development of the genre.

Cover of “Escape to the Asylum of Dub” by Mad Professor

In the 1980s, a dub scene emerged in the United Kingdom with artists such as Mad Professor, Scientist, Jah Shaka, Adrian Sherwood, UB40 and Mikey Dread, who inspired acts like the Clash and the Police.

This influence can be seen among tracks like “Police & Thieves” and “So Lonely.”

During this time, electronic elements also made their way into the scene, leading to subgenres like dubstep and dub techno. Contemporary dub is considered an electronic genre as a result, often played in clubs and dance halls.

What’s that got to do with goth music?

The list of genres influenced by dub is multitudinous, featuring rock, post-punk, pop, hip-hop, house, techno, edm and many others.

If you’ve made it this far, you might be thinking: oh, dub influenced the goth scene through its relationship to post-punk. And while you wouldn’t be wrong, there’s an even more overt example of dub’s impact on the goth scene.

Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” the debut single of Bauhaus, is widely considered to be the first gothic rock record. Released on Aug. 6, 1979, the 9-minute track served as a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the late Bela Lugosi, star of the 1931 film “Dracula.”

Cover for “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus

According to bassist David J in a 2018 interview with Post-Punk.com, dub and reggae were major influences in the song’s production.

“I mean, basically Bela was our interpretation of dub,” J said.

The sprawling instrumental beats and deep, preternatural bass of the song’s first half certainly echo dub’s style.

“It’s all very intuited,” frontman Peter Murphy said in a 2019 interview with Kerrang! magazine. “Very dub.”

Additional Reading

For some more info on reggae, check out “Chef’s Quick Bite of Reggae.”

For some additional reading on dub, check out “The Roots of Dub” by Kirt Degiorgio.

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Band/Artist Profile Classic Album Review

5 Amazing Goth Bands with BIack Representation

The goth scene has a diversity problem. Most alternative music scenes, if I’m being honest, have a diversity problem.

While the contemporary state of the alternative scene is certainly facilitating some much-needed change, it’s important to recognize that people of color — specifically, black people — have always been part of the scene, and always will.

Here are five awesome goth bands that feature black musicians, proving that despite popular assumption, goth isn’t white.

Scary Black

A beloved artist of mine and one who I’ve spun on-air several times before, Scary Black is orchestrated by the brilliant mind of Albie Mason, a purveyor of “introverted darkwave.”

Based in Louisville, Kentucky, Scary Black redefines the term “southern gothic.”

Cover for “Live at Fascination Street” by Scary Black

With corpse-cold melodies, vampiric lyrics and a cultivated air of foreboding, each track is goosebump-inducing in the best way.

Scary Black’s debut album, “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” features some of my favorite songs, such as “I Will Crawl Inside Your Heart and Die.”

The Ire

If you like music with screamier vocals, The Ire may be for you.

Based in Philadelphia, The Ire draws inspiration from 80’s post-punk and infuses the style with deathrock dramaticism.

Cover for “Bacchic Dance” by The Ire

Their first demo album, “Demo,” came out in 2019. From then on, their command of style only refined itself, leading to their most recent album, “Bacchic Dance,” which came out Feb 2, 2024.

Light Asylum

I remember dancing to “Dark Allies” at the Wicked Witch back in 2023. The energy was electrifying, the air gauzy with fluttering shawls and swaying arms and swooshing leather.

Light Asylum is the Brooklyn-based solo project of Shannon Funchess, founded first as a duo in 2007 until keyboardist Bruno Coviello left in 2012.

Cover for “Light Asylum” by Light Asylum

Light Asylum’s music is powerful and inspired, with Funchess’s vocals fueling the project’s international appeal. With an 80’s-inspired sound, Light Asylum’s influences extend from Depeche Mode to the industrial clang of Nine Inch Nails.

She Wants Revenge

At this point, I’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the alternative scene who hasn’t heard of She Wants Revenge.

Their iconic “Tear You Apart” defined my adolescence.

Based in San Fernando Valley, California, She Wants Revenge presents a stilted and charmingly blunt take on post-punk and darkwave.

Cover for “She Wants Revenge” by She Wants Revenge

Consisting of Justin Warfield and Adam Bravin, the band emerged in 2006 after being scouted by none other than Fred Durst, every twenty-something-year-old teenage girl’s favorite man.

And the rest is history.

