Lately I've been looking into the macabre sub-genre of murder ballads that form a centuries-old thread in the Anglo-American folk music tradition. The journalist Paul Slade (http://www.planetslade.com) has put out an extremely well-written and well-documented body of research on these, tracing the lineage of individual songs back to their origins.
The article that interested me most was his piece about "The Knoxville Girl," a murder ballad which originated with the killing of a Shopshire girl in 17th century Britain and has been continuously re-worked and re-titled into the present day. In it, the killer asks his lover out for a walk in the country and then, suddenly and without apparent cause, clubs her to death:
“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’,
“She never spoke another word,
I only beat her more,
Until the ground around me,
Within her blood did pour.”
Slade thinks that the motive of the original murder was an unwanted pregnancy.
The original ballad was probably called "The Bloody Miller," but over time it underwent variations into "The Berkshire Tragedy," "The Oxford Girl," "The Wexford Murder," and so on. Its most recent variation seems to have been inspired by the murder of Mary Noel of Pineville, Missouri in 1892.
As Slade shows, the story Noel's murder had an uncanny resemblance to that of the ballad narrative--she is similarly led off on a country walk, only to be clubbed to death by her boyfriend, together with numerous other details that he expounds upon in the article. This provided an American template for the European ballad, allowing it to morph into "The Knoxville Girl," under which title it is performed today.
Which makes me wonder...just how many times has this happened? Were "The Oxford Girl," and "The Wexford Girl" strictly innocent title changes, or were they, too, based upon real people who were murdered according to a similar formula? It's chilling consider that some of these macabre old ballads and folk tales are not simply being retold through the centuries, but relived.
The Louvin Brothers perform the Knoxville Girl: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNn22JyQ6vQ