I was sold on this graphic novel as soon as I read murder ballads in the title! I’ve long been a fan of narrative songs that tell a story, with Appalachian inspired murder ballads being particularly appealing to me. I have paired a mini-synopsis of each story with a rendition of the song it is based on. Often these songs have been covered by many artists, but I selected versions that were most well-known, or I just really liked the singer.
Author and illustrator Erik Kriek is actually Danish, but took an American type of ballad, and turned it into a new type of art. He didn’t just adapt the song straight into comic form, instead he interpreted the lyrics to tell a fresh story, sometimes to my liking and sometimes not. The art was in duotone, with a different color for each tale. Reminiscent of scratch art or wood reliefs, Kriek’s black inks were evocative of Appalachian landscapes and times gone by.
Pretty Polly and the Ship’s Carpenter
This song is the oldest of the bunch, as early versions were sung in the British Isles hundreds of years ago. In it, a woman is enticed by a sailor who promises he will marry her, but when she becomes pregnant because of their liaison and pushes for marriage, he instead kills her. He is racked by guilt and supposedly Polly’s ghost haunts his ship, wanting revenge. I did not like one of the last panels because I don’t see how Polly would ever forgive him.
The Long Black Veil
A man is having an affair with his best friend’s wife, and one night while heading home after a rendezvous, is mistaken for the killer of a local man. Not willing to betray his lover, he is hanged for he had no alibi. This story has a neat twist, that I always guessed at, but is not explicitly said in the song.
Johnny Cash is king, thus I shared one of his renditions, but Mick Jaggar did a good version of the song with The Chieftains.
Made famous by singer Steve Earle, this story tells of a young black man who heads into Taneytown against his mother’s advice. Upon arriving, he is set upon by a white mob and kills one of them in self-defense on his way back home. He later finds out an innocent man was accused of the crime and was hung.
When Nellie’s husband is away, the hired man comes to terrorize her as she is left alone in a remote cabin. The most violent and graphic of all the dark stories. Although justice is served, there is an uncomfortable indication at the end of the story, when you infer that Caleb left behind a reminder of that terrible night.
Where The Wild Roses Grow
Kriek took the most artistic license with this song written and sung by Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue, and because I was already a huge fan of this moody ballad and video, I didn’t enjoy this adaptation as much as the others.
An escaped convict meets a young woman who helps him saw off his chains, and who is easily seduced by him. Despite this, he threatens to kill her if she doesn’t hand over money that he assumes was hidden by her father who was known for robbing several banks. The conclusion was rather talky and clunky, and I didn’t think it was a good match for this murder ballad.
This book sent me on many music journeys, as I enjoyed listening to ballad after ballad, and reminding me of family vacations in the Appalachian region where my parents took my younger sister and I to music festivals and to watch clogging. So while this post became more an ode to music than to the book, it was a fun read and I’m glad I discovered it!
February 6, 2020 at 8:11 am
I love how you did this! Pairing the music with your look at the story was a stroke of brilliance. Also, “The Long Black Veil”?!?!!? OH MY GOSH! I’m going to be thinking about that one allllllll day. How haunting! To hang as a murderer as opposed to betraying your lover! I mean really, talk about an expression of unconditional love. He literally gave his life for the woman he loved and to let her preserve both her reputation and her life. And then she will always live simultaneously haunted and blessed by that gift. That’s a powerful little story.
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February 6, 2020 at 9:35 am
This book might make my best of 2020 list, not just because of the art and stories, but because of the way I got to go on a musical journey with these evocative ballads. Just last night I listened to Rose Connelly (aka Down in the Willow Garden), another murder ballad, and wondered how it would be rendered by Kriek.
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February 25, 2020 at 9:09 am
And how great is it that you’re looking at a book you read already as a solid contender for the best of 2020?? The year just started! That’s amazing that it left that strong of an impression.
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