Shadow Age

Putting the dark back in darkwave, Shadow Age’s music is cold and diffused through fog.

Based in Richmond, Virginia, Shadow Age released their first demo in 2013. Two years later their first EP, “Silaluk,” hit the airwaves.

The album has a beautifully esoteric sound and a distant, hazy vocal quality that conjures images of blanched, glacial landscapes.

Cover for “Silaluk” by Shadow Age

The band’s 2017 album “The Fall” is comparatively warmer, though still with a lo-fi distortion.

Their most recent release, the single “Ours,” takes the band’s sound in an interesting new direction with stronger electronic and indie influences.

Final Thoughts

People of color have always influenced the alternative music scene, and for much of musical history, their impact has been ignored.

Lending recognition to the numerous artists who continue to operate in the scene is integral to building a more inclusive and representative space.

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Band/Artist Profile

Artist Spotlight: O. Children and Tobi O’Kandi

It’s February, which always proves to be an…enigmatic…time of year.

Positioned right in the center between the start of winter and the beginning of spring, February is a time of anticipation, yearning and rumination. Valentine’s day — and midterms — loom on the horizon.

However, beyond these trivialities, February is also a time of remebrance. Black History Month, a time dedicated to honoring black excellence and elevating black voices.

Photo by neil godding on Unsplash

The alternative music scene is, to put it plainly, quite white. While artists of color certainly exist, they often don’t receive the recognition or platforms they deserve.

My goal this month is to shine a light upon black influence in the alternative music scene and use this platform to explore the stories of several black artists.

Today, we’ll be focusing on Tobi O’Kandi of the goth rock band O. Children.

Bono Must Die

Before solidifying himself as the lead of O. Children, Tobi O’Kandi was the frontman of a controversial band, one I’d never heard of until I started doing research for this post.

Bono Must Die, as O’Kandi stated in an interview with Soundsphere back in 2010, was largely a joke.

Cover for “O. Children” by O. Children

Affecting a Cockney accent and singing satire about Satanism, money, sex and night buses, O’Kandi and his crew grew a following significant enough that the band toured twice alongside Florence + The Machine, Crystal Castles and numerous other topsters. 

One lawsuit (from U2’s Bono himself) and a name change later, Bono Must Die finally died. After three years of activity, O’Kandi was bored. He wanted to try his hand at forming a “proper” band.

O. Children

O. Children, named after the Nick Cave song, formed in 2008. Consisting of O’Kandi, Andi Sleath, Gauthier Ajarrista and Harry James, O. Children drew inspiration from pivotal bands of the 80’s.

The band cites Joy Division, the Sisters of Mercy, Fields of the Nephilim and — of course — Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds as their primary stylistic influences.

The band’s reverence for Cave didn’t end simply with their name. As they stated in an interview with Loud and Quiet back in 2009, their goal wasn’t simply to emulate, but to embody.

“We’re gonna be the guys that take over Nick Cave and dance on his grave, his Children. O. Children,” O’Kandi said.

Cover for “Apnea” by O. Children

When discussing his aims for the band, he stated, “We want to work on something we feel we can give our heart and soul to and it turns out it’s this. What we’re saying is that in two months… we’re going to blow you away.”

In 2010, O. Children released their self-titled debut album, which features some of their most iconic tracks, such as “Dead Disco Dancer” and “Ruins.”

With clear elements of gothic rock, post-punk and a dash of pop, the band’s energy is melancholy but riveting. Full of motion and emotion and emulating the borderline-western-borderline-opera style of Nick Cave, the album is beautifully done.

There’s an interesting parallel between the works of Nick Cave and O’Kandi. Both artists started with an experimental, distorted sound — Cave with The Birthday Party and O’Kandi with Bono Must Die — before transitioning to something smoother and more restrained.

O. Children released its sophomore album, “Apnea,” in 2012, followed by three singles, “PT Cruiser,” “Chimera,” and “Yours For You.

Okandi

After O. Children eventually ceased its activity, O’Kandi was left desiring another creative outlet. In 2019, he launched his solo project, Okandi, with the release of “Devil I Know.”

Cover for “God Save The Fake” by O. Children

Since, he’s released three more singles. The most recent, “God Save The Fake,” came out in 2022.

Okandi’s sound is more experimental than O. Children’s, foregoing the former band’s rocking style for a staunch darkwave/electro slant.

