6: Ballad

A ballad is a form of verse, often a narrative set to music. – Wikipedia

Five Miles In
(a retelling of Raymond Carver’s ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’)

It was a hot, weary Friday—
They didn’t think it a sin
To go fishing for the weekend
So they walked five miles in

Those four family men
They didn’t think it a sin
To camp by the Naches river
So they walked five miles in

They found her in the river then
(who wouldn’t think it a sin?)
Dead and naked in the water.
Oh, they’d walked five miles in

They talked it over, what to do
They didn’t think it a sin
It was late and they were tired
And they’d walked five miles in

To leave her body floating there
They didn’t think it a sin
So much water so close to home
But they’d walked five miles in

Her poor, bare flesh washed by the tide
They didn’t think it a sin
The water was terribly cold.
Oh, they’d walked five miles in

On Saturday they fished and drank,
They didn’t think it a sin,
Washed their dishes by her body
Oh, they’d walked five miles in.

On Sunday the men slept in late
They didn’t think it a sin
They drank, they fished, and packed up camp
Then they walked five miles out

They left her on the riverbank,
They didn’t think it a sin,
Fishing line tied around her wrist
Because they’d walked five miles in

They called the cops at a payphone
They didn’t think it a sin
Told them where to find her body,
On the river five miles in

To leave her body floating there
They didn’t think it a sin
So much water so close to home
But they’d walked five miles in

Ballads are such fun – they popular stories, essentially, but with all the fun of also being poems. I went with a murder ballad because I especially love that branch of the tradition, the one that dates back to broadside ballads about current crimes and that has carried cryptic, haunting and brutal stories like “The Knoxville Girl”  or “Lamkin.” I think one of the things that attractive about the murder ballad is the way they seem to sidestep any real explanation of the events, yielding to simply representing their violence as a kind of natural force – a pre-Enlightenment, pre-Freudian take on horror.

The repetitiveness of the form is great too, letting phrases and ideas slowly build and shift over the course of the narrative, like the son’s request to lie down in “Lord Randall” or the revelation of the origin of the refrain at the end of various versions of the “Twa Sisters” ballad.

I didn’t really feel comfortable writing about anything real and horrific so I did an adaptation of the Raymond Carver story, “So Much Water So Close to Home.” I really like this story and I’ve taught it a bunch of times (it works really well in units on feminism). The opaque mystery of the men’s awfulness at the center of the story is perfect for the ballad form. I chose the “excuse” of how far they were from the car as one of the refrain lines, with the idea that it became less and less plausible the more it was repeated.

As a bonus, here’s a video adaptation of the opening scene that one of my students made for a class project.

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