Horror has always be a major feature of folk music, because life for folk-authors was often horrifying. The rural wilderness of the past was bleak and full of death, and one means of coping with this was translating the daily threat of darkness into art. Below are 5 classics of the “horror-folk” genre.

“Bowling Green” album cover

5. “The Banks of the Ohio” by The Kossoy Sisters with Erik Darling

The entirety of Bowling Green, a 1956 effort by the Kossoy Sisters (a pair of identical twins who specialized in close-knit folk harmonies) and banjo picker Erik Darling, is pretty horrifying. Over half of the songs are about murder or abuse in some form, and the sing-songy manner in which they’re presented makes them all the more disturbing.

“The Banks of the Ohio” is an old murder ballad dating back to the 1800’s, which tells the tale of a young psychopath named Willie who threatens his lover with a knife when she hesitates in accepting his marriage proposal. Although he listens to her pleas not to stab her, he eventually drowns her in the Ohio River instead. Willies concludes the song by wiping his hands and lamenting over the promising future he and his lover could have had. This song has been covered by both men and women, and I find it particularly interesting when it is female-led. Listening to the Kossoy sisters dreamily muse about murder from the perspective of Willie is a strange and unnatural experience that grants this morbid story an extra edge.

Tom Dula

4. “Tom Dooley” by Doc Watson

In 1866, Confederate veteran Tom Dula was convicted of murdering his lover, Laura Foster, by stabbing. Dula was hanged for his crimes, although doubt remained over his actual culpability. This sensationalized killing inspired a poem by one Thomas Land, and pretty soon a folk classic was born.

Many versions exist of this song, and my preferred take is by guitar virtuoso Doc Watson, who lends the music a clear, almost jubilant quality that brings the story into glittering focus. Although this song hardly sounds scary, the detachment with which the narrator muses, “hang your head Tom Dooley, hand your head and cry/you killed poor Laurie Foster and you know you’re bound to die” is more than a little unnerving beneath the microscope, especially considering Dula’s possible innocence.

Jean Ritchie with dulcimer

3. “The Little Devils” by Jean Ritchie

“The Little Devils” is a humorous song presented without accompaniment by folk legend Jean Ritchie. It tells the story of an “old man who lived near hell” with his nagging, “scolding” wife. One day the Devil comes to claim the wife and brings her down to hell, only to find that the wife is so cantankerous and stubborn that his demons are unable to harm her. The wife is kicked out of hell and back into life, and Ritchie muses wickedly: “oh, the women they are so much better than men/when they go to hell they get sent back again”. A pretty amusing social statement, given the way-back times in which this was penned.

Dock Boggs with banjo

2. “Oh Death” by Dock Boggs

“Oh Death” is an old, morbid folk standard written as an exchange between an ailing speaker and personified Death. Death is painted as a silent, vampiric force bent on robbing the physical powers from human beings. The singer in this narrative desperately attempts to bargain with Death and asks to be spared for “another year”. The meagerness of the request speaks to an unsettling suggestion that we’re all living, more or less, on borrowed time, and the conclusion, where the speaker acknowledges that nothing satisfies Death but the consumption of souls, is night-black. A number of fascinating renditions exist of this song, but the original 1920’s recording by enigmatic banjo picker Dock Boggs is a good place to start, the voice on the original record being imbued with the best kind of rumbling, Appalachian sorrow.

Robert Johnson with guitar
  1. “Hellhound on My Trail” by Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson is the most famous of the Delta Blues singers, known for both his complex, pioneering music and his heavily mythologized life. Johnson, who died young in violent circumstances, is said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for masterful proficiency of the guitar, and whether or not this is true, the spirit of the story has continued to haunt and inspire through the ages.

“Hellhound on My Trail” is one of the songs that most directly feeds the devil myth, given the narrative embedded within it. Johnson sings mournfully over solo guitar about the cloud of dread that poisons “every old place I go” and describes a natural world grown unfriendly towards him, with rising winds and “leaves trembling on the trees”. Although women and superstitious charms offer a brief respite, Johnson knows that nothing will ultimately be able to keep a roving “hellhound” from eventually tracking him down. Johnson often wrote about his proclivity towards rambling (traveling from town to town without relent) with a sense of joy and adventure, but “Hellhound” depicts his terminal rootlessness in a darker light, suggesting that it may actually be the extension of an unshakable, deeply-set anxiety. The junction of the personal and the fantastic in this song creates one of the most affecting pieces of “horror” ever put on record in the early 20th century.