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Concert Preview

Concert Preview: Blonde Redhead

Alternative rock band Blonde Redhead is coming to North Carolina this month. The beloved three-piece band will perform at Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw Feb 21.

Named after the third track on DNA’s 1981 album “A Taste of DNA,” Blonde Redhead formed in 1993 when Kazu Makino met twins Amedeo and Simone Pace in New York City.

The band’s first album, “Blonde Redhead,” debuted in 1995. My introduction to the band came from this album, namely the track “Girl Boy.

The track Illustrates a vivid and sensory dichotomy between femininity and masculinity, furthered only by Makino’s beautiful — and heartwrenching — vocals.

Cover for “Sit Down for Dinner” by Blonde Redhead

Following “Blonde Redhead,” the band produced nine more albums. The most recent: “Sit Down for Dinner,” released Sept 2023.

The album is solid. It’s smooth, subtly romantic and interesting. While there was a clear “vibe” pervading throughout the album, each track had a distinct enough sound to maintain my attention.

Some of my favorite tracks from the album include “Kiss Her Kiss Her,” “I Thought You Should Know,” and “Via Savona.”

While there (probably) won’t be any moshing at this show, it’s en excellent opportunity to unwind and lose yourself in beautiful, emotional music at a gorgeous venue.

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Music Education

The Metal Minute: Progressive Metal

Welcome to the second installation of The Metal Minute. If you’re new to this series, I’m taking on the (impossible? delusional? moronic?) task of defining as many metal subgenres as I can.

Last time, I covered the basics of folk metal. This week, I’m shifting focus onto one of my personal favorite metal subgenres: prog.

Progressive Metal: The Foundation

To understand progressive metal, it’s important to first understand progressive rock. 

Prog rock blossomed in the late 60’s and early 70’s as a way to imbue rock with “artistic” sensibilities, thus “elevating” the craft. Pretentious British intellectualism aside, the genre served as a platform for artists to subvert and ape the “archetypal” structure of rock.

Cover for “Gentle Giant” by Gentle Giant

Groups played with musical structure, tempo, timbre and instrumentation. They also incorporated experimental, classical, jazz, folk and psychedelic influences. Irregularity, complexity and melody defined the genre, paving the way for some truly amazing art.

Progressive rock bands I personally enjoy include King Crimson, Porcupine Tree and Gentle Giant. 

The Fusion

Many sources state that progressive metal emerged in the late 80’s. What’s important to note here is the word “emerged.”

It would be inaccurate to claim that the genre “began” at a specific point in time, because prior to progressive metal’s “solidification,” the worlds of metal and prog rock had already melded several times.

In Jeff Wagner’s “Mean Deviation,” he mentions the influence of King Crimson’s 1974 album “Red,” which frontman Robert Fripp himself considered “a beautiful piece of heavy metal.”

Other groups like Led Zeppelin, Rush and Deep Purple experimented with sounds that could also be considered proto-progressive metal.

Cover for “The Verdict” by Queensrÿche

Music under the official title of “progressive metal” was spearheaded by bands like Queensrÿche, who fused the cerebral style of progressive rock with the characteristic aggression and heft of metal.

Though largely relegated to the realm of the underground well into the 90’s, progressive metal — like the genres that produced it — metamorphozed into a many-headed beast.

Rules and standards were continually established and surpassed as artists discovered new inspirations, furthered their experimentation and diverged from their peers.

As a result, it’s honestly kind of hard to lay out a concrete definition of progressive metal. But in this instance, is something concrete really necessary?

In the words of Wagner:

One thing prog metal certainly is, is metal. Hard and bold and brash, but refined, adulterated, and mutated; it is heavy metal taken somewhere illuminating and sometimes bizarre.

Jeff Wagner, “Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal,” pg. 19.

Progressive Metal Today

Today, the first band most people imagine when thinking of progressive metal is TOOL.

Formed in 1990, TOOL is lauded for its stylistic complexity. The band’s discography features uncommon time signatures, experimental sound and tonal effects, occultist themes and meticulous composition.

The band’s song “Lateralus” was so influential that it has its own Wikipedia page.

Cover for “Lateralus” by TOOL

Other prominent prog metal bands are Opeth, Soen, Polyphia, Dream Theater and many others.

Songs by these artists are entrancing and multifaceted, often with several “acts” and incorporating styles from jazz, folk, psychedelic and many others.

