Storytelling in Song: Murder Ballads
Seminar - UHON 301

Instructor(s): Michael Thomas

Course Description

People have always created stories. Information embedded in stories is memorable. Stories explore and emphasize values. Morals drawn from stories are powerful. People use stories to inform, entertain, instruct, and emphasize. Why? No one can say. The fact that people in all cultures tell stories suggests that the practice of arranging information in narrative form is central to the human condition. This centrality is related, perhaps, to the structure and function of the brain and consciousness it creates. When people use music in storytelling, the results are stories that are special, emphatic, energized. What makes these stories so special and compelling? What can we learn about a culture by looking at the stories people celebrate in song? My view is that the answers are in the songs. We can say that 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. Listening to those songs and paying attention to the stories they tell; we can learn much about the people who create the songs and the listeners who find them so compelling.

In this seminar we will listen to songs that tell stories. More particularly we will focus on murder ballads, songs that address the deepest conflicts and most serious transgressions that emerge from those conflicts. We will talk about these songs, how they entertain, engage, and inform. We will look at the dimensions of these stories - 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. 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.)


  1. The Odyssey by Homer - Translated by Stanley Lombardo - Books 1,5,9-13,16, 19, 22,24

  2. The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad Greil Marcus, Sean Wilentz

  3. Elements of Style - Strunk and White

  4. The instructor will provide readings with supplementary assignments on the seminar website.


  1. An essay focused on a particular ballad or song cycle (15 pts)

  2. An analytic essay focused on the cultural values embedded in a particular ballad (15 pts)

  3. A research project consisting of the following:

    1. A 1-2-page research proposal (5 pts)

    2. Two 12-page research progress reports (5 points each)

    3. A 6-8-page research paper (25pts)

    4. A brief presentation based on the paper (10 pts)

  4. Participation Attendance, participation, and professional demeanor. (20 pts).

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About the Instructor(s): Michael Thomas

Michael Thomas Ph.D. is an anthropologist (Univ. of Washington) and novelist. He is an Emeritus (retired) Honors College faculty member who directed many Conexiones study abroad programs in Latin America.