Bon Iver, Wilco, Nick Cave and Others Sing an Amazingly Grim Murder Ballad

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 18 2012 2:13 PM

Hear Bon Iver and Five Others Sing a Grim Murder Ballad

Justin Vernon of Bon Iver in 2009.

Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images for The New Yorker

When we polled our readers about the best album of 2011, the Decemberists came in third (with The King Is Dead) and Bon Iver finished sixth (with his self-titled record). Now both have recorded songs with the Chieftains for the Irish band’s new album Voice of Ages—and Bon Iver’s track, “Down in the Willow Garden,” is online (via Pitchfork):

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

The song is a grim, traditional murder ballad (the second verse begins, “I drew my saber through her / It was a bloody knife / I threw her into the river / It was an awful sight”), and Bon Iver and his Irish collaborators have many previous recordings to compete with. According to Wayne Erbsen’s Rural Roots of Bluegrass, G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter are largely responsible for the song’s dissemination; they reportedly made the first recording of it, under the title “Rose Conley,” in 1927. Wade Mainer and Zeke Morris broadened the song’s reach with a recording of their own in 1937; 10 years after that, Charlie Monroe gave the song national exposure with his own take for RCA:


A decade later, the Everly Brothers recorded the tune for their 1958 album, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, slowing it down a bit to suit the melancholy lyrics. Though Phil and Don Everly are best known for their pop records, their father was a country singer, and this album was a genuine return to their childhood roots. But their attempt to convey the sadness of the song feels a bit literal and heavy-handed compared to Monroe’s version.

Art Garfunkel frequently sang the Everlys’ songs with longtime recording partner Paul Simon, and when he put together his first post-Simon LP, Angel Clare, he included a more contemporary take on “Down in the Willow Garden.” Garfunkel brightened the tune a bit, relative to the Everlys’ recording; though it’s definitely over-produced, I may slightly prefer his version. (Those who argue that Bon Iver fits into the “adult contemporary” category may want to note the similarities between Garfunkel’s rendition and the former’s vocal stylings on his recording with the Chieftains.)

Given his interest in murder ballads, it’s no surprise that Nick Cave would record the tune, or that his arrangement would match the song’s mood better than perhaps any other recording. Less expected, perhaps, is that he would give vocal duties to Bad Seeds pianist Conway Savage. This version of “Down in the Willow Garden” was a B-side to “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” a single (featuring Kylie Minogue) from 1996’s Murder Ballads.

Three years after the Bad Seeds visited the Willow Garden, Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett performed the song together at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. Tweedy and Bennett add some appropriate, intermittent distortion, and the fragility of Tweedy’s voice serves the tune well. Two years later, Bennett left Wilco; he died in 2009. You can listen to his and Tweedy’s take on “Down in the Willow Garden” here.




Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?