Buttkickin’ Halloween Songs: “The Story of the Lawson Family” — The Stanley Brothers (1956)

It was long last Christmas evening
The snow was on the ground
At his home in North Carolina
The murderer, he was found

His name was Charlie Lawson
And he had a loving wife
But they never knew what caused him
To take his family’s life…

Not gonna lie; this one is based on a very real, very dark and tragic event. Associating it with our earnest Buttkickin’ Halloween Songs almost seems rather tasteless, except that it really isn’t, so we’ll respectfully tread on.

Accordingly I’m keeping the snark to a minimum. Also I don’t believe in “Trigger Warnings”, but if tales involving incest, mental illness, and murdering your entire freakin’ family are problematic for you? Best that you bolt now.

That said, here we go again with Yet Another Murder Ballad.

On Christmas Day of 1929, tobacco farmer Charles Lawson sent his 16 year old son Arthur out to run an errand. He then grabbed a shotgun and shot his daughters Carrie and Maybell by ambushing them outside the barn. Returning to the porch, he shot his wife Fannie. Hearing the shot from the kitchen, daughter Marie screamed, alerting Charles to her location. He entered the house and shot her as well.

Hunting through the house, he found his two young sons Raymond and James hiding in terror. He shot and killed both. Finally, he found baby daughter Mary Lou and I won’t even go into further detail because I’m already sick to my stomach. Charles Lawson dragged all the corpses to the forest, carefully arranged them, and then took his own life.

Arthur returned from his errand into a waking nightmare that plagued him for life; he died in a motorcycle accident 15 years later.

On top of all that, allegations of an incestuous relationship between Marie and her father surfaced over time, including rumors of a pregnancy at the time of her murder. If you weren’t nauseous already…

Bluegrass duo The Stanley Brothers recalled the entire horrific tale in their 1956 release The Story of the Lawson Family, and it basically retells the events listed above, albeit in a more sanitized (but no less horrific) manner. It is typical of bluegrass/folk murder ballads of the era: sad, brutal, but uplifting insomuch that the the innocent family members have reunited and received their eternal life in the next world.

Charles Lawson, not so much; another venue hosted his trial. The lyrics infer his suicide, but you could conceivably interpret them as Lawson being murdered by an angry mob. Of course that didn’t happen in real life, but it wouldn’t entirely be out of collective character, at any time in human history.

The Story of the Lawson Family never ends well. Why Lawson snapped, nobody ever really figured out. As a chilling afterthought, a photographer took the photo above a few days before the murder, when all seemed well. The manifestation of evil, like death, comes unexpectedly.

They say he killed his wife at first
While the little ones did cry
Please papa won’t you spare us
How it is so hard to die

They did not carry him to jail
No lawyers would be paid
They’ll have his trial in another land
On the final judgement day..

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