The Love and Tragedy of Henry Lee

Santi Elijah Holley on the story behind Nick Cave and PJ Harvey’s ballad duet

For young Americans living under the specter of the Cold War and imminent nuclear annihilation, where the ideological divide between younger and older generations was growing wider and wider, an obscure collection of bluegrass, country, folk, blues, and gospel music was a surprising choice as a countercultural “bible.” But that’s exactly what Greenwich Village folksinger Dave Van Ronk called the Anthology of American Folk Music, the six-LP collection of eighty-four songs that had originally been recorded throughout Appalachia and the American South between 1926 and 1933.

Released in 1952 by Folkways Records, the Anthology was the brainchild of eccentric, reclusive, record collector and mystic Harry Smith, who’d spent years traveling throughout the country, collecting thousands of obscure 78 rpm records that had been commercially released but had since been largely forgotten. A hodgepodge of early American country music, blues, hillbilly songs, jug bands, and myriad other roots and novelty songs, the Anthology arrived like a relic from some other world. Greil Marcus famously said it represented “the old, weird America.”

For the first song on the Anthology, Smith chose the murder ballad, “Henry Lee,” sung by a white, blues guitar player with the rather memorable name Dick Justice. Born in 1906 in Logan County, West Virginia, Justice had reportedly a coal miner, whose musical output was limited to the ten songs he recorded for Chicago’s Brunswick Records in 1929. In addition to “Henry Lee,” Justice recorded the country ballads “Little Lulie” and “One Cold December Day;” the country blues songs “Old Black Dog,” “Cocaine,” and “Brown Skin Blues;” and four instrumental bluegrass songs, accompanied by fiddle player Reese Jarvis.

A musician performing both country and blues wasn’t uncommon in the early 20th century. Black singers often sang country songs, and white musicians, in turn, sang blues songs. Blues, country, and jazz musicians influenced each other, imitated each other, and performed each other’s material. The performance of the song mattered more than the singer’s identity. With ballads, especially, the identity of the singer is entirely inconsequential. Ballads are organic, anonymous, uncredited to a single source. “A ballad has no author,” write Helen Child Sargent and George Lyman Kittredge in their introduction to English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Because they began as an oral tradition, with no fixed authorship, ballads also have the ability—are, indeed, required—to evolve and adapt over time.

“Henry Lee” is one of the best examples of this. First appearing as far back as the 18th century, as the Scottish ballad “Young Hunting,” this ballad migrated to other parts of the world and came to be known by numerous other names. In England it was known as “Earl Richard” or “The Proud Girl.” When immigrants carried this ballad with them to the New World in the early 20th century, it became known as “The False Lady,” “Song of a Lost Hunter,” “Love Henry,” or “Henry Lee.” Bob Dylan recorded “Love Henry” for his 1993 album of traditional folk and blues songs, World Gone Wrong. Jolie Holland included “Love Henry” on her 2008 album The Living and the Dead. But Nick Cave and English singer and songwriter PJ Harvey’s version of this ballad for 1996’s Murder Ballads was the first time it had been recorded as a duet.

The two singers first became acquainted during the Murder Ballads recording session. When they met again, to shoot the music video, the passion and intimacy involved in making the video led to a romance between Cave and Harvey. The fledgling relationship ended after only four months, when Harvey called Cave on the phone, who was sitting at home in Notting Hill, and unceremoniously broke up with him. Cave was shocked, devasted, and deeply heartbroken. For a relationship instigated by a ballad about a young woman unceremoniously murdering her male suitor, it was a perfect coda.

But the beautiful thing about ballads is that they belong to everyone equally. It doesn’t take the threat of nuclear annihilation, cold-blooded murder, or heartbreak to sing or enjoy a murder ballad. These are stories that transcend nationality, race, and class. They are not fixed to any single time in history. They are at once immortal and eternal. The girl “in that merry green land” has been waiting for Henry Lee to return for a very long time, and she will continue to wait for a long time to come.

Learn more about the history of ballads by checking out Santi’s new book for our series!

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