Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Killer Queen

After Olivia Newton-John scored her first American hit with Bob Dylan's "If Not for You," which reached Number Twenty-Five in 1971, as we were discussing the other day, she followed that up with a step into pure country: the old Appalachian murder ballad "Banks of the Ohio." "Banks" has been around since the nineteenth century, although it was most notably recorded by the Carter Family and then in 1936 by a pair of brothers named Earl and Bill Bolick, who recorded as the Blue Sky Boys.

In his 2006 book The Shape of Things to Come, Greil Marcus goes on and on about this Blue Sky Boys record, and indeed it is one of the most desolate and otherworldly songs released during the Depression. The story is basically that a ne'er-do-well takes his girlie down to the titular banks, where he asks to marry her. When she declines, a knife is produced and used in swift order.

"There's no scream in the performance; instead of a sense of violence there's a sense of rectitude," wrote Marcus. "The stunned, almost catatonic reading the Bolicks give the song, singing in the killer's first person, makes the nineteenth-century ballad seem no more traditional than the investigations Agee and Evans were conducting in Alabama two months after the Bolicks cut the song at their first recording session—and far more modern, even modernist, than the country surrealism of the Frankie and Johnny or Jesse James paintings Thomas Hart Benton was making in Missouri at the same time."

So, you can see, this is a perfect vehicle for Miss I Honestly Love You. The surprise is not that the record stiffed in the U.S., where it topped out at a pathetic Number Ninety-Four on the pop charts, but that it actually went to the Top Ten in both of Miss Newton-John's homelands, England (where she was born and where she started her career) and Australia (where she was raised and where she lives now). That's what apparently led to the attached TV appearance. I don't know what's more alarming about it: The fact that a bunch of teenagers are clapping along to a draggy, horrific murder ballad or Olivia's brunet locks. It's a long way to "Make a Move on Me":


Mark Lerner said...

I really love the Blue Sky Boys, but I've never heard their version of this song (or O-NJ's version until just now. Ouch.). But I know that if I hear it, I will not hear what Marcus is talking about. I read and enjoyed his books because he's passionate and often funny, but I eventually tired of how he seems to hear things in music that simply aren't there. The Blue Sky Boys weren't modernist or catatonic; nobody "screams" "Banks of the Ohio." Marcus has his head up his rectitude. Most murder ballads (back then) were declaimed pretty matter-of-factly. The Monroe Brothers, the Delmore Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, they all sing about taking a walk the same way they sing about plunging a dagger into somebody's lily-white titular banks.

T. Nawrocki said...

The Blue Sky Boys' version is on the belated Volume Four of the Harry Smith anthologies that came out in 2000. It's called "Down on the Banks of the Ohio" there.