Murder ballads, one of the largest sub-groups of ballads in the English-speaking world, have a similar fascination with the same topics as tabloid journalism: dramatic accounts of lust, vengeance, and domestic crime. As folklorist Stephen Winnick states, most of the stories told in these ballads are based on truth, but have been augmented with themes from previous tellings so that the themes of murder ballads converged, regardless of the form of the reworkings, with the tradition of singing about cold-hearted slaughter staying intact.
In my research on ballads for the book, Stories from Songs: Ballads as Literary Fictions for Young Adults*, I learned that the literary and visual forms of these reworkings are varied indeed. I welcome another, current, graphic novel anthology devoted to the sub-genre with a collection that offers dark tales of murder, betrayal, and revenge, all with commanding illustrations. I appreciated the murder of crows that fly from one page to another throughout the anthology. I especially appreciated that, rather than literally interpreting the lyrics of these five murder ballads, Dutch illustrator and author Erik Kriek reworks each one with a convincing and macabre backstory. Also available is a CD by the Blue Grass Boogiemen which includes these ballads, along with others, sung by Kriek himself.
The book opens with the ballad “Pretty Polly and the Ship’s Carpenter,” a traditional tale that is most likely derived from the broadside, “The Gosport Tragedy,” featuring the supernatural visitation of the murdered victim aboard the ship of her murderer. Amid the swirling and chaotic waves of the storm, the shipmates of the ship’s carpenter are being swept out to sea, one by one. Rumors of a female ghost are continually denied by the crew, but during the most violent part of the storm, the ghost and the story of her murder and her presence are actualized. The storm subsides once the murderer is avenged. This reworking of the ballad offers a satisfying and complex backstory to the murder and to the retribution. As the notes to the ballad at the end of the book point out, the British superstition that a ship was doomed if there was a murderer aboard also play a pivotal role in this version. This ballad is rendered in shades of green while the story following it is done in shades of murky pinks.
“The Long Black Veil” is a modern ballad written in 1959 by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin and is quite possibly the most familiar of all five of the ballads in the compilation, as it has been recorded by a variety of country and folk artists. It is the romantic story of a young man who goes to the gallows rather than disclose that he had been having an affair with his best friend’s wife. She is the one who wears the long black veil as she witnesses his hanging and as she visits his grave. As with the previous story, Kriek offers his own interpretation to the tale, adding, perhaps, to the mystery, and demonstrating his own uneasiness with the romantic overtones suggested by others in their own variants.
Kriek’s version of Steve Earle’s “Tarrytown,” showcased in shades of burnished gold, offers a substantial backstory for the song and an unrepentant exploration of racism in the American South. This version also follows the same tradition as the story told in the preceding ballad: being found in the wrong place at the wrong time without resources to protect oneself.
The pale shades employed in the next tale, Gillian Welch’s “Caleb Meyer,” echo those utilized in the first ballad and, with the repetition of the pale smoky-rose used in the final story, unify the five diverse narratives as a whole. Caleb’s story begins with mystery as the reader is introduced to a very pregnant Nellie who has had the misfortune of miscarrying many times in the past. We soon discover that Nellie has a deep secret and an even deeper fear through a series of almost wordless panels. There is joy at the end of this poignant tale, perhaps not for Caleb, but he got his just desserts!
The final ballad is a rendition of Nick Cave’s “Where the Wild Roses Grow.” The backstory here has been augmented by Kriek to offer a visual treat that, after the preceding story, may not be as shocking as it may have been if the collection had been organized differently. This is an observation, not a complaint mind you. I appreciated the thematic flow of the five stories.
The interplay of varied shaped panels, with their various points of view and closeups, have a cinematic effect on the reader. There is effective and efficient use of blacks throughout the compilation. Landscapes are also rendered with great care as readers are taken deep into the forests, on to the bows of a sailing ship in the throws of a vicious storm, or into a community that does not welcome either strangers or people of color. Ironically, for a book reworking ballads, there is a great deal of silence on the pages as the visuals effectively relate their tales. Kriek does not shy away from sexual images and the infrequent use of swearing, making this a compilation that is mostly intended for adult collections, but at the same time is also accessible for teen readers outside of a school library collection.
*de Vos, Gail. Stories from Songs: Ballads as Literary Fictions for Young Adults. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2009.
In the Pines: 5 Murder Ballads
By Erik Kriek
Publisher Age Rating: 18 +
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Black, ,