Monday, August 30, 2010

Goodbye Earl/The Ballad of Francine Hughes

A song about two lifelong friends dealing with an abusive spouse by killing him and dumping his body in the lake.  They end up happy and he ends up "a missing person who nobody missed at all".  The song is country pop/bluegrass lite, but it's damn fun to sing along to.

While I don't advocate killing abusers, whenever I hear of somebody beating a partner bloody I feel a little twinge that says "five minutes alone with a baseball bat". I'm sure a lot of people feel the same way.   I think this song comes from that "twinge".  Besides, hearing about how Earl made a plea bargain and only got 6 months wouldn't be as fun.

Of course there is a question if the song and it's video treat the subject with a little too much levity.  Battered women do kill their abusers, and unlike the "Goodbye Earl", they seldom get away with it so easily.

The Ballad of Francine Hughes, is a far darker and realistic take on spousal abuse. Francine Hughes (who's tale was also told in the book The Burning Bed, and in the movie of the same name), was abused by her husband for years. Even after she divorced him, he refused to leave the house and continued beating her.  On March 9, 1977, after a particularly brutal beating, Francine set fire to the bedroom that she and her ex-husband shared, while he was asleep in their bed. (Info) (Info).  She was later found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. (Info)

Sung to a traditional melody,  it's half murder ballad, and half public service announcement.  In the interview, Lyn Hardy brings up an issue that I sometime wrestle with when it comes to my love for traditional murder ballads: most of them are about men killing women.  Not just murder ballads; most of the songs I've found are about men killing women.  In most cases that I've found, if a man is murdered in the song, it's usually by another man.

What makes the men in murder ballads different than real-life perpetrators of violence, is that they are often presented as "good guys" who were suddenly overcome by rage, fear, love (yes love), or some other type of strong emotion.  Real life abuse is systematic, and often escalates.  Abusers who kill their spouses have probably abused them in the past.  These aren't crimes of passion, they are premeditated acts of violence.

So why sing about it?  The murder ballad appeals to the darker aspect of human nature.  Tossing a abusive spouse in the lake; shooting a cheating spouse with a machine gun;  Getting revenge on a racist cop.  Would we do it if we could?

Francine Hughes wasn't just a woman in a song.  On the night of March 9th in 1977, Francine decided that Mickey had to die.

No comments:

Post a Comment