Gillian Welch talks about tragedy in Southern folk songs in this fine Salon.com piece. An excerpt:
[Nothing] is forbidden in this tradition. You get just the facts – “She picks up the knife and kills herself.” And the only thing you get less of is why. “Because she had a dark and roving eye.” Not, “Because she slept with so and so and so and so …”
The understatement is part of the function of these songs – they’re not really about titillation. It’s not a cheap thrill. We’re talking about tragedy. It’s not an action thriller – it’s not about the chase, about him hunting her down and killing her.
These tragic songs serve several purposes. They let us know that these things happen to people – and if they haven’t happened to you, they could. And they tell you, you need to have compassion. (It’s like the deepest tradition of the lullaby – branches break, and cradles fall. We sing that to children.) And for people who are closest to the tragedy, it’s even deeper.