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
NEW YORK – MAY 27: Recording artist James Brown performs at the River to River Festival Kickoff Concert at Battery Park May 28, 2003 in New York City. (Photo by Lawrence Lucier/Getty Images) /

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? (continued) 

Laura: But, with that story, we sort of knew the lyrics from the Mississippi John Hurt song and other people who sang it. And then I started doing some digging, and I called up the public library archival department in St. Louis where it really happened, and I started talking to them. I got my hands on the Coroner’s Inquest which is the transcript of the eyewitness questioning that was happening in 1895 of people who actually saw the murder and it was incredible to actually be able to read this stuff.

There were these five eyewitnesses and the policemen, all sort of saying what happened. And we dug into that, and it was really fascinating. But then, after we learned about what really happened, the true back story, we also started to talk to people who knew more about how the song changed over time, and I interviewed a musician named Dom Flemons, who studied the song, and a professor of African American literature named Howard Rambsy.

They explained to me how the song took on a life of its own, and this Stagger Lee character became this sort of folk hero who was this bad guy who had shot somebody, but at the same time was…at this time, if you were someone who was oppressed – this was going back for many generations – he was the kind of person you could look up to. So, the Stagger Lee myth really spread around the country, it showed up among work songs by men who were imprisoned in the south.

And then, over time, it starts to show up in other places and it even shows up in the sixties, it shows up in the Black Panther movement. Bobby Seale (one of the founders of the Black Panthers) use to recite a version of Stagger Lee, James Brown even sang a version of Stagger Lee. We even found it all the way up to contemporary rap, it’s just fascinating where that story went, and it’s all based on true crime that happened such a long time ago.

1428: Are all of the episodes of Murder Ballads now available to stream, or do you have some new ones that we can look forward to hearing?

Laura: So, everything is available on Spotify, you can stream them all on Spotify. We just released an episode today, which is amazing, it’s one that I’m really looking forward to everyone hearing. It’s all about revenge, and it’s from the woman’s perspective because a lot of these songs are about men killing women, they’re very misogynistic. You know, they’re men killing women for no reason, other than the woman didn’t do whatever he wanted.

In this new episode, we look at some of the songs that women have made over the years, starting in the twenties, and up to the fifties and mostly contemporary. They’re women who’ve written songs or sung different versions of songs where they’re sort of saying, “I’m in charge, I’m the one who’s committing murder or just getting even,” and I think it’s a really great episode, and there are some great songs on it.

1428 Elm: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us, Laura, we look forward to listening to all of your episodes.

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