Modern Murder Ballads: “Becky’s Bible”

In the 1600’s, a significant number of ballads in Europe told stories centering around a killing.  This category of “murder ballads” soon took root in America, as settlers brought some of the Old World songs to the new while also creating new classics.  Something about the blood and the conflict, tied up with tragedy, have made many of these songs endure.

Today, we get most of our blood and guts from movies and TV.  Pop stars are not likely to sing about murder and mayhem.  Yet, the murder ballad does live on in other genres like hip hop and country music, areas of music that are more willing to explore the human condition.

One of my favorite modern murder ballad’s is Chris Knight‘s “Becky’s Bible.” The song appeared on his album A Pretty Good Guy, which had the unfortunate release date of September 11, 2001.

“Becky’s Bible” begins with one of the great opening lines: “Let the beer bottle / Rattle on my pistol / On the seat of my Chevy pick up truck.”  He thus captures three country music tropes — beer, guns, and trucks — in one line that also sets up a wonderful tale.

There does not seem to be an official video for the song, but here is a decent fan-made video.

The song does not focus on the crime, though.  Instead, we join the singer while he is on the run.  We get the idea that the singer was accused of cheating at cards and then somehow it escalated into gunfire.

The wonderful part of the song is that Knight is able to make the listener more interested in the fleeing man than in the crime. The singer tells us his plan for running, but he recognizes that he will eventually get caught.  We sympathize with him because his thoughts keep going back to his girlfriend or wife.

I don’t wanna see the daylight;
But my Becky is alone tonight;
I wonder if she’s waiting up for me.

Soon, his thoughts turn to wondering if Becky’s Bible is in his truck’s glove box. “Cause I’m sure gonna need it if that boy died.”

It is still night and the singer is still on the run when the song ends. So we do not know if he is eventually caught, but we have clues from the singer’s certainty of his impending doom.

We care about him, though, because he cares about Becky. Although throughout the song he has recounted how his best chance for escape lies in it staying dark, at the end, he wishes for daylight because it might bring some comfort to Becky. “I’ll be prayin’ for some daylight, / Because my Becky’s alone tonight.”

Here is a live version, although you can barely hear Knight because of the fans singing along. The song has a wonderful catchy tune, so I can’t say I blame them.

Knight’s most recent album is Little Victories (2012) which we reviewed here.

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    Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue: Send a Boat

    On August 3 in 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail from the port of Palos in Spain. On that date, he hoped to find a western passageway that would take him to China and India. By the end of the year, he found land and landed in the Bahamas, but he did not realize he had discovered a New World.

    Every school child knows the year he sailed and the names of his ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. During the journey, the largest ship and the only one with a deck, the Santa Maria, ran aground and was destroyed. The Pinta disappeared for a period after a storm, but later joined the Nina in returning to Spain. Columbus returned on the Nina.

    Kentucky singer-songwriter Chris Knight sings about a different kind of boat in “Send a Boat,” from his excellent 2006 album A Pretty Good Guy. The people in the song are less famous than Columbus, but they are no less familiar.

    As in a lot of Knight’s songs, the characters are facing hard times. Each verse features a different setting. The first verse is about a lonely woman left behind by her children. The second verse features a lonely old man with a bottle. The final verse is about a hungry and abused child. They could be from the same family at different times, or they could be anyone. Knight foresees the tragic results of our neglect of our fellow humans when, after describing the abused child, he notes, “If he ever grows up, he’ll get him a gun.”

    Knight hints at the solution in the chorus: “While we try to stay afloat./ If you would, Lord, send a boat.” But from the sound of the dark song, it does not seem there are enough boats like the Nina and the Pinta to get everyone home safely.

    What is your favorite Chris Knight song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Times are Tough But They Ain’t Got Nothin’ on Chris Knight

    I have noted elsewhere that it is often difficult for artists to reflect on their own time and create great art about current events. Some musicians, including Bruce Springsteen and his recent album Wrecking Ball, have attempted to comment on the tough times facing many people around the world. On the new CD Little Victories (2012) singer-songwriter Chris Knight, though, may have created the angriest record about The Great Recession. It also may be the best.

    The 52-year-old Kentuckian has been making great music for a long time following his initial post-college career as a mine reclamation inspector and as a miner’s consultant. I have loved his music since his self-titled debut in 1998, but surprisingly, major fame has alluded him. Perhaps he is too authentic so Nashville country radio does not play his music, and perhaps because he is too twangy so other listeners write him off. But you should not let your prejudices detour you from discovering his music. Not surprisingly, he is often compared to Steve Earle, another artist who bucked convention and makes intelligent and enthralling music.

    John Prine, who joins Knight on the title track of the latest album, is another inspiration. Although I initially was surprised to learn that Knight started out by teaching himself John Prine songs, the connection makes sense when you hear the honest stories of down and out people in the music of both men.

    Knight’s music has always featured honest stories about real life, and his latest album, Little Victories reflects much of the anger of the times, whether he is singing about tough times or broken hearts, as he does in this performance of “Missing You” with his band the Drunken Boaters at Fountain Square in Downtown Cincinnati on July 19, 2011.

    Little Victories starts off with a hard sound on the first several songs, setting the stage for the anger of the times. Check out the opening song “In the Meantime.”

    One of my favorite songs on the album, which is not available on YouTube, is “You Can’t Trust No One.” It is one of those songs that made me stop when it came on as I tried to figure out what it was about and what he was saying. My best guess is that it is some kind of sci-fi post-apocalyptic song, or a warning of where we may be going, or a prediction. Whereas Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” may give us some comfort in dark times, Knight’s characters recognize that sometimes platitudes fail, as he sings in the chorus to “You Can’t Trust No One.”

    “People, won’t you come together, we’ve all got to live as one;
    I ain’t right sure what that means but I reckon it sounds like fun;
    Everybody pack your picnic lunch, and everybody pack your gun,
    ‘Cause you can’t trust no one.”

    Later in the album, the music is less angry but the tough times are still there. Here, Knight performs “Nuthin’ On Me” at Keithville, LA’s Rustic Cowboy on Feburary 24, 2012.

    In “Out of this Hole” Knight contemplates the hole that many people around the world have fallen into. Here, he performs the song at The Down Home in Johnson City, TN.

    The songs above give a little sense of the new album, but I am not sure you can get a sense of the darkness of the album from some performances before loud patrons in drinking establishments. In an interview some years ago, Knight explained, that he relates “to people in desperate situations doing what they got to do to get…doing what they do and then living with it. The living with it part is kind of what intrigues me.” If you also are intrigued by how people survive tough times, sit back with some bourbon and listen to Little Victories.

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