To Spill My Husband’s Blood is reimagining murder ballads and rewriting history

Julia Hobart performing with To Spill My Husband’s Blood at the Cedar Cultural Center. (Photo: Patrick O’Loughlin)

Julia Hobart’s latest band is putting a new twist on traditional Anglo-Celtic folk songs, and rewriting history in the process. To Spill My Husband’s Blood turns centuries-old murder ballads on their heads, calling into question their moral implications and portrayal of women. With a string band to back her up, Hobart gives a voice to long-silenced victims of violence and challenges the ways we document tragedy.

To Spill My Husband’s Blood is kicking off the release of their debut album on Feb. 17 at Moon Palace Books. The show will celebrate the release of the album, which was recorded live at Minneapolis’ the Warming House, and will also debut a series of original artwork inspired by the album from local printmaker Marie Stier.

The origins of To Spill My Husband’s Blood lie in an assignment for a music class that Hobart took at Macalester College, which called for a paper on early modern music. Hobart chose to dive into the topic of gender roles in broadside ballads, a genre of music that arose in the 1600s as a way to disseminate news and gossip.

A broadside is a large sheet of paper that arose after the invention of the printing press. Broadsides advertised events or proclamations, and sometimes contained lyrics to songs known as broadside ballads. “A broadside ballad is a genre of music from the 1600s, and that is kind of the 1600s version of People Magazine, or some sort of tabloid, sensational news,” described Hobart. “Someone would get a really rough woodcut image — they would often use the same woodcut image for different ballads — and then someone would write lyrics describing a murder that took place.”

Not all broadside ballads describe murders, but Hobart became intrigued by the concept of murder ballads, and the ways that they spread news and reflected the morals of their time.

“Usually there is some sort of moral warning,” said Hobart, explaining that many murder ballads propagated specific moral values, especially when it came to gender roles. “In England in the 1600s if a man killed a woman he was sentenced for murder, but if a woman killed a man she was sentenced for both murder and treason,” Hobart continued. “Treason because she upset the natural hierarchy of things — and then she was burned at the stake.”

I wasn’t crafting stories necessarily, but I was retelling stories through the eyes of the women victims.

Two and a half years after graduating, Hobart still found herself musing about murder ballads and the women that they described. She decided to take the project a step further by applying for the 2018 Cedar Commissions, a program from the Cedar Cultural Center that awards stipends to emerging composers and musicians to create new work. “I applied for the Commission with the idea to take the next step with that: rewrite my own murder ballads. I wasn’t crafting stories necessarily, but I was retelling stories through the eyes of the women victims.”

Hobart spent months digging through historical archives and listening to old murder ballads. After selecting a number of songs to examine, she began to rewrite her own versions, often keeping the storylines the same, but changing their perspective to give female characters a voice.

“I would say what I did is similar to historical fiction,” said Hobart. “I took a historical story and then reimagined it.” She explained that murder ballads often “flatten” their characters, using common adjectives that are easy to rhyme with. For example, a woman’s skin may be described as “lily white,” because “white” is an easy word to rhyme with.

I wanted to broaden the scope of understanding of these women.

“There are also a lot of archetypes, like the tender young virgin who is slain, and most of the time, what happened in real life didn’t match that,” Hobart continued. “I wanted to broaden the scope of understanding of these women. To some extent, I didn’t really know who they were — there is only so much you can read. But I wanted to allow for the possibility that maybe she wasn’t a sweet young thing; maybe she was kind of crabby — there needs to be room for that kind of complexity.”

In many cases, Hobart began creating this complexity of character by choosing to telling the story from the perspective of the woman. One example is the ballad “Pretty Polly,” a story of a young woman being whisked away in the night by her lover. While her lover promises to take her away to marry, Polly soon realizes that he is leading her to the woods where he has buried her a grave.

“When I was looking at this ballad I was struck by how absent she was from it,” said Hobart. The original ballad is sung almost entirely in third person perspective, and gives great detail in describing the male lover/murderer while dedicating little time to Polly or her perception of the situation.

Hobart rewrote the ballad in present tense, from the perspective of Polly as she narrates her bodily perceptions of the scene, leading up to her murder.

“Sadly enough, violence against women is one of the timeless themes of art — I think this is a relevant project,” said Hobart. “I’m resisting through the lens that history gave me. I’m not changing the ending; yes, she still dies, but I want to say something about that.”

In the ballad, “Kitty Ging” (originally called the “Harry Hayward Song”), Hobart utilizes second person perspective, giving the victim a voice to speak back to her killer. The original ballad describes a 1894 Minneapolis murder of dressmaker Kitty Ging.

“Each of the songs has a different general emotion that I was hoping to convey,” said Hobart.” “‘Pretty Polly’ is fear, this one is anger. I was reading about the murder and got really pissed off.”

Sadly enough, violence against women is one of the timeless themes of art — I think this is a relevant project. I’m resisting through the lens that history gave me.

Kitty Ging was a trailblazer in the late 1800s — she was a single woman running her own lucrative dressmaking business. She began a relationship with the cunning and handsome Harry Hayward, and after multiple financial agreements between the two of them, including a loan from Hayward to expand Ging’s business, he hired an accomplice to murder her.

In Hobart’s version of the song, she tells the story from Ging’s voice, who furiously accuses Hayward and vows to haunt him until his dying breath. “I had a story to write, but you wanted to play author / Composed my demise to the cadence of your laughter,” jeers Ging.

Hobart explained that the decision to tell the story from Ging’s perspective is more than a stylistic decision, but also a question of authorship. “The main emotional thread is her saying, ‘You killed me, and when you did that, you took away not only my life, but also my decision to author my own life. You decided when my story would end; that’s for me to decide, not you.’”

You can find more information about To Spill My Husband’s Blood on Facebook.

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