Thursday, January 14, 2016

David Bowie's Lambeth Murder Ballad

Tonight at at South East London Folklore Society, Paul Slade (author of 'Unprepared to Die') will be giving a talk on murder ballads

'Cheerfully vulgar and revelling in gore, murder ballads are tabloid newspapers set to music, carrying word of the latest 'orrible murders to an insatiable public. Victims are bludgeoned, stabbed or shot in every verse and killers often hanged, but the songs themselves never die. Instead, they mutate – morphing to suit local place names as they criss cross the Atlantic (often beginning life in Britain) and continue to fascinate each generation’s biggest musical stars. Journalist Paul Slade traces this fascinating genre’s history via its greatest songs Slade investigates real-life murders which inspired well-known ballads and uncovers many startling new facts about them. There will be performances of the songs by George Hoyle & renowned folk musician, Dave Arthur'

I wonder whether the recently departed David Bowie will get a mention for his 1967 contribution to the genre?  Please Mr. Gravedigger is from his early career, a time of whimsical songs and novelty tunes. The track features just Bowie's voice to a background of sound effects - church bells, bird song, weather, digging. The charming child killer's lament is said in a bombed out churchyard in Lambeth. Not sure if Bowie had anywhere specific in mind.

There's a little churchyard just along the way
It used to be Lambeth's finest array
Of tombstones, epitaphs, wreaths, flowers all that jazz
Til the war come along and someone dropped a bomb on the lot

And in this little yard, there's a little old man
With a little shovel in his little bitty hand

He seems to spend all his days puffing fags and digging graves
He hates the reverend vicar and he lives all alone in his home
"Ah-choo, excuse me"
Please Mr. Gravedigger, don't feel ashamed
As you dig little holes for the dead and the maimed
Please Mr. Gravedigger, I couldn't care
If you found a golden locket full of some girl's hair

And you put it in your pocket
"God, it's pouring down"
Her mother doesn't know about your sentimental joy
She thinks it's down below with the rest of her toys
And Ma wouldn't understand, so I won't tell
So keep your golden locket all safely hid away in your pocket
Yes, Mr. GD, you see me every day
Standing in the same spot by a certain grave
Mary-Ann was only 10 and full of life and oh so gay

And I was the wicked man who took her life away
Very selfish, oh God
No, Mr. GD, you won't tell
And just to make sure that you keep it to yourself
I've started digging holes my friend
And this one here's for you...

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