Over at JSTOR Daily, Jody Amable digs through the scholarly literature on murder ballads and discovers they were an early form of true-crime media: Songwriters would rip lurid stories from the headlines, set them to music, and watch them go viral.
Murder ballads are "the oldest form of crime literature," as the true crime writer Harold Schechter wrote in The Yale Review. They're the first place Americans sought cheap thrills based on a true story. They were innovated by broadside balladeers of the British Isles. Broadsides were one of the first forms of printed news: as advances in printing made publishing cheap, pamphlets or posters were printed with the news of the day. They were written to appeal to a wide range of people, some of whom couldn't read. The "ballad" style—a modern-day poem or song—was a common format, as they could easily be orated or set to music. The style made the news accessible to all, and, as the English professor Erik Nebeker noted in "The Broadside Ballad and Textual Public," encouraged public debate. As art forms, they were also a form of entertainment, introducing an element of sensationalism we'd later see in tabloids.
Some ballads crossed the Atlantic with the wave of English and Scottish settlers to Appalachia. As cities and towns flourished, and justice systems organized, ballads became folk songs that told of the people and issues in the singer's community. Songs like "John Hardy," "Stagger Lee," "Jesse James," and later, "The Murder of the Lawson Family" covered true events. As the folklore scholar Ann Reichman notes in Folklore in Utah, ballads were often composed at the time of trial as a means of getting the word out about local events.
I super dig this way of looking at it! I spent a few minutes poking around on Spotify for playlists of murder ballads, and found this one by Esquire magazine, a massive one of 211 songs, and one of "Settling the Score: Murder Ballads by Women".
(That public-domain image of the illustration for "Jesse James at Long Branch" courtesy Wikimedia)