Manic Zines and Murder Ballads

There’s something about zines that I find irresistible. Maybe it’s because they’re so democratic – accessible and relatively sustainable.

Cary Grant Died Here is a newly-launched comedy/music zine out of Davenport, Iowa that relates to one of my favorite stories about the city. Like all good hometown legends, it’s full of speculation and misremembered facts, such as the common assertion that Cary Grant died at the downtown Blackhawk Hotel, whereas he actually died at a hospital a few miles away.

And again, in accordance with tradition, the local media response was as pitiable as it was hilarious.

Your grandmother wrote this headline… and everything else on the page.

The zine is not a medium that invokes reverence. That said, Cary Grant Died Here actually has very little to do with the man himself. That’s all I’ll say, because I don’t want to spoil it for you. You can pick up your own copy of Issue #1 for free at Rozz Tox, Ragged Records, and The Artery, as well as the trunk of Jeff Tady’s car.

Meanwhile! – To tide you over until you can get your hands on your very own copy, here’s my contribution to Issue #1;  it’s an article about a fascinating/disturbing musical phenomenon known as the murder ballad, which sort of makes me want to launch straight into Emily Dickinson mode re: my social life. I’ll have to learn to bake.

He did indeed.
I don’t know why the Fort Armstrong blockhouse is above his head. He did not die at the Fort Armstrong blockhouse, either… or did he?

If you were born after 1995 and have a pulse, it’s safe to say you’ve seen Raising Arizona and remember that beautiful, chilling melody that accompanies H.I.’s dream sequences. Late in the film, we hear part of the actual song, as sung by Holly Hunter to the baby: “… the scaffold waits for me, for I did murder that dear little girl…”

It seems like a weird song to sing to an infant, especially when you hear the rest of the lyrics. In this particular song, titled “Down In the Willow Garden,” a young man takes the girl he loves on a picnic. He then poisons her, stabs her, and throws her body in a river. When performed by the Everly Brothers, the song gains an extra layer of creepy as the horrific events are related to the listener in ethereal harmony.

This is a murder ballad, a song about a brutal (usually sexually-motivated) murder, and a genre has been popular throughout modern history, spanning generations and crossing continents, from 17th Century Scottish bards to the shrieking banshees of modern country-western music.

The best murder ballads, however, come from the Appalachia region of the United States in the first half of the 20th Century, when writings about that area were commonly sensationalistic, portraying its people as impoverished, desperate moonshine drunks prone to impulsive violence and spectacular revenge. So you know a murderous narrative set in that time and place is going to be way more thrilling and dramatic than anything on TLC.

One of my favorites is “Knoxville Girl,” which tells the story of a man on an evening walk with the “girl [he] loved so well,” whom he decides, apparently on the spur of the moment, to beat to death with a large stick. After the first blow, his girlfriend falls to her knees and begs for her life, but he kills her anyway, beating her until her blood runs all over the road. Then, he grabs her by her beautiful, golden curls, drags her body around for a while, and finally chucks her in a river (a common method of disposal in this genre – I guess there are a lot of rivers in Appalachia).

The narrator implies that he kills her simply because he loves her so much, which doesn’t make sense until you remember that this is the bible belt. They aren’t married, so they can’t get down, and masturbation is, of course, a sin. Basically, the subtext is that this fellow was driven mad by lust, and, in a fit of sexual frustration, killed the shit out of the object of his desire.

That’s what makes Appalachian murder ballads the best – while jealousy and revenge are typical motivations, the songs in which the only motivation is love (read: sex) are the most provocative. Imagine how exciting it must be to go on a date in this environment, knowing that if you refuse to give your boyfriend a blowjob, he might get blue balls and strangle you.

For more songs about sexy, sexy murder, look up the works of Lead Belly, the Kingston Trio, Gillian Welch, Kristin Hersh, and check out “Nebraska” by Bruce Springsteen.

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