If you’re hesitant about diving headfirst into the metal scene, prog might be a good place to start.

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Classic Album Review

“Small Grey Man” by Uranium Club

One of my favorite weird bands is coming out with another weird album.

The Minneapolis Uranium Club, known also as simply Uranium Club, are a four-piece band operating out of Minneapolis.

Most of Uranium Club’s songs sound like if someone gave a gnome a journal and then introduced it to existential angst and avant garde film.

Distinctly DEVO-esque, this (egg punk?) band defines itself by an eclectic, twangy style that straddles the line between new wave and punk.

The band got their start in 2016 with their first album, an originally cassette-only release titled “Human Exploration.”

Cover for “Human Exploration” by Uranium Club

It’s a great album. The tracks are jaunty and entrancing and the lyrics are weird, abstract and occasionally pretentious (though decidedly self-aware). It’s the kind of music best suited for late-night basement shows or long, manic drives.

The band’s recent announcement of their upcoming fifth album, as well as the release of the album’s first track, tacks on another element of excitement and intrigue.

“Infants Under the Bulb”

The band’s upcoming album, “Infants Under the Bulb,” will hit the airwaves on March 1.

According to the band, the album “…opens up the history books of unsolved mysteries – unidentified, unsolved, unanswered subjects of suspicious acts or individuals across the last century” to ask the questions “Who, what, when and where… but mostly, why?”

The band references several unsolved cases, such as the mysterious deaths of the Somerton Man and Peter Bergmann (content warning: postmortem photos) as well as the strange circumstances of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a man who wrote an entire manuscript while experiencing locked-in syndrome.

Details from these cases, apparently, will imbue the contents of the album.

“Small Grey Man”

The theme of “strange phenomena” is compelling, especially with the band’s track record for tongue-in-cheek humor and witty prose. A taste of this theme can be seen in “Small Grey Man,” the first track of “Infants Under the Bulb,” which came out as a single on January 18.

Like a spoken-word poem, the bizarre lyrics reference both the Somerton Man and Peter Bergmann (both the actor and corpse). Wordplay, entendre and fantasy come together to capture the incongruous sensation of stumbling upon an unsolved mystery and being left with questions forever unanswered.

Cover for “All Of Them Naturals” by Uranium Club

Throughout the song, the speaker’s identity appears to shift as he imagines himself as the two men, speculating that they were spies who found themselves as corpses upon the beach — perhaps murdered, perhaps victims of suicide — due to a strange twist of fate. The ambiguity of their circumstances and the mystery surrounding their identities rings out as the speaker questions, “What’s your name?” and “Who are you?”

If there’s so much apparent depth to just a single song on the album, I can’t wait to explore the other ten.

Here’s the official tracklist:


1. “Small Grey Man”
2. “Viewers Like You
3. “Game Show”
4. “The Wall Pts.1&2”
5. “Tokyo Paris L.A. Milan”
6. “The Wall Pt.3”
7. “2-600-LULLABY”
8. “Abandoned By The Narrator”
9. “The Ascent”
10. “Big Guitar Jack– In The Sky”
11. “The Wall Pt.4”

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New Album Review

“Gift Horse” by IDLES

The first time I ever drove on the highway, I listened to an IDLES song.

Gripping the steering wheel with bloodless knuckles, my vision blurring from the sheer force of my skin-prickling anxiety, I barreled down the highway with the lyrics to “Never Fight a Man With a Perm” rattling around in the empty space where my brain was supposed to be.

Cover for “Joy as an Act of Resistance” by IDLES

IDLES, formed in Bristol in 2009, make music specifically for the situation I outlined above. Grimy, manic and thudding, IDLES is delightfully raucous.

“Tank” but with a bit of “G”

Back in October, they announced their upcoming album “TANGK,” which is set to come out Feb 14.

According to the band, the word “Tangk” is pronounced like “‘tank’ with a whiff of the ‘g'” and serves as an “onomatopoeic reference” to the band’s “lashing” guitars.

While the word may sit strangely in one’s mouth, it’s clear that “TANGK” is one of the band’s most ambitious projects yet.

As a preview, IDLES released “DANCER” on Oct 18.

Two months later in December, the band put out “GRACE.”

Most recently (Jan 15, to be exact), IDLES released another single from “TANGK,” “GIFT HORSE.”

