"I dug on your grave the best part of last night"
What better time to discuss murder ballads than Halloween? Several well known American murder ballads from the Appalachian region are based on the 18th century English folksong “The Gosport Tragedy.” The story is a familiar one: a callous young man murders his girlfriend when he learns she is pregnant. Sadly, it’s an old story in folksong around the world. Many of these ghastly ballads may have been sung to tell of true stories. In the days before TV or radio and when the majority of the rural population was illiterate and couldn’t read a newspaper even if one was available locally, folk songs were used as a means of relating local news as well as to provide entertainment.
In “The Gosport Tragedy”, and related English ballads such as “The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter”, a young man murders his fiancée as they are out for a stroll and puts her body in a grave he had previously prepared. The versions from Appalachia follow along this same theme with one significant difference that may reflect differences between the two cultures. In the British version of “The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter” the murderer tries to escape aboard a ship, but a mighty storm blows up and the ghost of his victim rises from the waves to tear him apart. In the American versions the supernatural element is eliminated and the murderer leaves his victim in her grave with only the “wild birds to mourn.”