Posted by: Nancy Keim Comley | October 6, 2015

Murder Ballads: Folklore and Writing 2

A couple of years ago I was invited by Jonathan Maberry to annotate a short story anthology he was putting together called OUT OF TUNE. Various writers would choose a ballad, often one that had been collected by John James Child in the 19th century, and base a short story on it. Once the ballads were selected I was to research the ballad and write a one page annotation. It was a brilliant idea – many of these ballads are based on themes that run through the stories humans have told themselves for centuries.IMG_8750.JPG

Professionally the only job I could have possibly enjoyed more would need a title such as Dark Chocolate Taster. I love learning where things come from, I love figuring out context and, frankly, I love research.

To my joy OUT OF TUNE was well received (it really is a great book and everyone should read it. You can buy copies here. The holidays are coming, why not buy lots of copies and give them to your entire family?) It was so well received, in fact, that a second book, OUT OF TUNE VOL 2, is in the works. I spent a good portion of my summer in a folklorists dream researching ballads.

I came away with my usual sense of joy mixed with the feeling that my brain had been scrambled, that I always feel when I’ve done a great deal of intense research. The joy because I have always loved the stories people tell themselves, each other and the world (in fact I wrote a blog post about it last year). The scrambling part wasn’t just because I’d worked hard. Some of those ballads are freakin’ scary.  I am convinced that if anyone ever needs inspiration to write terrifying fiction they should just read ballads.

One ballad, whose exact name I won’t mention because the book hasn’t been published yet, starts with the not unusual plot about lovers being parted and one of them dying of heart break. However, reading through the huge number of variants from all over the world I was amazed to see that this sweet, sad story changed enormously. About three quarters through the pages of variants it changes to the dead lover wanting the other to join them in the grave. Not willing to be dragged into a coffin the live lover runs for it. In some songs they found shelter in a crypt. In one song the crypt was a fine place to hide because the current occupant defended the live lover from the dead paramour. Another ballad on and the person buried in the crypt decides to help the other corpse but is stopped by his live wife. In several ballads the crypt dweller and the dead lover rip the hapless (and for a short time, still living) lover apart. Then the ballads get even weirder. I kid you not.

All the ballads described above were under the same heading in the Child book. He considered them all variants of one another and grouped them as such. They were also so creepy I was really only happy working on that annotation during the day.

Folklore – it is great for inspiration but if you’re not careful you’ll find yourself reading it under the covers.

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