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A new podcast dives into the history of songs based on real crimes, while also reexamining how the subjects were portrayed.
“Songs in the Key of Death” dives into the inspiration behind famous murder ballads from the Old World to the Old West. In each episode, journalist and author Courtney Smith focuses on a single murder ballad and its true crime roots.
“These songs are these big pieces of Americana and American history but the person telling the story is rarely the person whose story it is,” Smith told Oxygen.com. “It’s usually an outside person and their perspective. It historically tends to not be super-inclusive and doesn’t take the POV of the victim into consideration.”
Smith said she wanted to do historiographies of these songs and the crimes that inspired them, while giving a voice back to the victims.
The first episode focuses on Delia Green, 14-year-old Black girl who became the inspiration for numerous Americana classics, including Bob Dylan’s "Delia" and Johnny Cash’s "Delia's Gone.” In Cash’s song, the child is described as being “low down and trifling” as well as “evil” and “cold and mean.”
The real Green was shot to death by 15-year-old Mose Houston, whom she had a romantic relationship with, on Christmas Eve of 1900 in Savannah, Georgia. Smith points out the sad double standard of a 14-year-old girl being portrayed as a cunning adult woman. “Delia” was played by white model Kate Moss in Cash’s 1994 music video for the song.
“Music has a long history of co-opting black art into becoming commercially successful through white artists and that is a huge thread we talk about this season,” Smith told Oxygen.com. “People take these songs that are about Black people and were created by Black creators and turn them into fodder for white America. And they go from being blues and rhythmic music into being country music which is not where a lot of these songs started but it’s where they are most popular now.”
Each episode comes with an original score and fresh interpretations, created by musicians SAD13 and Bonnie "Prince" Billy. SAD13 created a modern interpretation for "Delia." In it, she sings that the teen's killer "was jealous of her as a dog is of his bone."
“Delia was so snappy and smart and I feel she’d have a lot to say about the way she was perceived all these years,” Smith told Oxygen.com. “It was nice to get to know these victims as people and understand what their lives are a little more, rather than just the way that someone captured the essence of their death, essentially.”
Another song covered in the debut season of the podcast will be the 1930 song “The Murder of the Lawson Family” by Appalachian folk trio the Carolina Buddies. That song focuses on another Christmas killing: In 1929 Charles Lawson murdered his wife and six children. It's a crime that has modern echoes in the 2018 Watts family slaughter.
“There was not language at the time this happened to understand why someone would do that and now we know that’s called a ‘family annihilator.’ And we know that it’s not this strange, unlikely thing,” Smith told Oxygen.com. “It’s very predictable circumstances and this family fits those circumstances to a T.”
“Songs in the Key of Death” will launch June 16 on Nevermind Media.
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