Cover for “TANGK” by IDLES

The second song to appear on the album, “GIFT HORSE” is classic IDLES.

More fast-paced than “GRACE” and rougher around the edges than “DANCER,” “GIFT HORSE” — while not particularly striking on its own — is a fairly solid track to bolster the runtime of an album.

According to the band, “TANGK” will consist of 11 tracks and focuses on empowerment, trauma and community. I look forward to being able to listen through the whole thing come February.

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Music Education

The Metal Minute: Folk Metal

As a metal-music-enjoyer, I find myself often daunted by the abject volume of metal subgenres that exist. This undertaking marks my (futile? misguided?) attempt to make sense of them.

Welcome to the Metal Minute.

What is Folk Metal?

Folk metal is probably one of the easier metal subgenres to parse, as it’s simply a marriage between the archetypal characteristics of metal and the style of European folk music.

There are several subgenres of folk metal (which only deepens the complexity of the metal iceberg), such as Celtic metal, Viking metal, medieval metal and pagan metal.

Cover for “Njord” by Leaves’ Eyes

The differences between these subgenres come from their distinct styles and influences, with Viking metal centering itself around Viking and Norse mythos while medieval metal draws its sound from the traditional folk instruments of the British Isles.

Instruments like the flute, lute and bagpipes abound.

When Did it Start?

According to MasterClass, folk metal developed in the 90s as different metal groups from Western and Central Europe began to experiment with their native folk music traditions.

Many groups were already experimenting with other metal subgenres, such as gothic metal, progressive metal, symphonic metal and melodic death metal. Thus, it was not a far jump for bands to integrate different folk styles into their work.

Cover for “Himmelfahrt” by Subway to Sally

Bands were not limited to the folk traditions of their native countries, either. Many groups, such as Subway to Sally, explored styles from other nations and integrated them into their own work. The band, hailing from Germany, was heavily inspired by Celtic traditions.

Eventually, folk metal influences traveled to Eastern Europe, leading groups to pop up in Russia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Latvia.

Today, folk metal groups can be found across the world.

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Music Education

Appalachian Murder Ballads: An Overview

What is Appalachian Music, Anyway?

When I approached the subject of the Appalachian murder ballad, I first had to answer the question: what is Appalachian music? 

Believe it or not, I’m far from the first person to ask this. In fact, dozens (maybe even hundreds) of academics and historians have been trying to piece together an answer for decades. 

In Jane Becker’s book “Appalachia and the Construction of an American Folk,” she explores the “folk revival” of the 1930’s to 1940’s and the ways in which “the structures and ideals of a culture dedicated to industrialism, consumption, and rationality” ultimately recast and commodified the authenticity of Appalachian folk culture. 

This “iconization” of Appalachia ultimately makes it difficult to parse out the “true history” of Appalachian folk music, as it’s been primarily non-Appalachians (specifically, upper- and middle-class academics) who set about the task of defining and contextualizing Appalachian culture.

Photo by Thomas Bishop on Unsplash

John Alexander Williams’s book “Appalachia: A History” suggests that the popularized construct of Appalachian folk music – defined by its parallels to the music of the British Isles – was ultimately borne from the ignorance of “the contemporary and topical sounds of town dwellers, mine workers, and any others ‘spoiled’ by too much contact with non-British culture” whom scholars deemed “unfit for study.”

To rephrase all of this in plainer language: Appalachian folk music is hard to define because of its misrepresentation.

Perhaps this knowledge isn’t essential to understanding the Appalachian murder ballad specifically, but I feel that it’s obligatory to point out.

The Murder Ballad

As opposed to the scope of Appalachian folk music, the murder ballad is easy to define.

Modeled after the traditional ballad, murder ballads illustrate a narrative that hashes out the events of a murder.

Often inspired by real events (“Omie Wise”), these ballads typically involve the murder of a woman by her lover, often (though not always) as a result of unwanted pregnancy.

Murder ballads can be from the perspective of the murderer, the victim, or an unnamed third party. Occasionally, they can portray the murderer as sympathetic.

Photo by James Park on Unsplash

Murder ballads are not localized to the Appalachian region. Rather, they originate from the British Isles — with the earliest iterations emerging in the 1500s — and made their way to the Americas in the mouths of Scottish and English immigrants.

Many American murder ballads are in fact directly inspired by songs from the Old World.

