This entry comes courtesy of two of my friends from college (regular ol’ college, not mortuary college), Lixian Hantover and Alex Bender.
Click on the link directly below to listen to Lixian’s incredible cover of the murder ballad Knoxville Girl and then read on to Alex’s description of the twisted, macabre lyrics of the deceptively sweet sounding ballad.
Suppose it’s 1959 and you’re fascinated with death. Problem is, there’s no Order of the Good Death website to peruse. What do you do? If you have a taste for country, folk, or bluegrass music, you’re in luck. You can get your death fix by listening to carnage-filled murder ballads such as “Pretty Polly,” “Tom Dooley,” “Little Sadie,” and “Omie Wise.” And then there’s my favorite of them all, “Knoxville Girl.”
“Knoxville Girl” is a deceptively sunny-sounding tune; indeed, there’s nary a minor chord in the entire song. Or as this YouTube user puts it, “Wow this song is just Gangsta Cruel…Don’t be fooled by the easy music style listen to the lyrics.”
The lyrics tell a sordid little tale that goes something like this. Willie, the narrator, meets a girl in Knoxville, Tennessee, and he starts visiting her home every week. One night, the new couple goes for a walk. Without warning, and for apparently no reason, Willie picks up a stick and knocks the girl to the ground. She begs for her life, but Willie beats the shit out of her and doesn’t stop until the soil is soaked with her blood. Romantic, right? Then, Willie grabs the girl by her hair and drags her corpse around and around. It’s not entirely clear if he’s doing this out of sheer panic, or just for fun, but eventually, he dispenses of the body in the river.
He then addresses the girl, who is presumably sinking to the bottom of the river or floating downstream by now; but in case she hasn’t gotten the point, Willie proclaims that she can never be his wife. After this, Willie returns home and is greeted by his worried mother, and when she asks about the blood on his clothes, he makes up a lame excuse about an epic nosebleed. Willie retires to bed with a throbbing headache, and he has bad dreams all night long. Soon thereafter, Willie is taken to jail, and despite the best efforts of his friends to bail him out, he is eventually sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars. But, protests Willie in closing, he really did love that Knoxville girl.
The provenance of “Knoxville Girl” can be traced back to 17th century England. European immigrants brought a murder ballad called “Oxford Girl” (alternately, “Wexford Girl”) with them to the United States, and over time, the song got shorter and was rechristened “Knoxville Girl” (for more on the origins of the song, see http://www.planetslade.com/knoxville-girl1.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Knoxville_Girl).
The song as we know it today was first immortalized as a commercial recording in the mid-1920s. In 1956, country brother duo the Louvin Brothers released what is perhaps the most beloved recording of the song on their Tragic Songs of Life LP. Since then, countless other artists have taken a crack at it (and not just country artists; see, e.g., the Lemonheads’ (?!) rendition on their Car Button Cloth album from 1996). My preferred version has always been the nowadays lesser-known Wilburn Brothers recording from 1959 (see also this live version, and dig that grin at 1:13 during one of the song’s most gruesome moments). A mere 2 minutes and 36 seconds long, the Wilburns managed to create the most fucked up version of an already pretty fucked up song by further shortening it (by comparison, the Louvins take a whole 3 minute and 49 seconds to perform the song). More on this later.
Part of what makes “Knoxville Girl” special is its lack of a clear motive for the murder. Why does Willie kill the girl? Was she cheating on him? Perhaps Willie is just a jealous fellow with a lethal temper. Maybe things were moving too fast and he really, really didn’t want to face the prospect of getting married. Or maybe she was pregnant, like the murdered woman in “Omie Wise.”
There is, of course, little support in the song for any of these scenarios. The closest we ever get to a motive is a line about the girl’s “dark and roving eye,” which, in some early incarnations of the song, is delivered while the girl is still alive – thereby suggesting that the girl incurred the wrath of Willie because she was a bit of a flirt. But by the time the Wilburns recorded the song, this line had been changed to “dark and rolling eyes” and was being delivered directly after Willie dumps the murdered girl in the river. Yes – over time, the one line that possibly shed light on Willie’s motive was transformed into nothing more than a deliciously gratuitous description of the slaughtered girl’s eyes rolling around in their sockets. And you know what? I’m okay with that. In fact, I like to think that the song mentions no motive because Willie didn’t NEED a motive to kill. Because Willie is batshit insane. Because Willie’s a psychopath.
I don’t know if this is the most plausible reading of “Knoxville Girl,” but listen to the Wilburns’ recording, and you can almost believe it. If Willie has family and friends, the Wilburns make sure we don’t hear about it; in their version, Willie’s “anxious mother” and the friends who try to “go his bail” are conspicuously absent. These excisions are key, for they ensure that the listener knows nothing about Willie other than the fact that he expresses his love through intentional homicide. No longer might the listener be inclined to interpret Willie as a dumb kid with a temper who makes a lethal mistake and gets in way over his head. Nope, in the Wilburns’ version, it’s just as likely that Willie is a cold-hearted drifter who simply kills the Knoxville girl for fun, a natural born killer. With no human connections, the Wilburns’ Willie is less sympathetic, less human. And, dare I say it, way more interesting. The less insight we have into Willie’s mind, the better. But then again, maybe that’s just me.