Murdering a tune: Morbid monthly show has music to die for

Murdering a tune: Morbid monthly show has music to die for
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

These musicians are killing it!

A Prospect Heights watering hole celebrates musical massacres each month, inviting butchery balladeers to carry on a centuries-old tradition of singing about killing. The next installment of “Murder Ballad Monday,” at the Branded Saloon on Nov. 16, will feature eight bands of fiddlers and folk singers performing tunes about that particular brand of passion so heinous and forbidden it can lead to Death Row.

“We like to explore dark themes,” said Ellia Bisker, a Bushwick performer and half of the folk-music duo Charming Disaster, which organizes the event on the third Monday of each month.

The macabre ditty known as the murder ballad originated in simpler times, long before the printing press revolutionized the news business. If something important happened, you probably heard about it from a singing troubadour, said Williamsburg musician Jeff Morris, the other half of Charming Disaster.

“They go back to the 16th century,” Morris explained. “There would be some horrific event — the king gets killed, or there’s a horrible storm — and these troubadours would go from town to town and tell the story of this event.”

The morbid tales survived through the ages, and the modern incarnations of the ancient tradition often deal with love and then its permanent, irrevocable loss.

“There are general themes, and a lot of them deal with crimes of passion,” said Bisker. “Lots of jealous men killing women they felt were unfaithful. It’s about love, passion, and how passion can go many different directions.”

But — like actual murder — no two murder ballads are alike, and Charming Disaster delights in inviting bands with varying levels of experience with the genre. Some prefer to cover traditional tunes, some come equipped with a repertoire of original songs, and others may have to Google exactly what a murder ballad is. Getting new blood into the scene helps expand the boundaries of the ancient tradition, said Bisker.

“Part of the point of this series is to bring musicians together into a form that they may not be familiar with already,” she said. “It’s really more of a way for musicians to explore with us the possibilities of this song-writing genre.”

Folks sing about killing stuff at Branded Saloon [603 Vanderbilt Ave. at Bergen Street in Prospect Heights, (718) 484–8704, www.brandedsaloon.com]. Nov. 16 at 8 pm. Free.

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.