Most contemporary music doesn’t deal with death. Except for the occasional country song lamenting a dead parent and some violent rap songs, most music on the radio today sticks to romantic love exclusively. Love songs are great, but there certainly are other aspects to life that are as universal, if not more so. Not everyone will experience romantic love, but everyone experiences death.
The common defense of this exclusion of death from pop music is that it’s depressing. Maybe so. But, there’s an alternate perspective that stresses that art should help us learn about and explore our emotions, not only our positive ones. Maybe songs about death can take some of the shock out of it. They may also help us in the grieving process. It’s obvious that such songs can have different meaning for different people, and for the same individual in different moods.
A subset of folk music about death is the murder ballad. Some sources identify this as a particular subgenre that came to prominence in the 19th century broadsheet tradition. That’s one way to look at it, but there certainly were earlier murder ballads. Common features are a description of the killer and victim, who were often lovers, followed by a description of the murder (often gruesomely specific), followed by repentance of the killer and/or a visit from the victim’s ghost.
As a folk singer, I find these songs interesting, though I haven’t gone out of my way to learn them any more than other folk songs. I suspect the fact that they are so different from contemporary music draws me to them. So far I have posted two to my YouTube channel: “The River Saile” and “Tom Dooley,” and am in the process of learning “Banks of the Ohio.” It’s been interesting to see the comments of my viewers on these videos, as many seem to object to the murderous content.
Some listeners assume that to sing a song means the singer endorses the actions or sentiments expressed in it, which for me isn’t the case. I often sing songs that have very little to do with the circumstances of my life, and sometimes from the perspective of women or from the perspective of villains. Many of the songs I sing are also very conservative in morality/perspective, since they are so old. They sometimes contain sexist and/or racist notions, but that doesn’t mean that I endorse those views.
Instead, I think of these songs as a living record of European culture, including the good, the bad and the ugly. Murder and violence have always been part of human culture, and likely always will be. I think to ignore the folk songs that cover those subjects is unwise. I can see how some people would disagree, but the folk tradition is vast enough for different perspectives. As for myself, I will continue to sing the songs that appeal to me as pieces of art and history, without artificially selecting them for their correspondence to my own moral views.