What is a murder ballad?

Since it’s Halloween season, we turned to a darker, creepier theme for this Top 20. We asked you to name what you think is the best murder ballad. And wow, did you come through with some great choices! 

Related: Murder ballads on Music 101

The list includes songs that are creepy, dark, and haunted to the core – and in many cases, they’re songs you can’t get out of your head. See the full list below. 


1 Goodbye Earl The (Dixie) Chicks 11 Excitable Boy Warren Zevon
2 Country Death Song Violent Femmes 12 Murder In The Red Barn Tom Waits
3 Where The Wild Roses Grow Nick Cave & Kylie Minogue 13 Black River Killer Blitzen Trapper
4 Long Black Veil Johnny Cash 14 The Rake’s Song The Decemberists
5 Where Did You Sleep Last Night Nirvana 15 Hey Joe Jimi Hendrix
6 Possum Kingdom Toadies 16 Westfall Okkervil River
7 Me & My Uncle Grateful Dead 17 Down By The River Neil Young
8 Murder, Tonight, In The Trailer Park Cowboy Junkies 18 Long Black Veil Lefty Frizzell
9 Carolina Drama The Raconteurs 19 Blood On The Floor Fleetwood Mac
10 Kate McCannon Colter Wall 20 Delia’s Gone Johnny Cash


If you’re not familiar with the long history of murder ballads, below is some background.

Country music is full of murder ballads, in part because the music grew out of folk and old-time music and storytelling that date back centuries…and murder ballads have, for better or worse, been a part of folk music history.

The Louvin Brothers recorded one of the most famous murder ballads, their beautiful vocal harmonies a stark juxtaposition against the ballad’s creepy lyrics. 

One classic country song made such an impact, you voted for it twice from two different singers! The song was written by Danny Dill and Marjohn Wilken – here’s the version by Lefty Frizzell, who was the first to record it in 1959. 


Murder ballads, though, have crept plenty often into other genres as well. Rock music has some choice examples, like this song from the Decemberists


Bruce Springsteen got plenty dark on his Nebraska album, including on the title track, which is based on the story of Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. Springsteen was allegedly inspired to write this song after seeing the Terrence Malick film Badlands.


And of course, there’s Nirvana‘s cover of an old folk song during their MTV Unplugged session. They called it “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” but the song is also known by titles such as “In the Pines,” “My Girl,” and “Black Girl.”


You can turn also to hip-hop for more takes on the murder ballad. This classic song by the Geto Boys will haunt you for days…or maybe for the rest of your life. 


And women, of course, have gotten in on the action more than a few times, too. Wanda Jackson’s “The Box It Came In,” for instance, takes a wicked turn about halfway through. 


And Bessie Smith pleaded with the judge on the gruesome “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair.” 


But it’s Hurray for the Riff Raff‘s song “The Body Electric” that brings us back to earth by taking several steps back to see murder – most notably violence against women and people of color – for the horror that it is. As the band’s lead singer and songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra described it: “I hope this song breathes power and humanity back into all people who feel targeted by violence and oppression, whether they exist in our old stories and songs or are marching in protest as we speak.”




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