Very Specific Playlists is a weekly feature in which Jezebel staffers make very specific Spotify playlists based on their weird proclivities.
On both sides of the Atlantic, there is a deeply creepy strain within folk music: death, murder, hell, ghosts, more death.
This is partly down to the influence of the Child Ballads, so called because they were collected from England and Scotland in the 19th century by Harvard professor Francis James Child. Murder and mayhem are strongly represented within this particular corpus, and many of them were carried across the ocean to Appalachia and took root in versions that were often less overtly supernatural but still plenty dark.
Take a strong tradition of eerie musical storytelling and let it cook in a hardscrabble environment for a couple hundred years within the context of vocal and instrumental styles that often register for modern listeners as unsettling, anyway, and you get a bunch of songs that are ideal for fucking yourself up the week before Halloween.
Allow me to oblige! Note that these are particularly effective on a cold, windy, grey day when you get the full deathly effect of autumn.
1. Ralph Stanley, “O Death”
Fine, literally everyone has heard this song thanks to its inclusion on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Which is unfortunate—sheer familiarity has perhaps blunted the deeply unsettling impact of listening to a believer imagining a conversation with death itself. No hokey grim reaper, this one. I also encourage you to watch this version from the 2000 indie film Songcatcher. You really need the rural nighttime background noise to get the properly shivery effect.
2. Jean Ritchie, “The House Carpenter”
You need a little ethnomusicological background info to get the full effect on this one, about a woman who abandons her husband and child to run away with an old lover. Generally appearing in America as “The House Carpenter,” this one is a Child ballad with Scottish origins where it’s often known as “The Daemon Lover,” in which versions the handsome seducer turns out to be literally Satan. Choose your sidepiece wisely, ladies.
3. Johnny Cash, “Long Black Veil”
A dead man tells the story of how a woman wearing a long black veil came to wander the hills around his grave. Not sure which is the creepier prospect: the dead speaking or the living becoming essentially a weeping ghost.
4. The Dillards, “Polly Vaughn”
Weirdly, this one is sort of a cautionary tale about gun safety. In this bluegrass version of what was originally an Irish song, we hear about a young man who shoots too carelessly at twilight only to discover that he’s killed his true love. There’s a supernatural twist with, frankly, a pretty generous gesture from the dead girl.
5. Cassie Franklin, “Lady Margret”
This Child Ballad is a story of jealousy and ghostly nighttime visitation. It’s this lyric that really seals the deal for its inclusion here: “For I dreamed that my bower was full of red swine and my bride’s bed full of blood.”
6. Carl Story, “Rank Strangers”
A man returns home after his wandering to discover her doesn’t recognize anyone. His mother, his father, his friends are all gone and nobody knows his name. Something about this scenario has always given me a faint case of the willies.
7. Grandpa Jones, “Young Charlotte”
The way this one starts out, you expect one of traditional music’s many disturbing songs about young women murdered by her lover. It goes in a completely different and totally horrifying direction!
8. The Louvin Brothers, “Knoxville Girl”
Okay, this is one of traditional music’s many disturbing songs about young women murdered by their lovers, and it’s made all the more upsetting by its being from the perspective of the murderer. Various versions of this one can be traced all the way back to an Elizabethan broadside, a chilling historical testament.
10. Mac Wiseman, “Poor Ellen Smith”
Another story about a dirtbag who does a woman wrong then murders her, based on a real case from North Carolina. Nancy Grace is drawing on a long folkloric tradition.
8. Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, “Pretty Polly”
Yet a third murder ballad about a young woman killed by a lover. It ends on a satisfying note of hellfire, at least.
9. Scenic Roots, “Twa Sisters”
This version is a little more New England folk revival than I usually prefer, but it actually works, because the story itself is so fucked up and this way the punchline, so to speak, hits a little harder. (The song dates back to a broadside and has been covered by just about everybody.)
11. Sheila Kay Adams, “Barbary Allen”
Another Child Ballad and very, very close to Lady Margret, right down to the jealousy and the fact that she’s mixed up with a fellow named Sweet William. Only, I’ve always gotten the impression is that Barbara Allen is a vengeful witch who does the murdering.
12. The Country Gentlemen, “Bringing Mary Home”
I’m sorry but the spectral hitchhiker never gets old, and the old-time arrangement gives it a little extra spooky touch.
13. Tim Eriksen, “Am I Born to Die?”
Apparently this is actually a hymn by Charles Wesley and its earliest appearance is a 1763 collection titled Hymns for Children. It’s just as likely to have given some children nightmares as any other song on this list.
14. Hedy West, “The Unquiet Grave”
Can a woman get some peace and quiet in the grave, at least? Apparently she cannot.
15. Gillian Welch, “Caleb Meyer”
This one’s in the tradition of all those songs about women murdered by their faithless, betraying lovers—but it’s a modern flipping of the script. In this one, the woman lives and she doesn’t want to hear any shit from the ghost of the man who tried to hurt her.