Pete Seeger’s Ballad for Norma Jean

The great American folk singer, Pete Seeger, died on Monday, January 27, aged 94. MM fans may not be aware that in 1963, he set Norman Rosten’s poem, ‘Who Killed Norma Jean?’ (based on an English nursery rhyme) to music, and performed the song in his legendary Carnegie Hall concert, as explained on the Murder Ballad Monday blog.

“Pete Seeger opens Chapter 11 ‘Money and Music’ in his book The Incompleat Folksinger (Bison Book, 1972) with this reflection.

‘The vision of hollow claws and fangs has come back to me more than once when I have seen a friend in the clutches of the ‘culture’ industry, which values human beings only for what profit can be sucked from them. This destruction goes on all the time, though it seldom is dramatically visible to the general public.’

As Seeger mentions in his introduction to the Carnegie Hall performance, the song was written by Norman Rosten, a close friend of Monroe’s. Seeger writes in his songbook, Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Musical Autobiography, that he first read the poem in Life magazine, and put the tune to it then. He got Rosten’s permission to perform it after that.

‘Who Killed Norma Jean?’ appears not to have had much performance life outside of Pete Seeger’s performances of it. There are doubtless many other songs about Marilyn Monroe which we could explore, but that’s for another day. For this one, we’ll conclude with Janis Ian’s performance of the song on Seeds–Volume 3 of a series of tribute albums to Pete’s music, which was released in 2003.”

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