FolkWords Reviews

‘Unprepared To Die’ by Paul Slade - a fascinating, though obviously grisly read

(December 09, 2015)

The ‘murder ballad’ … a staple diet of folk music for more years than anyone cares to recall. Whichever side of the ‘pond’ you reside, English tradition or Americana, songs focused on untimely and violent death usually brought about by a third-party have a solid and long-lived pedigree. The unprepared to die - america’s greatest murder ballads and the true crime stmurder ballad, despite its often gruesome topic, consistently attracts listeners, especially when there’s plenty of slaying and slaughter. This lineage of death and the veracity of many of its stories-turned-into-song prompted Paul Slade to write ‘Unprepared To Die - America’s Greatest Murder Ballads and The True Crime Stories That Inspired Them’ - to use its full title. And a fascinating, though obviously grisly read it turns out to be.

So what do you get? Well simplistically eight murder ballads dissected and laid bare through the detailed, often revealing and circuitous routes of the back-stories that created them. You also get the lowdown on the artists that recorded classic versions and made them their own. Sometimes the author reveals surprises, sometimes just oddities, and throughout exposes the real-life incidents that brought the songs to life … or should that be death? It’s equally revealing that in most cases what we think we know of the original songs is incorrect, often brought about by the bastardisation of the tales and the songs through successive iterations and artists. From the familiar stories of ‘Stagger Lee’ and ‘Frankie & Johnny’ through ‘Knoxville Girl’ and ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ to ‘Tom Dooley’ and ‘Pretty Polly’ you’re constantly discovering through Slade’s investigations and research, the hidden depths behind the songs. ‘Unprepared To Die’ gives you a greater insight into the real stories and in many instances, such appreciation prompts a ‘so that’s how it came about’ reaction … it certainly did with me.

‘Unprepared To Die’ is entertaining, interesting and well-written. Naturally, there’s a prerequisite that you’re interested in such subjects, but for my money, it belongs firmly in the camp of ‘pick it up once and you’re hooked’ books.

Published by Soundcheck Books, find out more here: www.soundcheckbooks.co.uk/unprepared-to-die

Review: Tim Carroll

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