"There's always a killer, / so logically someone has to die...."Murder ballads are a form of song about death, but are distinguished from other death songs in three ways:
(1) They are story-songs.
(2) They are differentiated from other story-songs about death by the fact that they concern murder or punishment for murder.
(3) They are not songs about murder ballads.
Thus, for instance, "Murder Ballad", from which the above line is quoted, fails to be itself a murder ballad because it is a song about murder ballads that tells no story, although it introduces one, and does not actually involve any murder. "Strange Fruit", while powerful and often classified as a murder ballad, is not a murder ballad in this sense; it is condemnation requiring no story.
For song purposes, suicide ballads are best not counted as murder ballads; they tend to work very differently. The sense of 'murder' is popular rather than strictly legal.
Given this genus-species definition, we can divide murder ballads into murder simple and murder comeuppance ballads. The most obvious division is between murder ballads that describe a murder, and nothing else, and a murder ballads that deal with comeuppance for murder. Comeuppance ballads divide into two kinds: true comeuppance and false comeuppance. In true comeuppance, there is a murder and the murderer is punished (gets comeuppance). In false comeuppance, there is indeed a process of comeuppance, but it goes awry. They can be divided into two kinds: miscarried comeuppance, in which someone who is not the murderer is punished for the murder, and eluded comeuppance, in which the murderer manages not to receive their punishment. There should be further division of murder simple as well, particularly given that it is a large field, but it is not as simple a question to come up with any one set of principles for dividing them; this requires more study. As will be seen below, my provisional division is by narrator.
Some basic examples.
I. Murder Simple
In murder simple we meet a murderer. It may be narrated by a third party or by the victim or by the murderer. Thus, in Nick Cave's "Where the Wild Roses Grow", the song is fittingly a duet between murderer and victim:
In "Banks of the Ohio" and Cher's "Dark Lady" the murderer is the narrator. In "When It's Springtime in Alaska", the victim is. In "Henry Lee", "Matty Groves", "Stagger Lee", and Carrie Underwood's "Two Black Cadillacs" a third party is the narrator, as is also the case with Tom Lehrer's parody, "The Irish Ballad".
Murder simple ballads are probably the most common kind of murder ballad; they also seem to have become increasingly popular over time.
Note that a murder ballad can involve comeuppance without being a comeuppance ballad in our sense, if the murder is itself comeuppance for some other kind of crime -- adultery is probably the most common one.
II. True Comeuppance
True comeuppance tales are probably the form of murder ballad most difficult to do properly; but when done properly, they are the crowns of the genre. As with murder simple, true comeuppance ballads could be narrated by the murderer, by the victim, or by a third party. A well done true comeuppance ballad from a murderer's perspective is very difficult to beat. An example is "Down in the Willow Garden"/"Rose Connelly":
"I Hung My Head" is from the perspective of the murderer. Third party narrations are far and away the most common: "Miss Otis Regrets", "Frankie and Johnny", "Omie Wise", "Mary Hamilton", "Pretty Polly" (a splendid version, by the way), "Big Iron", "I Didn't Know the Gun Was Loaded", are all examples. I don't think I know any famous ones from the victim's perspective, but it's certainly a possible class.
Note that the only distinguishing characteristic is that there is comeuppance; it might not actually be a major part of the song, as in "Pretty Polly", in which the murderer just gives himself up.
III. Miscarried Comeuppance
The wrong person sometimes gets punished! A good example is "Long Black Veil":
There are some interesting differences in this class of murder ballad. In "Long, Black Veil" the innocent man dies rather than admit that he was having an affair with his best friend's wife; in "Poor Ellen Smith" (this version, at least), the idea seems to be that the innocent man was too obvious a suspect because of other unspecified wrongs he had done; in "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia", the innocent man dies because he was beaten to the murder and didn't get an appropriate trial ("Don't trust your soul to no backwoods son of lawyer").
IV. Eluded Comeuppance
Probably the rarest kind of murder ballad, in eluded comeuppance the murderer gets out of comeuppance. An example would be Springfield Exit's "George Cunningham":
There's quite a bit of diversity here, as well. In "George Cunningham" the murderer escapes punishment by ingenuity and Cunningham family loyalty; in the Dixie Chicks's "Goodbye Earl" the murderers escape through lack of evidence and because no one actually cares much about the man who died; and, among the best of all, in "Red Headed Stranger" the murderer escapes because "you can't hang a man for killin' a woman / Who's tryin' to steal your horse."