Spare Stories/ Potent Music: Murder Ballads
Seminar - UHON 301

Instructor(s): Michael Thomas

Course Description

In this seminar we will listen to songs that tell stories. More particularly we will focus on murder ballads, songs that address the deepest human conflicts and the most serious transgressions that emerge from those conflicts. We will look at those songs as artifacts of the culture(s) that produce them. Songs, like physical objects can persist beyond the lifetime of the people that create and use them. As with solid objects, like pots or tools, close study of songs can reveal much about those people and their culture. Focusing on murder ballads, we will examine these songs, how they entertain, engage, and inform. We will look at the dimensions of the stories embedded in the songs - character development, plot, voice, etc. all the elements of fiction and narrative non-fiction. We will research these songs and the stories they tell in terms of what they reveal about culture and the human predilection towards violence. Starting with the Odyssey, which I would characterize as an epic, long-form murder ballad, we will examine these songs of passion, torment, and transgression. Stories told in song are compressed, reduced to their barest fundamentals. Popular songs necessarily reflect the values and value conflicts of the people who sing and listen. We will hear and address some very ancient, venerable folk ballads as well as songs of conflict and mayhem in contemporary pop culture genres (rock, hip hop, C&W, etc.).      


Much of the content for this class will be in the form of songs.  The instructor will provide songs in MP3 format along with lyric files in MS Word format for common assignments

Readings will include:The Odyssey by Homer – about half of the text is assigned. Also: The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad – Greil Marcus, Sean Wilentz, There will also be assigned articles that will be available online.


An essay focused on the literary or musicological characteristics of particular ballad (5 pages)

An essay focused on the cultural values embedded in a particular ballad or ballads (5 pages)

A research project involving a proposal (2 pages), a research paper (7 pages plus bibliography), and a presentation (5 minutes). 

There will be a creative option to the paper. The research may provide, for example, the background materials needed for a performance, video, or graphic art piece.

Students will be expected to participate in all discussions and class activities and to maintain a professional demeanor

About the Instructor(s): Michael Thomas

Michael Thomas is an Emeritus (retired) faculty member in Honors. An anthropologist, he became interested in ballads (story songs) through his work in anthropology and his endeavors in writing and publishing fiction – novels and short stories.