Interview: Laura Morris on Spotify’s fascinating series Murder Ballads

Mississippi John Hurt and Brownie McGhee at Newport Folk Festival, 28th July 1963. (Photo by John Byrne Cooke Estate/Getty Images)
Mississippi John Hurt and Brownie McGhee at Newport Folk Festival, 28th July 1963. (Photo by John Byrne Cooke Estate/Getty Images) /
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Murder Ballads
Kurt Cobain of Nirvana during the taping of MTV Unplugged at Sony Studios in New York City, 11/18/93. Photo by Frank Micelotta. *** Special Rates Apply *** Call for Rates *** /

1428 Elm: Yeah, it’s interesting for me that this came up when it did, because I recently listened to the Happy Face true crime podcast, where the theme song was In the Pines / Where Did You Sleep Last Night. I always liked that song, but I had kind of forgotten about it, and I went online and looked it up, because I thought, “I wonder if this is a true story.” How did you come up with the idea of a show about historical murder ballads?

Laura: For this show, you know, I had actually spent some time…well, I should really say it was a mix of different ideas from some different people. I had actually spent some time in the south, in Appalachia. And I knew something about the relationship between some of these old songs that had their roots in really old true crime stories in England.

They came over with immigration 200 years ago and ended up in Appalachia. So, I heard about that, and I thought that was interesting. Just like you mentioned, the song In the Pines came up, and that was what really started the whole project. I knew it from the Nirvana album, obviously, like most people do.

But I also knew that it had been sung by so many other people, and it had been done by everyone like Dolly Parton to Lead Belly, to Joan Baez, so many different kinds of singers. And I started looking into that song, and I realized that it sort of had this overlap with these songs that came from England and ended up in the American south and sort of changed over time very slowly and became new things.

I became interested in tracing that song back, and that was the starting point for me for this project. And then, I had an opportunity to pitch a project, there was an idea that we were making a show that was sort of an extension of the Spotify playlist. So I created this pilot, this test, focusing on In the Pines, then some of my brilliant teammates, my producer especially, had this idea of “why don’t we mix this up with true crime,” because In the Pines is a murder ballad. That wasn’t really the starting point, but when we realized that, we said, “Oh, this such an interesting hook to make a show about.”

Then we just sort of blew it out from there and expanded it into all these other songs that have these similar histories but are all about different stories.

1428 Elm: So, out of all the stories you have done on Murder Ballads, what do you consider to be one of the more interesting ones?

Laura: The songs that I find to be the most interesting are the ones where we sort of start in one place, just with the music and the lyrics, and who sung it, and as we start to dig into it, look at the research and the history and read about it, it takes us to this totally different place. There are a couple of songs that have done that on this show, and that’s what I found the most fascinating.

One is probably my favorite episode so far, it came out about two weeks ago, it’s about a song called Stagger Lee, which also has a lot of different names, Stagga Lee, Stag Lee, Stagger Lee…but it does go back to this true crime that happened, I think in 1895. These two men had a fight in a bar, and one shoots the other one. And what they were fighting about has become a legend, they might have had a fight over a hat, that’s in a lot of the songs, but it also might have been about politics, which is a little bit more realistic. But it also may have been politics AND a hat!