Music Reviews
4:36 pm
Thu December 12, 2013

For The Bloodiest Tales In American Music, A Revenge-Themed Sequel

Originally published on Thu December 12, 2013 7:10 pm

"Old Time Angels," a new song by Nashville, Tenn.-based singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale, sounds so ebullient that at first, you may not realize he's singing about one of music's most terrifying moments.

The wandering "spirit" referenced in the opening verse is "The Knoxville Girl," the unfortunate star of an Appalachian murder ballad based in part on a 19th century American true crime story. In the original song — widely recorded, perhaps most famously by The Louvin Brothers — the girl is lured to a secluded spot and then killed, brutally, by the narrator. In Lauderdale's song, she comes back from the grave for revenge.

The Knoxville Girl, Pretty Polly, Little Sadie and Darlin' Cory all make a ghostly appearance in "Old Time Angels." Lauderdale gives these characters some of their power back by putting one of the implements of their demise into their spectral hands. Pretty Polly, who was stabbed through the heart by her paramour, wields the shovel that he used to dig her shallow grave. Little Sadie becomes the driver of her own hearse, and so on.

Lauderdale's song doesn't just avenge the Old Time Angels — after all, murder ballads are often morality tales. Most of the killers in these stories have already met with justice: They're executed, or they're haunted by their prey, or they go insane. Instead, Lauderdale resurrects these angels to breathe life back into them, immortalizing them as victors, not victims. In so doing, he recasts the women of murder ballads as guardians of the present — and future.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Murder ballads have a long tradition in American roots music. They're dark, brutal tales, often about the death of a young, beautiful woman. Here's a 1956 recording by The Louvin Brothers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KNOXVILLE GIRL")

THE LOUVIN BROTHERS: (Singing) I picked a stick up off the ground and knocked that fair girl down. She fell down on her bended knees. For mercy, she did cry. Oh, Willie dear, don't kill me here, I'm unprepared to die.

CORNISH: Well, a new song by Jim Lauderdale puts a different spin on the murder ballad tradition. It's called "Old Time Angels," and music critic Meredith Ochs says it digs up several famous women from murder ballads past.

MEREDITH OCHS: Jim Lauderdale's "Old Time Angels" sounds so ebullient that at first, you may not realize he's singing about one of music's most terrifying moments.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD TIME ANGELS")

JIM LAUDERDALE: (Singing) Out in Knoxville, by the river, there's a spirit wandering.

OCHS: The spirit by the river that Jim Lauderdale sings of is "The Knoxville Girl," based on both an old English murder ballad and a 19th century American true crime story. But in his song, she comes back from the grave for revenge.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD TIME ANGELS")

LAUDERDALE: (Singing) Look at out for those old time angels. They'll (unintelligible) anymore. Oh, they're up there in those mountains seeking vengeance for the score.

OCHS: Other murder ballad victims - Pretty Polly, Little Sadie, Little Maggie and Darling Cory - also make ghostly appearances in Jim Lauderdale's new song. He gives these characters their power back by putting one of the implements of their demise into their spectral hands. Pretty Polly, who was stabbed through the heart by her paramour, wields the shovel that he used to dig her shallow grave. Little Sadie becomes the driver of her own hearse, and so on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD TIME ANGELS")

LAUDERDALE: (Singing) Little Sadie drives a wagon to haul your body away. Only wise ride beside them in the water to make you pay.

OCHS: Jim Lauderdale's song doesn't just avenge the old time angels. After all, murder ballads are often morality tales. Most of the killers in these stories have already met with justice. They're executed or they're haunted by their prey or they go insane. Instead, Lauderdale resurrects these angels to breathe life back into them. He immortalizes them as victors, not victims. With this song, Jim Lauderdale recasts the women of murder ballads as guardians of the present and the future.

CORNISH: Meredith Ochs is a talk show host and DJ at SiriusXM Radio. The song is "Old Time Angels" by Jim Lauderdale.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD TIME ANGELS")

LAUDERDALE: (Singing) Little Maggie has got her shotgun. Pretty Polly has got her spade. Darling Cory is coming for you and she'll dance upon your grave. Look out for those old time angels. They'll not serve you anymore. Oh, they're up there in those mountains seeking vengeance for the score.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.