Murder ballad workshop introduces new perspective for poetry enthusiasts

As Valentine’s Day approaches some are off penning lovers soft serenades and some others, murder ballads.

On Monday, students and residents created and performed gruesome tunes at the Valentine’s Murder Ballad Workshop, held by the Center for Poetry of the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, or RCAH.

The center hosts poetry workshops for the romantic holiday most every year, RCAH professor and center director Anita Skeen said. This year, they wanted to try something different.

“We always try to do something special for Valentine’s Day,” Skeen said. “So what better than murder ballads?”

Murder ballads date back to the 17th-century as songs with narratives about sensational stories of the time, the center’s assistant director Linnea Jimison said.

Many of these ballads still exist, but they were shared in a much different way from music today, Jimison added.

“They’re very participatory,” she said.

“You don’t have to have musical training to make that kind of music, which is what I think we’ve gotten away from by focusing on performance,” Jimison said.

Guest artist and MSU alumna Emily Nott learned about ballads from her parents and from the stories and music they shared with her.

Nott said sharing stories and songs is a tradition that ballads continue.

“Oral tradition is something that’s fading,” Nott said.

“Sitting down with someone and having them tell you a story or sing you a song, and then learning it by heart — that is what is at the root of ballads, “Nott said.

Jimison said it was the center’s first musical workshop, and the murder ballad theme was chosen as a fun way to celebrate the holiday.

She said it was also a way to challenge the workshop goers and push them to explore something different.

“It was a different energy,” Jimison said.

“Many are used to writing poetry. It’s a new challenge making these lyrics fit a melody,” she said.

It’s a different dimension for those who normally come to the workshop,” Jimison added.

Elementary education sophomore Nicole Bush hadn’t heard of murder ballads before the workshop.

She said she made the decision to attend the workshop because two members of the local band Bard Owls, Jimison and Nott, would be there.

Bush said learning about and performing the murder ballads was inspiring.

“The history puts it in perspective,” Bush said.

“It makes you want to be a part of it and create your own. It’s exploring a new side of folk I’ve never seen before,” she said.

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