Wednesday, June 09, 2004


Last summer, way back when my arm was broken and i was dreaming of escaping the 9 to 5 I was delighted when my abstract was accepted by Georgetown university for chapter in an anthology on women and alt. country - me, doing something proper, for a real book, fancy that! a chance to indulge my scholarly fantasies and write about things i love.... over the months i've has sporadic contact from the publishers but nothing as tangible as a word limit or deadline or owt and thus i assumed nothing was happening. i now know different and there was some kind of fuck up. I now have 6 days to write 5000 words - more or less from scratch and with limited resources, no computer* and no access to the key text books. Fuck. I feel i owe it to myself to give it a go, but to be honest even my legendary optimism feels stretched by this.

If anyone has any thoughts, please share. I'm especially looking for songs to write about. *I mean of my own obviously. I've just bought a week pass for homes4u - £6 gets unlimited access but it shuts at 6pm and plays horrible music all the time. but at least it works.

Whither the Knoxville Girl?
Women and Murder Ballads in Alt. Country

The central themes of country music may be summarized
as love, whiskey and death; I would suggest the latter
subject raises many interesting challenges when viewed
in the post feminist era. The country and blue grass
cannon is littered with corpses and many of them are
women. This work will explore the multiple
interpretations and evolution of murder ballads
produced by women within the genre of alt.country.

One of alt. country’s defining characteristics has
been the notion of authenticity above
commercialisation; there is a desire to reclaim the
rawness of country music and to reinterpret its
traditions with a contemporary edge. Thus many
performers revive traditional songs or adopt their
idioms when producing new work. This can be seen as
part of an ongoing process of development which many
traditional songs have undergone over the years, for
example many ballads developed from vernacular songs
from the UK and the debt owed to spirituals has been
well documented.

The murder ballad has been a popular and recurring
motif in country since the birth of the art form. It’s
true they are not exclusively about killing women and
that they are often performed alongside tales of
natural death and destruction; however I would suggest
the majority of the best loved songs, such as The
Knoxville Girl, The Banks of the Ohio et al, tell
blood thirsty tales about the murder of women.

Murder ballads may stir compassion for the victim but
rarely shock; they provide a climate where violence
against women is normalised and their horrible demise
is to be expected. The songs are often cautionary,
providing a warning to women who stray from acceptable
behaviour or who stand out from the norm through their
beauty or innocence.

Women’s deaths are often associated with sexual or
romantic transgression; the victim is simply too
attractive to be allowed to live; she was asking for
it. Sometimes justice is done and the victim is
avenged but this is by no means certain. What
pervades them all is an underlying sense of women as
natural victims. Far from being outsider or rebel
music these songs are horribly familiar in a cultural
climate often saturated with violence, much of which
is sexualised to an uncomfortable degree.

This work will examine the dilemmas inherent in women
singing about killing women. What happens when
contemporary female performers update or reinterpret
traditional murder ballads? What new songs are they
producing and how do murder ballads written by women
today illustrate the evolution of alt. country? What
place does satire and humour have in their work?

This work will particularly focus on three major
figures in alt. country: Gillian Welch, Rennie Sparks
and Neko Case, all of whom perform their own and
traditional murder ballads. It will place their work
in a historical perspective but will especially
concentrate on their original works and how they may
be viewed as part of the evolution of the art form.
Their work will be compared and contrasted with a
range of traditional songs and there most popular

A variety of primary and secondary research methods
will be utilised. These will include lyrical
analysis, interviews, archive material and previous
research into historical and contemporary murder
ballads. More information is available on request.


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