Rabbie Burns, Dolly Parton, & Feminist Murder Ballads

I’ve been listening to this wonderful podcast (Dolly Parton’s America) on my commute, and the other day I learned that many of Dolly Parton’s songs have their roots in Scottish-Appalachian murder ballads.

Many of the people who have lived in Parton’s Smokey Mountains have ancestors that trace directly back to northern England and Scotland. When they came to the states (via Ireland) in the 18th century, they brought the “murder ballads” that were popular at the time with them.

Murder ballads are “an oral tradition of men singing songs about brutally killing women”. Here’s one, “Shady Grove,” as sung by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman:

Those ballads survived through many generations in the isolated communities nestled deep in the Appalachian mountains, and young Dolly Parton listened and sang along to them on her porch in Tennessee.

As she grew up and started to write songs of her own, Parton flipped the narrative. Instead of songs by murderers (mostly men) about their victims (mostly women), many of her songs were voiced by women wronged by the men in their lives. Here’s one example:

What does Rabbie Burns have to do with this? He helped preserve many of those Scottish murder ballads and (as you know) helped create a culture where they were elevated and appreciated, ensuring that they would live on.

You can hear the rhythm of those ballads in songs like Parton’s “Jolene.” For fun, try reading Rime of the Ancient Mariner to the tune of “Jolene” or “Shady Grove.”

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