Tom Eblen

Murder set to music: Professor reveals true stories of sex, betrayal that inspired old ballads

Richard Underwood, a University of Kentucky law professor, wrote "CrimeSong: True Crime Stories From Southern Murder Ballads."
Richard Underwood, a University of Kentucky law professor, wrote "CrimeSong: True Crime Stories From Southern Murder Ballads." teblen@herald-leader.com

Before there were true-crime movies and TV shows, people wrote and sang ballads about murder and mayhem that captured the public’s imagination.

Richard Underwood learned some of these ballads as a teenage guitarist and banjo player during the folk music revival of the 1960s. Many years later, as a University of Kentucky law professor, he started wondering about the cases that inspired them.

Underwood spent more than a dozen years searching for old court records and newspaper accounts of the grisly deeds that produced these ballads.

He tells the stories in a new book, “CrimeSong: True Crime Stories from Southern Murder Ballads” (Shadelandhouse Modern Press, smpbooks.com, $35). Ron Pen, a UK professor and author famous for his study of American music, wrote the foreword.

Underwood’s book covers 24 bizarre crimes set to music between the early 1800s and mid-1900s. Ten of them occurred in Kentucky.

Although a few of the ballads remain famous, most are long forgotten. But the stories behind them are as fresh as yesterday’s headlines: jealous lovers, illicit sex, love triangles and other dark corners of human nature.

“Many of these seem to be stories that keep repeating themselves,” Underwood said.

The ballad of “Frankie and Johnny” might be the best known. Jimmie Rodgers, the yodeling 1920s country music star, recorded a famous version. Filmmaker John Huston told the story in a stage play. Thomas Hart Benton painted it in a 1936 mural.

You might remember the basics: Frankie and Johnny were lovers. Oh, Lordy, how they did love. He was her man, but he done her wrong. So she plugged him.

Underwood pulls together his own research and other scholarship to tell the story. Frankie Baker was a St. Louis prostitute in her 20s at the turn of the previous century. Her boyfriend and pimp, the flashy-dressing Albert (not Johnny) Britt, was 17.

He was doing her wrong with Alice Pryar, a prostitute also known as Nelly Bly. That led to an argument in Frankie’s bedroom. He pulled a knife. She pulled a gun and fatally shot him in the liver. A coroner’s jury and judge ruled it self-defense. But the notoriety forced Frankie to leave St. Louis for Portland, Ore., where she ended up running a shoe-shine parlor.

Frankie’s story is part of “The Girls Fight Back” chapter, which also tells the story behind the ballad of Pearl Drew, who murdered her philandering husband in 1929 and then conspired with her young daughter to put the blame on her own father.

In many ballads, a man kills one lover so he can marry another. Such was the case of Omie Wise of North Carolina in the early 1800s and Lula Viers of Eastern Kentucky in the early 1900s. In both cases, the women thought their lovers were taking them away to elope. Instead, they each ended up dead in a river.

Murdered girls were popular ballad subjects, and Underwood recounts the tragic ends of Ellen Smith, Stella Kenney, Pearl Bryan and Louise Beattie.

Other love-triangle ballads include “Arch and Gordon” based on the 1895 Louisville murders that include this refrain: “You see what careless love has done; it killed the governor’s only son.”

Underwood explores ballads about the murders of entire families, as well as “The Ballad of Mary Phagan,” about the infamous lynching of Leo Frank in 1915. Frank was convicted of killing Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old girl who worked in the Atlanta pencil factory he managed, but the case involved more anti-Semitism than evidence.

The book is a mixture of thorough research and dry humor. In addition to offering various versions of ballads and exploring the facts according to newspaper accounts and long-forgotten trial transcripts, the law professor offers legal commentary.

“I just wanted to write something fun,” said Underwood, whose 36-year career as a law professor involved writing a lot of journal articles and textbooks. He first wrote about murder ballads in a 2004 law journal article, which led to another and another.

During a sabbatical two years ago, Underwood wrote the first draft of this book and two more. All three are being published by Shadelandhouse Modern Press LLC, a company his wife, Virginia, started after retiring from Eastern Kentucky University.

One of the other books recounts a 1909 Connecticut murder in which the victim was shot and had his throat slashed, but survived long enough to make a statement. “The little piano teacher did it, of course,” Underwood said.

The other book, “Gaslight Lawyers” is about famous New York murder trials in the 1890s. “I thought the lawyers were interesting,” he said. “But the crooks were even more interesting.”

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