For example, “The Knoxville Girl,” comes from the 19th-century Irish ballad “The Wexford Girl,” which itself took inspiration from the English ballad “The Bloody Miller” detailing a murder that occurred in 1683.

Photo by Chen Mizrach on Unsplash

Famous Murder Ballads – The Formula

One of the most commercially successful ballads is “Tom Dooley,” inspired by the case of Tom Dula, who murdered his lover in 1866 after she became pregnant.

Hang down your head Tom Dooley
Hang down your head and cry
Killed poor Laura Foster
You know you’re bound to die

“Tom Dooley,” lyrics from here

Dula was executed in 1868 in Wilkes County, North Carolina. The song, popularized by the Kingston Trio in 1958, was a “breakthrough hit.”

Another well-known murder ballad is “Omie Wise,” which tells the story of a man who, upon discovering his lover’s pregnancy, lured her to a river and drowned her.

‘Little Omie, little Omie, I’ll tell you my mind.
My mind is to drown you and leave you behind.’

‘Have mercy on my baby and spare me my life,
I’ll go home as a beggar and never be your wife.’

He kissed her and hugged her and turned her around,
Then pushed her in deep waters where he knew that she would drown.

“Omie Wise,” lyrics by Doc Watson

Pretty Polly” is another widely popular song, depicting a young woman lured to her death by her lover. In some versions, Polly’s murder is the result of her pregnancy.

Oh Polly, Pretty Polly, your guess is about right
Polly, Pretty Polly, your guess is about right
I dug on your grave the biggest part of last night

Oh she knelt down before him and what did she spy
She knelt down before him and what did she spy
A knew dug grave with the spade lying by

“Pretty Polly,” lyrics by Ralph Stanley

Rewriting the Murder Ballad

Though many ballads ended with the execution of the murderer, they often presented their narratives with a sympathetic slant, as though the men were somehow victims in of themselves, forced to act out violence in order to preserve their reputations.

Themes of femicide and patriarchal honor abound throughout the murder ballad genre, with songs often posited as “warnings” for young women to lead “respectable” lives.

Photo by Wes McFee on Unsplash

The romanticization of these female figures and the sensationalism surrounding their deaths only further compounds the clash between 19th century modernism and conservatism, with female sexual agency synonimized with doom.

In the 1940s, women began to rewrite the murder ballad, excising the “Ophelia” archetype and replacing her with a cognizant (and more overtly dangerous) woman.

Some of these songs include Patsy Montana’s “I Didn’t Know the Gun Was Loaded,” which details the exploits of “Miss Effie,” a gunslinging “femme fatale.”

Now one night she had a date, 
With a wrestling heavyweight.
And he tried a brand new hold,
She did not appreciate.
So she whipped out her pistol,
And she shot him in the knee,
And quickly, she sang this plea.

“I Didn’t Know the Gun Was Loaded,” Patsy Montana

Wanda Jackson’s 1966 “The Box It Came In” was another major hit, telling the story of a woman’s resolution to exact revenge on her former lover.

He took everything with him that wasn’t nailed down,
Bet he’s got a new sweetheart to fill my wedding gown.
But somewhere I’ll find him then I’ll have peace of mind,
And the box he comes home in will be all satin-lined.

“The Box It Came In,” Wanda Jackson

I would be committing a travesty if I didn’t mention Dolly Parton’s influence. Not only has she covered numerous murder ballads, but she wrote her own in 1967.

Photo by Joe Beck on Unsplash

The Bridge” first appears to follow the classic murder ballad formula, featuring an unmarried woman who finds herself pregnant. However, rather than murder her, her lover flees.

Left alone, the woman returns to the bridge — the site of their first rendezvous — and resolves to commit suicide.

While the story of “The Bridge” has a tragic end, Parton places agency in the hands of her female lead and implicity exposes the plight of women in a patriarchal society.

Final Thoughts

Though I’ve spent hours researching this subject, I’ve only just scratched the surface.

The history of the Appalachian murder ballad (and Appalachian music in general) is intensely rich and insanely complex.

While I’ve mentioned the innovations of female artists in the mid-twentieth century, twenty-first century artists continue to recontextualize the prototypal murder ballad and imbue the Appalachian folk genre with new, experimental sounds.

While I would probably consider myself a casual listener at best, I look forward to delving deeper into Appalachian folk music and uncovering more of its compelling history.