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Broadside, March/April 2001

Adding to the Body Count with Broadside Electric

Tom Rhoads and Jim Speer of the Electric folk group, Broadside Electric (no relation to this magazine) were nice enough to share some of their thoughts on the subject of murder ballads. Since this is familiar territory to them, I'll let them get started.

Ryan from Broadside 'zine: I'd say your quite notorious for picking the goriest ballads in the tradition to perform, which are some of your favorites?

Jim Speer: Yeah! The gorier the better!

We're on sort of a mini-roll about trying to outdo ourselves in the 'gore' department -- what makes this fun is that since we're working with traditional material, there is only a finite number of songs we could ever get to. The songs are out there already somewhere, and it's up to us to find them and develop them. That's fun! It's a bit like archeology, I imagine. Or perhaps its like a big treasure hunt.

For a long time our gory centerpiece was 'Babylon,' until someone dared us to do another ballad that he considered to be the goriest: We took this up and the result was our version of 'Sheath and Knife.' Currently we do yet another ballad called 'Jellon Grame' which I think is even worse, and one of which that I am particularly proud.

So, yes, the 'goriest ballad' does sort of occupy a featured slot in our set! And we are currently working on a particular song that will be even bloodier! That is all I can say right now.

Tom Rhoads: Well, they aren't all gory; witness 'Lord Bateman.' But there has been something of a preference for the bloody ones, perhaps beacuse the less bloody ones are sometimes a bit dull, plot-wise. The body of English/Scottish ballads is fairly gory in general, so I don't think we're way out of the mainstream.

It's hard to pick a favorite ballad (we do them because we like them, after all), but if forced to choose, I think my favorite, at least today, is probably 'Sheath and Knife' (from their album More Bad News ...) ... which of course is one of the most desperately gruesome of the lot. It's a depressingly tragic story, and it can be quite moving to sing. I'm also very fond of 'Bruton Town' (from With Teeth) partly because I'm really proud of the arrangement.

Ryan: How does your audience respond to the ballads?

Tom: Well, either you're into six minute story songs or you're not! Fortunately for those who aren't we also do a lot of stuff that's not ballads. I think most people respond to the music more than words. That said, a lot of our longtime fans are enthusiastic about the stories. Sometimes the mayhem becomes a kind of inside joke - people have been known to call out a body count after each ballad, and we once passed out 'Body Count Bingo' cards at a show, so people who knew our repetoire could cross off the characters as they were killed.

Ryan: If you listen to the old field recordings and such, they didn't dramatize the songs much. How do you guys go about the arranging and delivery?

Jim: Hmm, good question. Since we're a large group with a fairly large arsenal of orchestration possible, we tend to paint these songs with a lot of mood and dynamic contrast. If we played them as straight ahead songs with no nod toward the creepy moments and action sequences I think they would sound odd. I'd say that the closest parallel is to a horror movie -- we play the tension and "boo!" cards freely!

Tom: As a singer, I try to feel some of the emotions that flow through the story, and hopefully communicate them in some way to the audience. I also enjoy the use of language in the ballads.

Ryan: Do you think murder ballads serve a purpose anymore? There are certainly plenty of murders but news really doesn't spread by word of mouth anymore thanks to television news. And then you've got everyone singing love songs. Do you think America's way past narrative ballads and doomed to a future of pop songs?

Jim: Absolutely not!!! There's a strong thread of modern murder ballads in American pop culture. I would refer you to the Talking Heads 'Psycho Killer' or Ice T's 'Cop Killer.' Also, a recent album by Nick Cave called "Murder Ballads" presents some gruesome stories in this model, set in the present day.

I am reluctant to suggest that our ballads have much social comment value to the present. But I do think that murder ballads past and present are appealing in that they package disturbing events into the neat framework of a song, in which it can be dealt with as a finite piece of entertainment, rather than just a messy abstraction.

Ryan: If you were to write your own murder ballad, is their anyone in particular you'd write about?

Jim: Well, some of the ballads we've done already we've substantially re-written. But we've never intentionally changed their thrust.

I think any murder ballad that we ourselves author is likely to be of humorous of parodic nature. Maybe something along the lines of the OJ Simpson trial would be fun!


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- Ryan Johnston

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